Review: Below Deck by Sophie Hardcastle

9781760876388“I scream not in the way the damsel in distress screams from the tower. I scream the way tectonic plates tear apart on the ocean floor, silt and sand and cracked rock. Lava spewing from the abyss. Hot lava spewing from me. I roar.”

Sophie Hardcastle’s Below Deck is the kind of book that cracks open your heart, then knits it back together,  leaving you scarred. It sears a place in your memory, not only because of its characters and the legacy of trauma experienced by its protagonist, but because of Hardcastle’s luminous prose and quite brilliant implementation of colour. The savagery of its subject belies the beauty of its writing. It’s a powerful, unforgettable synthesis; a painfully page-turning read, a vividly three-dimensional, lacerating dissection of female abuse at the hands of men.

Below Deck charts several years in the life Olivia; from waking up on a boat as a twenty-one year old, with no recollection of how she got there, which introduces her TO Mac and Ollie, who will become the two most important people in her life; to four years later, when she works among a group of men on a yacht sailing from Noumea to Auckland, where she experiences below deck; to her time in London, when the events of that day continue to haunt and resonate.

Fierce, poetic and uncompromising. There’s a lot of hype surrounding Sophie Hardcastle’s Below Deck. It’s warranted.

ISBN: 9781760876388
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 296
Available: 3rd March 2020
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Country of Publication: AU

Review: This is Pleasure by Mary Gaitskill

9781788165037Mary Gaitskill’s beguiling novella dares to explore the ambiguities and broad-brushed generalisations of the #MeToo movement — and it works, assuming you believe there are two sides to the debate, and are comfortable with an author stoking the flames of sympathy for an accused abuser.

This is Pleasure paints a vivid, complex portrait of a man accused by several young women of inappropriate behaviour in his privileged position as a highly-esteemed book editor in New York. The narrative shifts between two perspectives: Quinlan Maximillian Saunders (known as Q), the accused, who spends his time on the page defending his actions, not by acknowledging the atrociousness of his actions, but by suggesting the power between men and women has shifted, and he was merely caught unaware; and Margot (M), also an elite editor, and a friend of Q’s, who must examine her relationship with the man in the light of these allegations.

Honestly, I struggled with this book, and I think that’s the point. It’s provocative, it’s controversial, and I do think it’s important that authors address the seminal issue of our time; but I just struggled to sit in the head of a man so obviously out of touch,  unrepentant, and plainly awful, however he or anyone else attempt to skew the narrative. Who learns nothing. Absolutely nothing. Maybe that’s the point of Gaitskill’s book. Which is fucking deplorable and immensely sobering; but incredibly effective.

ISBN: 9781788165037

Pages: 96
Imprint: Profile Books Ltd
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
Publish Date: 7-Nov-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: A Time to Scatter Stones by Lawrence Block

cover-block“It would take me longer these days, because my pace is slower than it used to be. And it would take energy, of which I seem to have a finite supply.”

More than forty years since he debuted in The Sins of the Father, and almost a decade since he last appeared in The Night and the Music, unlicensed private investigator Matthew Scudder makes a return in a book that’s less of a mystery and more of a meditation on mortality.

By his own admission, Scudder is an old man now, retired, living a quiet life with his longtime partner, Elaine. He no longer chases trouble, and it rarely finds him. That is until Ellen, a friend of Elaine’s — a prostitute trying to quit the life — asks Scudder for help escaping an abusive client who can’t let her go. Scudder isn’t quite the man he was, but that doesn’t stop him getting involved.

This is a novel that thrives on the readers’ sense of nostalgia for one of crime fiction’s most enduring protagonists. I’ve read most of the series, and appreciated spending another couple hundred pages viewing New York from Scudder’s perspective as he laments the changing face of the city. The narrative engine is a tad too languid for my tastes, and made me miss the days of the younger, swashbuckling Scudder, who was full of blood and thunder. I love it when authors age their protagonists in real time, or semi-real time; Rankin’s done it perfectly with Rebus, and so has Connelly with Bosch; but some characters only work in their pomp, and maybe it’s best to let characters live their lives off the page.

Fans of Block or Scudder will inhale A Time to Scatter Stones in one sitting, and find much to enjoy; a final hurrah But newcomers should look elsewhere, and come back to this one later, when you’ll truly appreciate its nuances and callbacks.

ISBN: 9781596068933
ISBN-10: 1596068930
Series: Matthew Scudder
Format: Hardcover
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 160
Published: 31st January 2019

Review: Where the Truth Lies by Karina Kilmore

where-the-truth-lies-9781925685862_lgAn investigative journalist haunted by her past scrutinises the exorbitant number of  injuries and deaths of Grange Industry personnel at the Port of Melbourne in Karina Kilmore’s debut crime novel. But despite some compelling subject matter — big business clashing with the unions, the changing face of journalism, the government’s infringement on the public’s right to know — Where The Truth Lies is a low octane mystery laced with interesting elements that never quite mesh into an intoxicating page-turner, and frequently upends its own dramatic potential.

Take its main character, Chrissie O’Brian, a pill-popping, alcoholic journalist with The Argus, who is desperate to prove herself in the patriarchal newsroom, and desperate to escape her tragic past, for which she has assumed all blame. It would make sense (to me, at least; but who am I?) to prolong the the revelation of why she left New Zealand for Melbourne; build tension, make the reader question the veracity of O’Brian; yes, we want her to uncover the truth behind the deaths at Port of Melbourne, but what is she guilty of? Instead the events from her past are described in a simple flashback, stifling its gravitas.

Kilmore provides column-inches of background expertise on the harsh reality of the newspaper business and the Australian media landscape — she has 25 years of experience under her belt, so she has walked the walk — and the novel ticks along nicely during these moments; in fact, I’d love to sit in these scenes for longer, have the focus on breaking a story, pushing it through internal bureaucracy and dealing with government heavy-handedness. But these insights can’t buoy a plot that never really shifts out of neutral. My hope is that with the introduction of her lead out of the way, Kilmore’s sophomore novel leans into the aspects that sparkled here.

ISBN: 9781925685862
Pub: Simon & Schuster Australia
Pages: 352

The Best Books of 2019

When I started making this list, I had more than 40 books scrawled on a piece of paper. Getting it down to 20 books was difficult. Whittling it down to 10 was excruciating. I could actually feel it in my gut each time I crossed one out. Fact is, this list would probably be slightly different depending on the day you asked me to make it. On any other day, Favel Parrett’s There Was Still Love, Adrian McKinty’s The Chain, and R.W.R. McDonald’s The Nancys — not to mention a whole host of others — might’ve made it. But ultimately I think my Top 10 fairly and evenly represents the books that I think stand above the rest this year.

Continue reading “The Best Books of 2019”

Review: Keeper by Greg Rucka

9780553574289Greg Rucka is an unsung genius of thriller writing, whose debut Keeper still sparkles more than 20 years after its publication. His professional bodyguard protagonist, Atticus Kodiak, has as much brio as Jack Reacher; but his heroics are packaged in adventures anchored by dynamic characters, and a willingness to dive deep into social issues without forsaking the vitality of the narrative. In this case, it’s America’s abortion debate, which remains salient today, more than four decades after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, and two decades since Keeper landed in bookstores, with opponents and supporters of abortion rights are still arguing over the issue.

In Keeper, Kodiak is hired to protect the director of a Manhattan abortion clinic whose life has been threatened by militant pro-lifers lead by a zealous charlatan, Jonathan Crowell. Kodiak, whose girlfriend has just undergone an abortion herself, is personally committed to Felice Romero and the safe-guarding of her daughter, Katie, who has Down syndrome. So when his protective details fails to stop a particularly heart-wrenching murder, Kodiak doubles-down on protecting his charge, and uncovering the identity of the killer, and putting them in the ground.

Rucka, whose prose has echoes of Robert B. Parker and Chandler, maintains a rapid pace, steadily increasing the tension as the narrative builds to its cinematic climax at a cemetery. The ingredients are familiar, but in Rucka’s hands, the recipe is fresh and exciting.

ISBN: 9780553574289
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 332
Imprint: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group
Publisher: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc
Publish Date: 5-May-1997
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman

rpszjbl-hw2zxzwhle8vxvx43mw9mko2gztt1c7xxdn0va6060A superbly crafted espionage thriller that doubles as a gripping mystery.

West Berlin, 1979; the height of the Cold War. Helen Abell is the young, rookie overseer of the CIA’s network of clandestine safe houses. She’s serving one such safe house, which is supposed to be vacant, when she overhears a meeting between two people, speaking  in a coded language that hints at a vast conspiracy. Encouraged by her lover, a veteran agency operative, to forget what she heard and erase the taped evidence, Helen returns to the safe house, only to stumble upon the abhorrent scene of a high-profile undercover agent violating one of his contacts.

Thirty-five years later, Helen and her husband are shot dead in their farmhouse; purportedly by their mentally-ill son. But Anna, his older sister, doesn’t believe he’s capable of such violence, so hires private investigator Henry Mattick to uncover the truth. She doesn’t know that Henry’s already been tasked by a shadowy benefactor to observe the farmhouse and report back to his mysterious contact…

Fesperman cleanly divides the dual narratives of Safe Houses into the past and present, setting scenes that slowly build in intensity, and keeping readers guessing about who can and cannot be trusted. The novel only stumbles once, when Anna and Henry become romantically involved, which feels like such a cliche, but I’ll forgive Fesperman, because the rest of Safe Houses is watertight; the prose crisp, the characterisations vidid. Fans of Cumming, Herron, Porter and le Carre will feel right at home in Fesperman’s world. It’s a chunky six-hundred page thriller that readers like something half the size, and leaves you wanting more.

ISBN: 9781788547888
Format: Paperback / softbackPages: 624
Imprint: Head of Zeus
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publish Date: 11-Jul-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom