Review: It Sounded Better In My Head by Nina Kenwood

9781925773910Bursting with humour and heart, It Sounded Better In My Head should be required reading for for anyone who has ever felt even slightly uncomfortable in his or her skin. Set during that tempestuous period between high school and what comes next, Nina Kenwood’s Text Prize-winning debut is a poignant, realistic tale about the complexity, joy and weight of first love, and the unbreakable bonds of friendship. It reminded me of what it’s like to be young and in love, and the absolute joy of falling in love with a book.

When her parents announce their impending divorce — decided upon months ago, but revealed now, when it’s too late to do anything to change their minds — Natalie finds herself infuriated at the sheer calmness of the situation. Nobody is fighting; no one seems even mildly upset. Fine; these things happen. So her family life is a little rocky. At least she’s got the solid foundation of her two best friends, Zach and Lucy, right? Wrong. They’ve hooked up, which makes Natalie feel like an outsider, and just a little bit jealous; she always assumed a romance between herself and Zach was inevitable; they were just waiting for right moment. Now that future has been ripped from beneath her feet. Everything has changed, nothing makes sense. And then comes an unexpected romance…

It Sounded Better In My Head is a wonderful novel about love, friendship, and the anticipation of life beyond the walls of high school. It’s honest, joyous and unsentimental. Nina Kenwood has crafted a novel that will fill your heart to bursting.

ISBN: 9781925773910
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 288
Imprint: The Text Publishing Company
Publisher: Text Publishing Co
Publish Date: 6-Aug-2019
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Save Me From Dangerous Men by S.A. Lelchuk

save-me-from-dangerous-men-9781471183133_lgWith Save Me From Dangerous Men, S.A. Lelchuk puts the rest of the crime-writing world on notice. Packed with plenty of page-turning propulsion, with a swashbuckling, kick-ass heroine destined to be franchised, this series opener piles on the plot twists, false leads, and brutally-choreographed violent encounters. You’ll want to jump on the Nikki Griffin train before it leaves the station.

Nikki owns a small bookshop in Berkley called The Brimstone Magpie. She’s also a private investigator, who handles all the routine cases one would expect — but has developed a reputation for her pro bono work: she is the person to see if you’re a woman being abused. Her solution isn’t as lethal as you might be thinking; no body bag required, at least not during the first visit rather, Nikki believes in “equal justice,” dispensing the same amount of pain on abusers as they inflicted on their victims, demanding they change their ways, or else. Her vigilantism can be traced back to the horrific childhood tragedy that led her beloved younger brother into a life of addiction, which we learn more about throughout the story, when Lelchuk eases off the gas on the ‘A’ plot.

Speaking of the ‘A’ plot: when Nikki is approached by Gregg Gunn CEO of Care4, a child care tech company and is offered $20,000 to follow an employee named Karen Li to determine whether she is selling company secrets, Nikki accepts. But Nikki has read enough crime fiction to know nothing’s ever as simple as it seems; and she quickly discovers Li’s wrapped up in something far more dangerous and deadly than corporate espionage. And Nikki is trapped in this nest of vipers with her.

There’s a lot to like about Save Me From Dangerous Men. It’s pacey and action-packed, littered with bookish references (of which only a few are a little too on-the-nose), and exposes readers to a colourful cast they’ll want to meet again. At times it suffers from the ailments of most series openers, grinding the narrative to a halt in order to reveal more about the protagonist’s origin. It’s not that the genesis of Nikki’s vigilantism is uninspired or uninteresting;it just pulls attention away from the cracking core investigation. But now that’s out of the way for future instalments, I’m delighted to have encountered another private eye I’m ready to follow to hell and back. In a crowded genre, S.A. Lelchuk and his creation, Nikki Griffin, are standouts.

ISBN: 9781471183140
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 336
Imprint: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publish Date: 19-Mar-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Artist’s Portrait by Julie Keys

9780733640940In her virtuosic debut novel, Julie Keys masterfully renders the lives of two women — one (purportedly) Muriel Kemp, an infamous artist from Sydney in the 1920s, now in her eighties, living out her twilight years in isolation, prone to severe irascibility; the other, Jane Cooper, a young nurse and aspiring writer — whose unlikely friendship is tested by the potential falsehood of Muriel’s claims, not least of which is the fact that according to official history, and the foundation dedicated to (and named) in her honour, Muriel Kemp died in 1936. 

The true brilliance of The Artist’s Portrait is its architecture. Readers follow two narrative threads: one from the perspective of a young Muriel Kemp as she clashes with the conservatism of the 1920s Australian art world, and the disgusting trivialisation and outright dismissal of women artists; while the second thread transplants us 70 years into the future, 1992, when a chance encounter with her neighbour leads to Jane Cooper taking on the role of Muriel’s biographer, and attempting to make sense of the tapes Muriel has recorded for her, which don’t match up with established facts.

What’s undeniable, Jane quickly comes to realise, is that Muriel’s history is complicated and tempestuous, littered with mystery, murder and disappearances. Unravelling the truth serves as a perfect distraction for Jane, as she deals with tensions and secrets within her own family, and faces up to her pregnancy; not just reality of caring for a child as a single mother, but the echo of Muriel’s words: “If you were serious about being a writer, you’d get rid of that baby.” Is Muriel’s adamancy of this point simply a reflection of her upbringing, and the abhorrent patriarchy she spent years confronting? Or is tied to something far more personal and heartbreaking?

Some novels are such good company that you don’t want them to end. The Artist’s Portrait is one such novel. Engrossing and compelling in equal measure; a tale about long-buried secrets and the revelations that change everything.

ISBN: 9780733640940
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Imprint: Hachette Australia
Publication Date: March 2019

Review: Recursion by Blake Crouch

Recursion.pngA wildly ambitious, fast-paced, high-octane science fiction thriller about the apocalyptic consequences of one woman’s quest to build a machine that allows people to relive memories. Buckle up, put the seat back, adjust the headrest — and hang on.

In 2018, NYPD Detective Barry Sutton fails to stop Ann Voss Peters from leaping to her death from the Poe Building. Ann was suffering from a rare but proliferating condition known as False Memory Syndrome, in which detailed false memories of other lives lived flare to life marriages, children, careers and clash with conscious reality, often resulting in mental degradation, or complete psychotic breakdown. When Barry decides to dig deeper into the condition, he stumbles upon the Hotel Memory, and a life-changing discovery. In 2007, a stupendously wealthy philanthropist named Marcus Slade offers neuroscientist Helena Smith unlimited funding to achieve her life’s goal, inspired by her mother’s Alzheimer’s, of allowing people to relive their memories. But Slade’s objective isn’t quite to benevolent — particularly when they learn the incredible potential of Helena’s machine.

Recursion is a nerve-shredding, genre-bender of the highest calibre. It builds from shock to shock, intensifying with each turn of the page. It’s part love story, part meditation on grief and its long-lasting resonance, and how memories shape us. And it t is never anything less than electrifying. With Recursion, Blake Crouch has produced one of the must-read thrillers of 2019.

ISBN: 9781509866663
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: 11/06/2019
Imprint: Macmillan
Pages: 336
Price: $29.

Review: The Taking of Annie Thorne (The Hiding Place) by C.J. Tudor

9781405930970.jpgWith The Chalk Man, C.J. Tudor has crafted a slick, razor-sharp novel of psychological suspense, which dangled the possibility of a supernatural influence on the events that transpired sparingly enough to keep the story rooted in reality. Her sophomore novel, The Taking of Annie Thorne, suffuses classic Stephen King horror with small town noir. It’s a creepy, propulsive crime novel that whisks readers into a nightmare realm; a tiny mining village called Arnhill, where children have demonstrated a tendency to disappear, then return, but different somehow, not quite themselves; dehumanised.

Published as The Hiding Place in the United States, Tudor’s second novel opens with two Arnhill cops navigating the scene of a horrific murder-suicide. A local, respected teacher has killed her boy, then herself, smearing “NOT MY SON” in blood on the wall. Which doesn’t stop Joseph Thorne — who called Arnhill home as a child — taking up residence in the cottage. Not that he can afford to be selective. Joe’s got the kind of gambling debt that could cripple a man — seriously, the loan shark he owes money to has a female enforcer who takes pleasure in dishing out pain — so the cheap rent works in his favour.

The catalyst for Joe’s return was a mysterious email that read,  “I know what happened to your sister. It’s happening again.” The “it” in question was the murder-suicide at his new abode. Years back, when Joseph was a teenager, his sister Annie vanished  while Joe and his pals explored a mineshaft that has always been the source of spine-tingling ghost stories. When Annie returned, she wasn’t the same. She looked identical to the sweet, doll-carrying girl who disappeared into the darkness; but there was toxicity coursing through her veins. The girl who returned was not the same, appearances be damned.

The Taking of Annie Thorne flits back and forth between events of the present day, and the traumatic circumstances of Annie’s disappearance and return. Joe is an interesting narrator; not particularly likable, extremely flawed, yet we root for him because what happened to his sister — this undefinable, unexplainable thing — has haunted Joe his whole life. It has followed him everywhere. It has damaged him, tormented him. We want to see it exorcised.

The plot thrums, the pace is frantic, and its climax is pitch-perfect and bloody. Tudor has embraced the “heir to Stephen King’ tag she established following the publication of The Chalk Man, and it’s earned. I feel like King would’ve marinated a little more on certain elements of this tale; controlled the pace, let the creepy vibe really settle into the readers’ bones. Delved a little more deeply into the townspeople; explored the intervening years, and perhaps extrapolated on the mysterious, dark force possessing Arnhill. The Taking of Annie Thorne is a helter-skelter, race-to-the-finish kind of horror novel, which makes it brilliantly readable — a one-sitting binge-read, if you’re so inclined — which distinguishes it from the grandmaster’s work.  Like its predecessor, The Taking of Annie Thorne is immensely enjoyable.

ISBN: 9780718187460
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 352
Imprint: Michael Joseph Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 21-Feb-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie

ErraticsVicki Laveau-Harvie’s debut work The Erratics — winner of this year’s Stella Prize — is a beautifully written memoir about a monstrous mother and the heavy cost of estrangement from one’s family. The quality of its prose is reason enough to embark on the author’s journey into her past, and her battle to claim sovereignty from the cancer of her nuclear family.

Laveau-Harvie writes with an assurance and grace that signals the arrival of an important literary voice. She imbues her work with a dark, savage wit that provides an essential reprieve from what would otherwise be a devastatingly tragic portrait of her family, then and now. Her vivid, lyrical, loving descriptions of the Canadian landscape are noteworthy; but the richness on display in these sections is strangely missing when it comes to more personal matters.

Don’t get me wrong — the writing is never anything less than poetic — but Laveau-Harvie skips over a lot of the specificities of the emotional neglect and abuse from her childhood, and her decision to protect the names of her family members and instead label them as “my sister’s partner”, “my son,” and so forth left me strangely detached, and imbued the book with a slight air of superficiality. The Erratics is exquisitely written; but I feel it only skimmed the surface of her mother’s ferocious dysfunctionality and its everlasting impact. It’s like a beautiful sphere of quartz; perfect, unblemished. A part of me wanted something with jagged edges; something a little less benign. I wanted its insights to be as sharp as the writing.

ISBN: 9781460758250
Format: Paperback / softback
Imprint: HarperCollins Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd
Publish Date: 20-Mar-2019
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: No Way Out by Cara Hunter

9780241283493.jpgLike its predecessors, Close to Home and In the Dark, the third Adam Fawley mystery, No Way Out, is a frenetically-paced, meticulously crafted whodunit. Compelling and suspenseful, Cara Hunter keeps every stage of an investigation into a deadly house fire clear while peeling back layers of her expansive cast’s personal lives, delivering a novel you’ll devour in hours, with characters and a plot that will linger for days.

No Way Out opens with two children hauled from an inferno that was once their home in North Oxford, their parents undiscovered among the wreckage, which is quickly determined to be an act of arson; therefore, homicide.  Adam Fawley — struggling with a personal crisis — is the leading investigator, but takes more of a backseat this time, sharing the spotlight with various other members of the Thames Valley Police, including DC Quinn, DS Gislingham, DC Erica Somer and DC Everett, as they dig into the lives of Michael and Samantha Esmond, and their two children.

Writing in short, snappy scenes that tick like a time bomb as they flick between characters, and events of the past and present, No Way Out is intricately plotted, fast moving and full of surprises.

ISBN: 9780241283493
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 384
Imprint: Penguin Books Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 30-Jan-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom