Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

xthe-testaments.jpg.pagespeed.ic_.esvxttsz3fMargaret Atwood’s Booker-shortlisted sequel to the knockout classic The Handmaid’s Tale is, quite simply, sensational. The Testaments features some of the most carefully crafted, well-groomed pages I’ve read in years; prose so smooth you could swallow it whole, accentuating a bold, ambitious, dynamic story that builds on the events of its predecessor (and the television series) without being hamstrung by it.

Set fifteen years after the final scene of The Handmaid’s Tale, this sequel is narrated by three characters, their perspectives presented as found historical documents: Agnes, a young woman living in Gilead, who rejects her arranged marriage, but still has faith; Aunt Lydia, who readers and viewers will be familiar with, responsible for turning women into Handmaids; and sixteen-year-old Daisy, whose life is completely upended when she learns the truth of her past. Their intertwined stories are full of danger, suspense, and heart, and build to a grand crescendo and a pitch-perfect postscript.

The obvious question is whether The Testaments holds a candle to The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a bit of an unfair comparison; they’re such different, equally compelling novels. The Handmaid’s Tale is more a novel to marinate over, I think; to turn the pages slowly, savour each word, every detail of life in Gilead. The Testaments reads more like a thriller; tightly-plotted, pacier,  while still providing glimpses into this theocratic dictatorship where women are subjugated and indoctrinated. The narrative hums and roars along like a high-performance vehicle. Atwood is a natural storyteller, perhaps the finest of her generation, and The Testaments is a genuine masterpiece. Every so often you read a book and wish you could go back and read it again for the first time. This is one of them.

ISBN: 9781784742324
Format: Hardcover
Number Of Pages: 432
Published: 10th September 2019
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Country of Publication: GB

Review: Blue Moon by Lee Child

9781787630277In his 24th adventure, nomadic vigilante Jack Reacher cuts a wide swath through an unnamed city’s rival gangs in his quest to help an elderly couple under threat from loan sharks.

The first half is genius; vintage Reacher, the physical embodiment of a spanner in the works, an agent of chaos for the Albanian and Ukrainian crime bosses, who misconstrue his actions for their rivals. The pacing is sharp, the transitions between characters smooth, and the violence hits hard and fast; like Reacher. But when the narrative turns, and Reacher declares war on the city’s organised crime, the novel becomes too reliant on gunplay, which is less high-octane (as I imagine it was intended), and more absolutely bonkers. The body count in Blue Moon is stratospheric; ridiculously so. At one point, bodies are literally piled in a doorway as rank and file gang members attempt to swarm Reacher. Maybe I could get past this , the sheer exuberance of Reacher’s kill count, if the shoot-em-up set pieces were a little more imaginative and extravagant; but they’re just so banal, in terms of setting and execution. Nobody writes choreographed fight scenes like Lee Child; but something is lost when he translates his specific style to shootouts.

Reacher’s mortality has floated to the surface in recent books, but in Blue Moon he’s in God Mode; a one-man killing machine, doing bad things to bad people in the worst possible way. At one point he deadpans, “Normally I kill them, kill their families, and piss on their ancestors’ graves.” Oh, Jack; don’t become a caricature of yourself. The book speeds along at an agreeable clip, but I’ve always thought Reacher works best in Sherlock Holmes mode rather than John McClane action hero. Middling for this brilliant series; but an average Reacher is better than most thrillers on the shelves.

ISBN: 9781787630277
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 384
Imprint: Bantam Press
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
Publish Date: 29-Oct-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

9781529335392.jpgFinally, a legal thriller with something to say, infused with more than just rudimentary courtroom drama and token plot twists, that positively glows with ambition and scope as it tackles weighty themes of parenthood, justice, guilt,  immigration, and the precariousness of truth. Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek is electrifying; a much-needed jolt to a stagnant genre; as literate and thoughtful as it is fast-moving and relentless.

Young and Pak Yoo live in Miracle Creek, a small town in Virginia, with their teenage daughter, Mary. After immigrating to Virginia from Seoul, they start a hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) business that operates in the barn behind their home. Treatment involves sitting in a chamber — referred to as the “submarine” — and breathing pure, pressurised oxygen. The theory is, because damaged cells need oxygen to heal, extra oxygen can result in faster healing of a variety of conditions, including cerebral palsy, male infertility and autism. 

Miracle Creek opens with Young Yoo narrating her version of events on the night of the fatal explosion at the submarine, that left two people dead, her husband in a wheelchair, Mary permanently scarred, and others seriously injured. It then cuts to one year later, and the beginning of the murder trial of Elizabeth Ward, who has been accused of starting the fire that lead to the explosion in order to kill her eight-year-old son Henry, who was undergoing HBOT for his autism. The narrative jumps between various characters, and flits back and forth between the night of the explosion and the present, exposing the true events of that night, and the culpability of everyone involved in the tragedy, directly and indirectly.

Bold and devastating, Miracle Creek is a must-read revitalisation of the legal thriller itself.

ISBN: 9781529335392
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 368
Imprint: Hodder & Stoughton
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publish Date: 23-Jul-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: In the Clearing by J.P. Pomare

9781869713393If J.P. Pomare’s Call Me Evie was a slow-burner of a psychological thriller, thick with a constant undercurrent of menace, his follow-up, In the Clearing, is a pared-down firecracker, the danger clear and present, even if its exact shape remains opaque until its climax.

Chapters alternate between Amy and Freya, dual storylines building in intensity as the page count deepens. Amy is an adolescent fully indoctrinated in the ways of the Blackmarsh; a cult whose home is in remote bushland known as ‘the Clearing.’ She knows what’s expected of her, how to placate her elders, and make sure life in the community remains harmonious. Until a newcomer destabilises her beliefs, and Amy begins to wonder what life is like on the outside. Freya is a mother, who faces a daily struggle to seem normal; your everyday mother and neighbour, nobody worthy of a second glance. But it’s clear she’s struggling with traumas from her past, which threaten to completely undo her carefully constructed life; particularly when a young girl goes missing, and someone from her past arrives in town, tearing open old wounds.

Pomare’s prose purrs so smoothly, you’ll read In the Clearing in one sitting, barely comprehending you’ve been turning its pages. It stays true to the genre’s conventions, and if you’re like me, you may pick some of its bombshells: but each one lands so plausibly, and at such speed, with such gravitas, it’s impossible not to be swept away.

ISBN: 9781869713393
Format: Paperback
Available: 31st December 2019

Review: A Dangerous Man by Robert Crais

a-dangerous-man-9781471157615_lgRobert Crais is one of the most dependable names in thriller-lit, and Joe Pike and Elvis Cole are two of its most indelible protagonists. A Dangerous Man is the eighteenth in the series — but newcomers won’t feel left behind — and its setup is deliciously unpretentious: Pike is parked outside a bank when Isabel Roland, a young teller, is plucked off the street by two men in an SUV. Pike — ex-marine, turned-vigilante — intervenes (obviously), less by choice, more by instinct, and rescues the young woman, only for her to be kidnapped again days later. Looping in his partner, Cole, the duo amass a sizeable body count as they search for Isabel and uncover the reason why she’s a target.

A Dangerous Man is taut, slick and action-packed; a Jack Reacher style page-turner, but with the fat trimmed.  There are few thrillers writers that cut to the chase quite as quickly as Crais and able to maintain the same velocity for three hundred pages. I enjoyed it, immensely; until I got to the end and started thinking about it, specifically in relation to the Bechdel test and realised every woman in the book is a victim, and their page-time is dedicated almost entirely to being chased, kidnapped, or discussing the attractiveness of Pike. It’s anachronistic, unnecessary, and a blemish on an otherwise consummate thriller. Recommended, but with reservations.

ISBN: 9781471157622
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 352
Imprint: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publish Date: 18-Jul-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

9781760292010The Weekend is a perfectly balanced encapsulation of the human condition, its melancholy truths set to a delightful melody only Charlotte Wood — one of our greatest writers — could devise.

It charts the complex, resilient relationship between three friends, all in their seventies, who’ve just lost a member of their quartet. The sudden death of Sylvie brings Jude (former restaurateur), Wendy (acclaimed public intellectual) and Adele (once renowned, now out-of-work actress) to Sylvie’s isolated beach house over the Christmas weekend to purge the home. But the passing of Sylvie has destabilised the bond between these women; rocked the very foundations of their lifelong friendship. As the trio handle their personal grief, it quickly becomes clear Sylvie was vital to the group’s equilibrium, and they’ll have to re calibrate as a trio in order to retain what they once held so close.

Charlotte Wood’s ability to render complex emotions with incredible lucidity and sympathetic intelligence is exceptional. The Weekend is sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes joyous, and never anything less than sharply poignant and true. It’s a book that has lingered in my memory, and alongside the new Strout, Patchett and Parrett, ranks among the best books I’ve read this year.

ISBN: 9781760292010
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 272
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Publish Date: 15-Oct-2019
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Beware of the Dog by Peter Corris

9781760110154Middling among the distinguished author’s score of mysteries, but even the most routine Peter Corris novel offers incidental pleasures, and as a historical document of early-nineties Sydney, it’s well worth tracking down a copy of.

This tale of an affluent family’s murderous dysfunction sees Cliff Hardy’s gun stole and wanted by police in relation to a shooting. Corris wires together every cliche of the private eye genre electrifyingly; he treads familiar ground, but with such relish, it’s impossible not to be swept away.

Solid, unspectacular, but utterly engrossing.

ISBN: 9781760110154
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 200
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Country of Publication: AU