Review: Greenlight by Benjamin Stevenson

9780143789871.jpgWith a plot that blasts along faster than a speeding bullet, and more hairpin turns than an alpine highway, Greenlight is one hell of a debut, and one of the year’s best thrillers. Seriously, this one will leave you breathless.

There’s a book coming out later this month by Chris Hammer called Scrublands. You might’ve heard of it. Not just from me — although you might recall I declared it an early contender for Book of the Year — but from various other bloggers, bookshops and media outlets. It’s being touted as the Next Big Thing in Australian Crime Fiction; primed to explode like Jane Harper’s The Dry. As it should. It’s brilliant.

But when the dust is settling in September  once you’ve had the chance to read and adore Chris Hammer’s debut  another book is going to drop, which deserves the same kind of pre-publication buzz; that should be talked about amongst booksellers in the build-up to is release. Another debut, by another Australian writer, who clearly knows his stuff, given his occupation at Curtis Brown Australia.

The author’s name is Benjamin Stevenson. His book is called Greenlight. And it’s a whirlwind of suspense, intrigue and excitement.

Jack Quick is the producer of a true-crime documentary interested in unravelling the murder of Eliza Dacey, in what was originally considered a slam-dunk case despite the circumstantial evidence that convicted Curtis Wade, who was already a pariah in the small town of Birravale, which is famed for its wineries. Jack’s series has turned the tide on the public’s perception of Wade  he is the victim of a biased police force, they scream  but just as Jack’s set to wrap on the finale, he uncovers a piece of evidence that points to Wade’s guilt, the broadcasting of which would ruin his show.

Understanding the potential repercussions of whatever he decides, Jack disposes of the evidence, thus delivering the final episode of his show proposing that Curtis is innocent. That, he thinks, will be the end of that. But when Curtis is released from prison, and soon after, a new victim is found bearing similarities to Eliza’s murder, Jack is forced to deal with the consequences head-on: his actions might’ve helped free a killer. And so, Jack makes it his personal mission to expose the truth.

Australian crime fiction is currently rife with small-town-murder plots, but Greenlight feels particularly original thanks to its protagonist. By the nature of his profession, Jack Quick is naturally egotistical —  his job is not simply to tell stories, but to shape them, and form narratives that are compelling, not necessarily honest. But he’s also seriously damaged from a particular childhood experience, and suffers from bulimia, which is an eating disorder I wouldn’t dream of pairing up with the hero of a whodunnit, but works effectively here. Stevenson’s story, too, is packed with red-herrings and stunning revelations; readers will be white-knuckled grasping their copies of his debut as he deviously weaves a web of suspicion around the many characters before revealing the killer in the jaw-dropping climax.

Greenlight will have you biting your nails down to the quick as you desperately turn its pages. In a year boasting several impressive debuts, Benjamin Stevenson’s ranks highly among them. Put simply, Greenlight is a knockout.

ISBN: 9780143789871
Format: Paperback
Pages: 368
Imprint: Michael Joseph
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Publish Date: 3-Sep-2018
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: The Other Wife by Michael Robotham

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In a genre overstuffed with pretenders, Michael Robotham somehow manages to crank out one winner after another. His latest — possibly the final book in the Joe O’Loughlin series, if we’re to believe the endnote — works as both a compulsive mystery and a meditation on fatherhood.

Clinical psychologist Joe, who struggles with Parkinson’s disease, is called to his father Michael’s hospital bedside following a brutal attack that has left him in a coma. But when he arrives, it’s not his mother or sister watching over William — a celebrated surgeon and family man — but a complete stranger; another woman, Olivia, who claims to be his wife.

His other wife.

Joe immediately refutes her assertion, but there’s too much evidence vindicating her relationship with his father. Somehow, William has maintained a secret life for twenty years; he has lied and deceived Joe and his family for two decades. But is his current situation a consequence of his dual lives, or something random? Is Olivia to blame, or her son? But then, where was Joe’s own mother on the night of William’s attack?

The beauty of Robotham’s thrillers is that they rely on human relationships rather than explosions and blasts from sawn-off shotguns to fuel their nerve-shredding tension. As events unravel, Joe’s investigation into his father’s attack spins out into a web that snares a wide cast of characters. Robotham expertly plants red herrings; every time the reader thinks the plot will fall into predictability, the ground shifts and the direction changes. And the end, when it comes, is a satisfying surprise, a pulse-pounding, breathtaking climax built on clues that were on the page all along.

If you have a taste for crime fiction and haven’t read the Joe O’Loughlin series, you could start here — this might be ‘the end’ for Joe, the book works perfectly as a standalone — while rusted-on fans will delight in Robotham’s latest; quite possibly his best.

ISBN: 9780733637933
Format: Paperback
Pages: 400
Imprint: Hachette Australia
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Publish Date: 26-Jun-2018
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Into the Night by Sarah Bailey

Into the NightIs the dreaded ‘sophomore slump’ a genuine phenomenon for authors? I’ve often observed that to be the case, especially in my favourite genre — crime. Without delving into specific examples — I’m trying to eliminate unneeded negativity from my blogging life — it’s a very rare thing when a sequel betters the original. For long-running police procedural series, I’ve found the first book is often brilliant, the second and third kind of middling, and then — boom! The author hits their stride. Everything clicks.

But Melburnian crime writer Sarah Bailey has avoided the Second Novel Syndrome with Into the Night, the follow-up to last year’s fantastic The Dark Lake. She’s done this by being smart; doing what few writers have the courage to commit to so early on. She has totally changed things up. Eliminated the possibility of staleness by completely uprooting her protagonist, Detective Gemma Woodstock, and transferring her from the small town of Smithson to the hustle and bustle of Melbourne.

I started reading Into the Night thinking: Okay; what more of Smithson’s dark underbelly is there left for Woodstock to explore? And also, slightly nervously: I hope this series isn’t destined for Midsomer Murders territory. Because I was a huge fan of The Dark Lake; loved Bailey’s pitch-perfect balance of police procedural and deep-dive into Gemma’s personal life. I wanted more of the same, to a degree, but was wary as to how much more there was in these Smithon-based relationships to excavate. And also, there are only so many times you can mine the ‘this time it’s personal’ theme, which Bailey traversed with such panache in her debut.

The Dark Lake revolved around Gemma’s investigation into the murder of a former classmate, and insights into her past were smoothly incorporated to make the book a brilliant character piece, as well as a compulsive page-turner. Into the Night thrusts Woodstock into a far larger investigation. The personal element to the investigation is gone — she doesn’t know the victim this time — instead she is spurred on by a determination to prove herself in a much larger police department; both to her superiors, and herself, to justify her new life, away from her young son.

When a homeless man is found murdered in a Carlton park, Gemma makes it her personal mission to find his killer. But before she begin, she’s pulled off the case to work a violent and public murder: that of the lead actor in a blockbuster flick being filmed in the CBD. But when every suspect has a secret, how do you determine the murderer? Partnered with the abrasive Detective Sergeant Nick Fleet, Gemma enters a dangerous vortex that puts her career, and life, at terrible risk.

Everyone is this meticulously crafted novel might be playing — or being played —by everyone else. Bailey, elevating herself to the pantheon that houses Michael Robotham, Jane Harper and Candice Fox, demonstrates an exquisite touch with characterisation, plotting and page-turnability. This is crime writing at its absolute best.

ISBN: 9781760297480
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 420
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Publish Date: 23-May-2018
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: The Three Secret Cities by Matthew Reilly

xthe-three-secret-cities-pagespeed-ic-6_riq43txr1The unparalleled master of the high-octane, high-body-count, mile-a-minute, explosion-filled, summer-action-blockbuster-on-paper returns with — well, another high-octane, high-body-count, mile-a-minute, explosion-filled, summer-action-blockbuster-on-paper. But as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, so Matthew Reilly is well entitled to replicate his usual winning formula. While the story requires even further suspension of disbelief, and the bad guys are a little too moustache-twirling, The Three Secret Cities delivers where it ultimately counts: the action.

The fifth Jack West Jr. thrill machine goes on at a jet-fuelled pace that doesn’t let up; it’s pedal to the metal stuff from page one, and picks up where The Four Legendary Kingdoms ended. Reilly filters enough information through to bring new readers up to speed, but it’s probably worthwhile reading West’s fourth adventure before jumping on board for this one. There are a lot of characters and continuity to be mindful of in the ‘Reilly-verse’ now that his Shane ‘Scarecrow’ Schofield series has blended into West’s world. You don’t need to know it all to enjoy The Three Secret Cities, but by design, Reilly’s books don’t pause for much recapping or thoughtful character moments; fans have fallen in love with these characters over multiple books. They began life as fairly standard hero archetypes, with thinly-sketched personalities, but as the series has continued Reilly has provided more background and colour to his cast. Readers starting with The Three Secret Cities might struggle to find much to latch onto; but assuming you’re just here for the chases, and the gun battles, and the impossible escapes, you’re going to be just fine.

The plot boils down to another end of the world scenario; only this time, Jack West Jr. is responsible for its instigation following events of the previous book. Now on a desperate hunt for the Three Secret Cities to locate three ancient weapons that hold the key to ending the threat, West and his crew are the target of several enemy forces, who will stop at nothing to see them obliterated from the face of the earth. Standout set-pieces this time around include an explosive encounter at a New York skyscraper involving a hover-capable V-22 Osprey attack plane (armed with the obligatory missile pods and cannons) and an outrageous scene in London that involves a tank. Longtime readers will rejoice when a fan-favourite character makes an appearance, and some might even shed a tear for the book’s final twist; although unfathomably Reilly undercuts much of this emotional gut-punch with an epilogue that probably wasn’t necessary.

At times, The Three Secret Cities feels a bit overcrowded, but for the most part, most of the series’ major characters gets his or her moment in the sun. The book has everything Reilly’s fans have come to expect: sensational combat sequences packed with thunderous explosions, vicious hand-to-hand combat, suspense-filled feats, and more than one unhinged, evil villain. Once again, Matthew Reilly has raised the bar for the action blockbuster novel.

ISBN: 9781743534960
Format: Hardback
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia
Publish Date: 08-Nov-2018
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: The Girl on the Page by John Purcell

Girl on the PagePitch-perfect in every tone, note and detail, the (un)glamorous world of book publishing is an excellent lens for John Purcell’s examination of what it means to balance ambition and integrity. The Girl on the Page starts as a satire, but quickly subverts initial expectations, adding on layers of emotional depth and complexity to its characters with every page, creating evocative portraits of brilliant creative minds in crisis.

Amy Winston is a hot-shot young editor in London who made her name — and a fortune! — turning an average thriller writer into a Lee Child-esque mega-bestseller. But while her professional life is all roses, her personal life is a mess. Not to disparage her life of hard-drinking and bed-hopping, but it’s not exactly conducive to long-term happiness and continued success. Her new assignment — guiding literary great Helen Owen back to publication — isn’t an enviable one, but if anybody can fabricate a bestseller, or at least  something that’ll earn back a smidgen of Helen’s outrageous advance, it’s Amy Winston. But when she arrives at the doorstep of Helen Owen and her husband, Booker-shortlisted author Malcolm Taylor, Amy is confronted by more than just a questionable manuscript: the marriage between this literary power couple appears to have fractured as a result of Helen’s new book, which Malcolm as deemed unworthy of her true talent. Which puts this trio in a terrible position, where either decision — to publish, or to not publish — will result in ruin.

Purcell vividly realises his characters’ emotional journeys, and the reverberations of their fortunes and fates will be felt by readers long after they’ve closed the book. You could strip The Girl on the Page of all its publishing insider juiciness; what remains is a searing take on integrity, commerce, and the consequences of compromise. Purcell is a born storyteller, having spent a lifetime surrounded by books and learning from the masters of the craft. The Girl on the Page is moving, hilarious, and ultimately heart-wrenching. It’s a love-letter to literature, sure; to its creators, and its readers. But it’s so much more than that, too.

ISBN: 9781460756973
Imprint: 4th Estate – AU
On Sale: 24/09/2018
Pages: 352
List Price: 32.99 AUD

 

The Best Books of 2018 — So Far!

 

A brilliantly propulsive Australian crime thriller by Chris Hammer; a standout second novel by Irish sensation Sally Rooney; a mile-a-minute, long-time-coming page-turner by Henry Porter; a quietly powerful, wise and humane novel by Anne Tyler; and an empathetic but never sentimental debut by Naima Coster that dares to probe the dynamics of a fractured family: these are my picks for the books that have already made 2018 a stellar year for reading.

Continue reading “The Best Books of 2018 — So Far!”

Review: Bed-Stuy is Burning by Brian Platzer

bed-stuy-is-burning-9781501146954_hrBrian Platzer’s Bed-Stuy is Burning is an ambitious debut novel that seeks to explore love, race, religion, ambition and gentrification in a mere 320 pages. Which is perhaps biting off  more than it can chew.  While Platzer’s grand aspirations are laudable — and certainly I’d rather a novelist shoot for the stars and miss rather than settle for something middling — the result is muddled; a book pockmarked with a few powerful moments and shades of great characters, which aren’t given the chance to truly shine and take on a life of their own.

Basically, this is a story about the relationship between Aaron, an ex-rabbi turned investment manager with a gambling addiction and a waned faith in God, and his girlfriend, Amelia, a freelance journalist determined to write more than celebrity fluff pieces and new mother, who loves the father of her child, just has serious reservations about marrying him. This alone has all the makings of a solid book; lots to play with here already. But wait, there’s more: Aaron and Amelia recently purchased a house in the historically black neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. They and their tenants, are the only white people on their block, which so far hasn’t been an issue; in fact, they’ve been welcomed into the area. Until, that is, the police shoot and kill a twelve-year-old black child, which inspires a rebellion. And Aaron, Amelia, their nanny, their tenant Daniel, a neighbour and a young black girl who’s just escaped a demonstration are caught smack-bang in the middle.

The narrative flits between each of their perspectives, unravelling the day in occasionally-disjointed chunks. It’s a little clunky at times, but it keeps momentum going, and there is one particular set-piece that’s executed with pulse-pounding brilliance; real white-knuckle stuff as the angry crowd advance on Aaron and Amelia’s home.

It’s not that Bed-Stuy is Burning is in any shape or form a bad book; it’s just brimming with so much potential and shades of greatness, I’m disappointed it doesn’t hit those heights. It’s under-cooked; underdeveloped. I wanted more. And as much as I love a novel with pace, it would’ve been nice to slow things down a little, dig a bit deeper. Having said that, it shows a lot of promise from an author whose next book I will certainly read.

ISBN: 9781501146961
Format: Paperback (213mm x 140mm x mm)
Pages: 336
Imprint: Emily Bestler Books
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publish Date: 1-Aug-2018
Country of Publication: United States