Review: Dead Letters by Michael Brissenden

It’s been a while between drinks for Michael Brissenden and his cop hero Sid Allen. “The List,” published in 2017, was a satisfying thriller, if not a tad mechanical in its unravelling: a blend of “Bosch” and “24,” one part police procedural, another part political thriller. Its direct sequel “Dead Letters,” one of those dreaded sophomore novels, is superior in every way: tighter-plotted, richer in character, and pacier. 

It opens with the murder of Dan LeRoi, Chairman of the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, whose burgeoning political career is cut short by four bullets to the head. The crime scene is chaotic, a kaleidoscope of local and federal investigators, the media swarming on the biggest news story of the year. 

Among them is journalist Zephyr Wilde, a Lois Lane facsimile, whose tenaciousness is rooted in her tragic past. When she was a kid, Zephyr’s mother was killed by an unsub. It’s a cold case that’s remained on ice despite her dogged attempts to probe deeper, fuelled by letters from her long-dead mother that keep appearing in her mailbox. Breaking the golden rule of their professions, Sid and Zephyr partner up to look into LeRoi’s murder against the backdrop of a looming federal election. In doing so they awaken dark, dangerous forces operating within the corridors of power in Canberra. Brissenden weaves these threads together with skill, and pulls the curtain down with a couple of piercing twists.

Despite a deluge of brilliantly distinct local crime fiction published over the last half-decade, Australia — specifically Sydney, the city closest to my heart — is still looking for its answer to Michael Connelly and his (now former) LAPD detective Harry Bosch. The crime genre is so malleable, but the police procedural is my favourite form. Michael Brissenden’s Sid Allen series might be just what I’m looking for.

ISBN: 9780733637445
ISBN-10: 0733637442
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 368
Available: 27th January 2021
Publisher: Hachette Australia

Review: The Burning Girls by C.J. Tudor

Over the course of three novels, C.J. Tudor has established herself as a master practitioner of the supernatural suspense novel — and her latest, “The Burning Girls,” is exactly that, a breakneck page-turner, tinged with horror, wrapped up in family drama.

The town of Chapel Croft has a history of tragedy. Five hundred years ago, eight protestant martyrs were burned at the stake. Thirty years ago, two teenage girls vanished without a trace. And two months ago, the vicar of the local parish killed himself for reasons unknown.

The vicar’s replacement is Jack Brooks, single mother of fourteen-year-old daughter Flo — burdened by her own traumatic past. Chapel Croft, she hopes, offers the chance of a fresh start, and an opportunity to escape it. But that seems unlikely from the start, when an old exorcism kit and a note quoting scripture is left for Jack as a welcoming present. Never mind the stick dolls scattered around the town in remembrance of the burning girls from its past. Or the strange sightings in the decrepit chapel…

As Jack and Flo install themselves within the close-knit community, they begin probing and untangling the mysteries of the town’s dark legacy, which leads to dire consequences. Tudor loves playing with the conventional horror tropes, and slicing them down to their purest form. While the ingredients might be familiar, she has a habit of blending them into something distinctly her own.

Published: 19 January 2021
ISBN: 9780241371312
Imprint: Michael Joseph
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 400
RRP: $32.99

Review: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

I could feel the heavy shadow of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah” as I read “Transcendent Kingdom.”

It was probably unwise to read one directly after the other. It distorted my enjoyment of Yaa Gyasi’s second novel. Which I did, by the way. Unequivocally. It’s just that, well — “Americanah” is a masterpiece. An unabashedly epic deconstruction of a first generation African immigrant story. Both novels detail the struggle of assimilating into a new country, and the inevitable identity crisis such a seismic cultural shift invokes.

But whereas Adichie’s is a beast of a novel, bursting at the seams with characters and ideas and discourse, Gyasi’s is lean and sharp. It’s an intimate tale about 28-year-old Stanford University School of Medicine student Gifty, whose adolescence was seared with tragedy. First her father abandoned his family in America to return to Ghana; then her brother died of an overdose after a long battle with addiction. This trauma formed a wedge between Gifty and her depressive mother, who arrives at her daughter’s doorstep on the advice of their family pastor as the novel opens. “Transcendent Kingdom” is about Gifty facing up to her past, and understanding how it has affected her life.

It’s a beautifully written, rather plangent book, and I recommend it, absolutely. It just paled — slightly — in comparison to the brilliant novel I’d finished before it. If I’d interposed something else between “Americanah” and “Transcendent Kingdom,” I think Gyasi’s novel would’ve resonated more. I’ll return to it some day, I’m sure, with a clear head, unencumbered.

Published: 1 September 2020
ISBN: 9780241433386
Imprint: Viking
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 288
RRP: $32.99

Review: The Performance by Claire Thomas

I’d love to sit down with Claire Thomas and deconstruct “The Performance.” I am in awe of its architecture; the elegant circumscription of its staging; its multidimensional exploration of womanhood, the power of art, the geometry of relationships, and the state of the world; the vibrancy of its language, and the vividity of its character and place. This is a novel that thrums not with ferocious dramatic force, but with naked emotional power and insight.

As bushfires blaze on the outskirts of the city, three women — Ivy Parker, a forty-something philanthropist; Margot Pierce, a professor in her 70s; and Summer, a theatre usher in her twenties — watch a performance of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” during which they meditate on their lives. At intermission their paths briefly cross, but “The Performance” is not crammed with incident. Thomas’s gift is that she is able to make the most mundane detail beautifully compelling: she spins gold out of everyday material. Her novel is a sharply incisive, profound depiction of three women at different stages of their lives, rendered in gorgeously captivating prose. An indisputable masterpiece.  

ISBN: 9780733644542
ISBN-10: 0733644546
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 304
Available: 23rd February 2021
Publisher: Hachette Australia

Review: Win by Harlan Coben

The trouble, I think, with making the long-running sidekick of an established crime series the lead is that it diminishes the facets of their character that made them cool in the first place. Specifically the kind of sidekick who is notorious for last-minute rescues, or doing the dirty work the hero refuses to muddy their hands with; like Nate Romanowski from C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett mysteries, or case in point, Windsor “Win” Horne Lockwood III, from Harlan Coben’s eleven-book long Myron Bolitar series.

Win’s always been happy to handle the messier side of Myron’s vigilantism. He has a natural predilection for violence, rooted in his tumultuous childhood. He’s brilliant in a supporting role: ridiculously wealthy, a self-trained combatant, incredibly intelligent. And hedonistic as hell. Win is basically Batman without the Batsuit, only because he prefers the feel of thousand-dollar tailored suits against his skin.

In “Win” he is approached by the FBI to accompany them to one of most prestigious buildings in Manhattan, the Beresford. An unidentified older man has been found dead. Win doesn’t recognise the victim — but he immediately spots the Vermeer painting hanging on the man’s wall as one stolen from the Lockwood family home twenty years ago. So, too, a suitcase with Win’s initials. The case gets more convoluted when the dead man is identified as the leader of a radical left group responsible for the accidental deaths of seven people decades ago. Then comes a connection to another crime from the past, also close to home: the traumatic abduction and abuse of Patricia Lockwood; Win’s cousin.

There are lots of pieces to this puzzle that eventually connect satisfactorily, though without Coben’s trademark blockbuster final twist. “Win” is a breeze, the definition of a perfect beach read, laced with plenty of moral ambiguity and pockmarked with action, and the author’s established cracking dialogue and wit. But without Myron to gloss over his harshness, Win is an unsympathetic protagonist, and honestly, I think Coben has proved his storytelling is better suited to standalone novels that focus on the everyperson  rather than “heroes.” 

Published: 16 March 2021
ISBN: 9781529123852
Imprint: Century
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 400
RRP: $32.99

Review: Daddy by Emma Cline

I’ve been meaning to read Emma Cline’s debut “The Girls” for the longest time, but haven’t, for no other reason than the timing has never been right. I’d be midway through another book, see it on the shelf and think, “Oh yes, that’s exactly what I feel like reading,” only to start something else, which is the sad fate of so many books: the “one day’s.” Cline’s short story collection “Daddy” offered me an introduction to her writing, which piqued me enough to maintain my interest in one day reading “The Girls,” but not enough to move the needle into “Oh my God, I need it now.”

The stories here are populated with gross, self-entitled, narcissistic (mostly older) men, oozing toxic masculinity, oftentimes in its subtlest (but no less noxious) form, sometimes outright barbaric. These men are messed up. Some of them know it, and assumed they’d always get away with their behaviours; others demonstrate perniciousness through their attitudes, fuelled by personal failures and disappointments.

The best stories are the most understated, like my favourites, “Los Angeles,” about a young woman who works at a clothing store, takes acting classes, and makes extra cash through a rather disturbing side hustle (which you just know will have serious ramifications) and “What Can You Do With a General,” which follows a father trying to reconnect with his adult children during the holidays, barely able to disguise his contempt.

I devoured the first four stories in “Daddy”, then trudged (not unhappily) through the rest. I’ve been marinating over why. There’s certainly no technical fault with these latter tales. I think it’s the uniformity of Cline’s themes, and the speed at which I read the collection. Maybe if I’d read “Daddy” over a week, rather than binged it, I mightn’t have felt so claustrophobic.

ISBN: 9781784743727
ISBN-10: 1784743720
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 272
Published: 1st September 2020
Publisher: RANDOM HOUSE UK

My Year in Reading — 2020

If 2020 was good for anything — besides, y’know, moving in with my girlfriend, getting engaged, and being named Young Bookseller of the Year — it was reading. And this year I totalled 165 books, which is 18 more than last year, but not as many as my best year in 2018 when I read 166. I know, right? A couple more graphic novels or short story collections and we’d be celebrating a monumental year. Sorry, folks. We almost made history.

I’ve already listed my Favourite Crime Novels 0f 2020 and Favourite Fiction of 2020. But lets dig a little deeper into all those books, eh?

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Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah” marks the final book in the triumvirate of contemporary classics I planned to read at the start of the year,  alongside Rohinton Mistry’s “A Fine Balance” (now a trademarked “Favourite Book of All Time”) and Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy” (an unforgettable reading experience, perhaps gratuitously long, but somehow never feels overstuffed).

“Americanah” probably ranks third favourite amongst that trio, which isn’t to suggest it’s anything other than a masterpiece, just that comparatively, it feels like it’s trying to do too much, and occasionally gets mired in its exploration of its surplus of themes: race and reinvention, immigration, national identity, culture clash, the disparity of being Black in America compared to Black in Africa, to name just a few, all of which orbit a sweeping decades-long love story between Ifemelu and Obinze, two high school sweethearts, who separate and later reunite back home in Nigeria, as two very different people, having endured very different experiences in the West.

I loved the structure of the novel, its unchronological approach, and Adichie’s impressive prose, which is functionally stylistic rather than grandiosely literary. I’m loathe to use the common reviewer refrain “with better editing…” but I’m adamant that if “Americanah” was tightened ever so slightly, some of its (gorgeously readable) fat sliced away, it would be an all-time favourite, a truly magnificent, peerless novel. It’s not that Adichie’s discourse into race isn’t ever anything less than captivating and compelling (and, frankly, essential reading); just that there’s so much of it that it occasionally distracts from the novel’s heart.  

Rest assured, “”Half of a Yellow Sun” is a book I intend to tick off next year.  

ISBN: 9780007356348
ISBN-10: 000735634X
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 400
Published: 1st March 2014
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Review: New Animal by Ella Baxter

“If anyone ever asks me how I dealt with this grief, I will tell them honestly: by killing the light of everything that reminded me of her.”

Ella Baxter’s striking debut novel “New Animal” is a blazing cocktail of icy honesty and heart-wrenching tenderness, told in starkly beautiful language.

Amelia — a twenty-something cosmetician at her family’s mortuary business — reminded me a lot of Jena from Jessie Tu’s “A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing.” She’s having a lot of sex with a lot of random men, trying to blunt and distract from the trauma of her every day, struggling to find (but not really looking for) further connection.

But when her mother dies suddenly, a flood of unfamiliar emotion overcomes Amelia, and she escapes to Tasmania to stray with her biological father, where the memories of her mother lack the piercing sharpness they possessed closer to home. She inadvertently stumbles into the world of a BDSM club, and a group of people hoping to diminish their own pain through their experiences in a place that demands trust, consent and clear and constant communication.

Elements of “New Animal” are viscerally confronting, one scene in particular — Amelia’s first experience as a “dom” — still reverberating in my brain days later. But for all its braveness and boldness, and the savagely deadpan wit enmeshed in every scene, what stands out most is Baxter’s magisterial insight into the human heart and mind. She has fashioned an intense and unflinching account of a young woman’s journey through grief. And it’s all told in a style distinctly her own.

Category: Fiction
ISBN: 9781760877798
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Pub Date: March 2021
Pages: 240

The Best Fiction of 2020

Maybe it’s indicative of the year we’ve had, but my favourite fiction of 2020 was almost universally harrowing, sometimes outright devastating. The endings of several still haunt me weeks and months later. I’ll never forget the final pages of Leah Swann’s “Sheerwater,” or the coda to Aravind Adiga’s “Amnesty,” or the epilogue to Sophie Laguna’s “Infinite Splendours;” never mind the total gut-wrenching experience of Tiffany McDaniel’s “Betty.” This was the year I demanded books that shook me to my core, that shredded me emotionally, or at the very least induced the smallest cut.

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