Anthony Horowitz’s “Magpie Murders” and “Moonflower Murders”

The genius of Anthony Horowitz’s “Magpie Murders” and “Moonflower Murders,” two books I read back-to-back recently for book club, is that they’re ostensibly complex — murder mysteries within murder mysteries, with overt and obscure connections — but effortlessly transliterated. Both novels provide intricately-plotted parallel stories that twist around each other like the double helix of a DNA strand: Susan Ryeland, literary editor extraordinaire, stars in the “real life” narrative; and Alan Conway’s fictional creation, the German-born private investigator Atticus Pund, is the other lead. The books involve Susan unlocking the parallels between Pund’s fictional investigations and a real world mystery.

“Magpie Murders” and “Moonflower Murders” are love letters to the golden age of crime fiction, the Agatha Christie era, when the number of red-herrings matched the page-count, and everyone was a suspect, if not of the actual murder, then of some other act of maleficence. The cases themselves are relatively simple, albeit populated by a dense cast: the layering of one mystery atop another adds the veneer complexity.

“Moonflower Murders” is a direct sequel to “Magpie Murders,” with Susan retired from publishing and running a small hotel on a Greek island with her boyfriend. But she misses her literary life in London, and jumps at the opportunity to assist the Trehernes. Years ago, a murder took place the same day as their daughter’s wedding, in their family-owned hotel, when author Alan Grant was a guest.  She is now missing. Before she disappeared she believed she unlocked clues in the novel “Atticus Pund Takes the Case” that suggest the wrong man was arrested. The Trehernes want Susan to spot what their daughter did in Grant’s novel, which will hopefully lead to her discovery.

Though the connection to another Atticus Pund novel is rather more tenuous and coincidental than in “Magpie Murders,” when the “real life” murder was in fact Alan Grant’s, “Moonflower Murders” is a brick-sized, compulsively readable page-turner. Horowitz is quite brilliant at playing with the tropes of the genre — not just here, but in “The Word is Murder” and “The Sentence is Death” — and revitalising them. He’s on that rarefied “Must Read” list.

Trio by William Boyd

William Boyd’s “Trio” is an effortlessly realised portrait of an American actor (Anny Viklund) with an insidious ex-husband lurking in the background; a film producer (Talbot Kydd) struggling to reconcile his sexuality; and an alcoholic, formerly-lauded novelist, “the new Virginia Woolf” (Elfrida Wing), during the turbulent summer of 1968.

“Trio” reads every bit like the work of a seasoned novelist in absolute control of his craft; like Boyd had this fragment of an idea — three characters, whose lives are entwined because of a film shoot in Brighton for “Emily Bracegirdle’s Extremely Useful Ladder to the Moon,” whose lives are upended in quite separate circumstances, the machinations of which are felt by all — and simply sat down to write the story with his customary exquisitely graceful artistry.

I loved “Trio.” In fact, it might even be one of my favourite novels of the year. But there’s no denying there’s an element of “safeness” about it. Like Boyd is treading well-worn territory, refusing to risk colouring outside the lines.

“Trio” is a well-oiled machine. It thrums in all the right places thanks to its well-developed emotional core. Its examination of the complex ecosystem of the film business is played for equal parts drama and comedy. It’s a snapshot of a very distinct era, a tumultuous year, which saw North Vietnam launch the Tet Offensive against the United States and South Vietnam, and stirred a withdrawal of support for the war with Americans back home; the civil rights movement; the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

My overriding feeling upon turning its final page was a contented sigh, an acknowledgement of a job well done, when it felt like Boyd, evidently a grandmaster storyteller, is capable of so much more; of making me shattered, or ecstatic, or a hybrid of both. “Trio” is a great book, but it reads like Boyd is capable of even greater. That’s an exciting prospect.

Published: 20 October 2020
ISBN: 9780241295960
Imprint: Viking
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 352
RRP: $32.99

A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing by Jessie Tu

“A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing” is subversive, abrasive, and brilliant. Jessie Tu’s brazenness rips through the landscape of Australian fiction like a tornado as she ruthlessly excavates themes of race, sex, womanhood and patriarchy through the lens of Jena, an exceptional violinist, a former child prodigy, now a young adult, living in Sydney while she grapples with the fallout of her breakdown on stage years earlier, and re-establishing her career as a soloist.  

Jena relationship with her mother is strained. She sabotages her friendships. And she uses sex as a refuge from her overriding loneliness; the pain and affection of intercourse a fleeting escape from the monotony of rehearsals, concerts, auditions and relentless practice. Tu’s descriptions are brutal and raw. Her prose is no holds barred. There’s not a trace of emotional saccharinity. Jena burns bridges, and they remain ablaze. Life is difficult, particularly as an Asian woman in a dominantly white, upper-middle-class industry. This isn’t a story about overcoming those discriminations. Nothing is wrapped in a neat bow. This isn’t fantasy. That’s the genius of “A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing.” It’s about a character facing up to the truth of her foibles without downplaying the toxic and discriminatory verisimilitude of her reality.

ISBN: 9781760877194
ISBN-10: 1760877190
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 304
Published: 2nd July 2020
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

The Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly

In “The Law of Innocence,” as reports of a deadly virus in China with possible global implications begin to gather steam, Los Angeles defence attorney Mickey Haller takes on the most important case of his career: his own.

After an open-bar celebration of a not-guilty verdict at the Redwood on Second Street, Haller — a teetotaller, definitely not over the limit, and most assuredly not driving erratically — is pulled over by an LAPD cruiser. During a terse exchange with officer Milton, the cop notices a blotch of blood-like liquid beneath the bumper of Mickey’s car. The Lincoln Lawyer is handcuffed and made to watch from the backseat of the police cruiser as Milton pops the trunk. Inside is the corpse of a former client.

Charged with murder and unable to make the $5 million bail, Haller opts to defend himself. He assembles a defence team from his jail cell in the Twin Towers Correctional Centre in downtown LA, which includes his half-brother, former LAPD detective Harry Bosch. But this frame-up is far more extensive, and watertight, than Haller could’ve ever imagined.

Bosch’s investigation leads him to the port of Los Angeles, and a biofuel company run by a serial scam-artist with connections to the mob. He believes they’re running an elaborate scheme involving illicit supplementary government subsidies payouts. Which means the feds are involved. And unwilling to get involved in Mickey’s trial.

The tension rises steadily as Haller prepares his defence, and the courtroom drama is as nail-biting and riveting as anything else you’ll read this year, grounded in authenticity rather than pyrotechnics. We know Haller is innocent. The question is, can he prove it? Michael Connelly, the unequivocal master of the police procedural, again proves himself the master of the legal thriller, too. Grisham and Turow might do it more often — but nobody does it better.

ISBN: 9781760878917
ISBN-10: 176087891X
Series: Mickey Haller
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 432
Available: 10th November 2020
Publisher: A&U

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

“Red at the Bone” reads so smoothly you’ll want to imbibe it in a single swallow.

You shouldn’t.

Pace yourself, dear reader. Savour the cadence and poetry of Jacqueline Woodson’s words. Admire the extraordinary artistry and economy of her sentences, the construction of her paragraphs, the architecture of the novel as a whole; restrained but replete. Yes, “Red at the Bone” can be read in a couple of hours, but it demands and deserves more.

It opens on 31 May 2001, at sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming-of-age ceremony in her grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone. Through the voices of five characters spanning three generations of her family, and slicing backward and forward in time, from the 1921 Tulsa Massacre to 9/11, “Red at the Bone” sketches the history of Melody’s parents and grandparents to show how they arrived at this moment, and what their future holds. Her mother, Iris, gave birth too young, and fled across the country for an education, leaving Melody in the care of her father, Aubrey, who feels untethered as he witnesses his daughter’s transition into adulthood.

A wrenching, beautiful book, whose graceful sparseness still allows space for intense examinations of parenthood, race and family.

ISBN: 9781474616454
ISBN-10: 1474616453
Audience: Professional
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 208
Available: 27th January 2021
Publisher: Orion

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

“Being a heterosexual woman who loved men meant being a translator for their emotions, a palliative nurse for their pride and a hostage negotiator for their egos,” observes 32-year-old successful food writer Nina Dean as she awaits the arrival of her new boyfriend in the company of her ex, Joe, who remains a close friend and confidant.

She met Max on a dating app, where she’d had “twenty-seven conversations on the go with twenty-seven different men,” which seems a lot, until you realise Nina spent “approximately four hours of each working day on the app, green-lighting hundreds upon thousands of men.” That a mere twenty-seven wanted to match her back “seemed meagre.” Her gregarious (and perennially single) friend Lola explains matches halve when women turn thirty. So Nina feels comparatively lucky to have met Max, who declaratively states “I’m certain I’m going to marry you” after their first date, which would be cringeworthy if uttered by anyone else, but Max is the perfect cocktail of earnestness and charm. She believes him. Until the day he vanishes from her life.

Dolly Alderton’s “Ghosts” is one of the best novels of the year. It’s a very smart, very funny, and very touching snapshot of a woman in her thirties coping with the rigmarole of adulthood. As her father’s dementia razes the bedrock of her family, and her closest friends start dissipating from her life as they focus on marriage and parenthood, Nina is reminded constantly of the gendered double-standard of the biological clock: “the female population [is] just an endless source of chances” for men, she realises. They have the luxury of being able to decide when they want to fall in love and have a family, and grow up.    

“Ghosts” flows like running water, punctuated with poignant moments, lightning comedy and searing social commentary. In one scene, Lola is asked what her love language is. She deadpans “Anal, probably.” In the next, they’re discussing politics; “I’m fiscally conservative but socially liberal,” remarks a fellow wedding guest. Nina retorts, “I’m not sure that really exists… ‘I love the gays but don’t care about the poor’ can’t be described as liberal in any sense.”

“Ghosts” is warm-hearted, sharp-edged, and unmissable.

Published: 20 October 2020
ISBN: 9780241465332
Imprint: Fig Tree
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 352
RRP: $32.99

Review: Honeybee by Craig Silvey

In this wrenching coming-of-age story more than a decade in the making, Craig Silvey grabs readers by the throat from his opening sentence, and whip-lashes us through the full gamut of emotions as he unspools a tale of childhood trauma and identity.

You won’t read it on the blurb, but Sam Watson, the protagonist of “Honeybee,” is a young trans woman struggling to navigate the world, saddled with the scars of her excruciating childhood. It’s impossible to honestly discuss the novel without “exposing” Sam’s trans identity, which makes its concealment slightly discomforting. The identity of cisgender characters is never obfuscated in media, and doing so in this instance presents the revelation of Sam’s as a spectacle, manufactured as a bombshell, in a narrative that manages a nuanced and compassionate depiction of an adolescent seeking vindication of her self.

We meet fourteen-year-old Sam as she walks onto the Clayton Road overpass in Perth, determined to launch herself onto the road below, pausing momentarily when she spots an old man, Vic, smoking a cigarette, also on the wrong side of the railing. They form an unlikely friendship, which has a lasting impact on Sam, and leads to a series of similarly unconventional but indispensable friendships with the daughter of Vic’s neighbours, Aggie, and drag queen Bella Fitzgerald.

Through a series of flashbacks we discover Sam’s grievous past. She is the only child of a mother who fell pregnant at nineteen, and raised Sam alone, funnelling her loneliness into drugs and alcohol; until she met Steve, a con artist (and the epitome of toxic masculinity) who terrorised Sam for her loathing of outdated masculine pursuits. Sam’s unreserved (and undeserved) loyalty to her mother is truly heartbreaking. Silvey’s rendering of this relationship is exquisite.

That a straight white man has chosen to examine trauma through a trans character warrants unpacking and discussion. I can’t vouch for its authenticity of voice. But I can attest to its devastating portrait of depression, abuse and self-mutilation. I can say that “Honeybee” moved me to tears, that I couldn’t put it down, and that I won’t soon forget it.

ISBN: 9781760877224
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Pub Date: September 2020
Page Extent: 432
Format:Paperback – C format

Review: The Sentinel by Lee Child & Andrew Child

“Reliable” isn’t the sexiest descriptor, but “The Sentinel” shows Jack Reacher — even with Andrew Child rather than older brother Lee behind the wheel — remains the closest you can get to a sure-thing when it comes to page-turning, wham-bam entertainment.

Andrew Child isn’t here to revolutionise the Reacher formula. It’s a blueprint for international bestsellerdom. He’s not crazy. Nor would I call this a reinvigoration. It’s a fairly imperceptible continuation. Which is precisely what Reacher’s acolytes want. More of the same. In recent books, we’ve had an increasing number of references to Reacher’s mortality; “Past Tense and “The Midnight Line” come to mind. That was until last year’s “Blue Moon” which ratcheted up the gunplay to the nth degree; like a course correction that skewed too far wide. Andrew Child finds the right balance here. There’s no mention of Reacher slowing down; and the action is rooted where it belongs, with Reacher’s unrivalled physicality and fists. Scrap Reacher’s mid-fight rejoinders — what is he, Spider-Man? — and  you wouldn’t know this wasn’t penned by Lee himself.

That’s the most impressive thing about “The Sentinel.” Save for a few minor textual infractions, it doesn’t read like it’s been co-authored. Never mind the plot. It’s typically potboilery. Which is not a disparaging remark, just a statement of fact. The Reacher books have never been about their byzantine storylines. They’re loved because of their inherent simplicity. Reacher wanders into a place, finds trouble, solves the problem, and leaves. In this case the town is a small place outside Nashville. The trouble is the imminent abduction of an IT worker named Rusty Rutherford (although it’s more complicated than that, involving Russians, Nazis and election fraud). And the solution involves — well, Reacher inserting himself into all kinds of difficult situations, asking questions of people who won’t easily provide answers, gradually dismantling a nefarious scheme. More than one, in fact.

Rest assured, folks. Jack Reacher’s in a safe pair of hands.  

ISBN: 9781787633629
ISBN-10: 1787633624
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 400
Available: 27th October 2020
Publisher: RANDOM HOUSE UK

Review: Help Yourself by Curtis Sittenfeld

When she approaches a table of strangers she mistakenly assumes have crashed her friend’s birthday party in “White Women LOL,” the first of three stories in Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Help Yourself,” Jill is aware she is “trying harder than usual — harder than she would have with a group of white people — to seem friendly and diplomatic.” Her motivations for dispelling the group are honest, her methodology rather more questionable, and the situation devolves into a cataclysmic misunderstanding. Her tense exchange with the group is recorded, and proves incendiary online, establishing her as the latest pin-up of white privilege, which is a label Jill marinates over, recollecting every interaction she’s ever had with a black person as she tries to establish her place on the spectrum of racism, much to the chagrin of her blasé husband, who’s dismissive of her plan for redemption, which involves finding the missing shih tzu of a local black celebrity.

In “Creative Differences,” a young photographer named Melissa wrestles with art and commerce, deliberating over the compromises she must make to achieve her ultimate goal. A while back her series on black pre-schoolers went viral, and now a producer from Wichita is shooting a documentary on American creativity, and Melissa is one of its subjects. The opportunity offers great exposure, but Melissa is adamant brushing her teeth on camera — as mandated in her contract  — is a seismic concession, and a devastating blow to her artistic integrity.

“Great literature was never written by a beautiful woman,” Ruthie heard more than one in her postgrad creative writing course. Many years later, now a bestselling author of women’s fiction, and the narrator of “Show, Don’t Tell,” she reminisces on her anxieties clashing with the gallingly indestructible  entitlement and elitism of her male cohorts.

The women at the centre of Sittenfeld’s stories are navigating their aspirations alongside society’s expectations, complications and inequalities. These bite-sized snapshots of their lives offer nuanced commentary on the complexities of gender politics, race and commercialism. I just wish the collection was heftier.

ISBN: 9780857527479
Format: Hardcover
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 96
Published: 29th September 2020
Publisher: RANDOM HOUSE UK

Review: Pure Hollywood by Christine Schutt

As a reader, I don’t want to work too hard. I can’t stand obliqueness. I want a writer to tell their story precisely and lucidly. If I can’t easily extrapolate character motivations, their emotions, or what is happening to them, I begin to feel like I’m treading water in a churning sea of esotericism. Which is how I felt about Christine Schutt’s collection of stories, “Pure Hollywood.” As aesthetically pleasing as her writing is —with a laser-like, poetic focus on sound and imagery, Schutt concocts immaculately bejewelled sentences — there is an evasiveness to her writing that renders its powers inert. Rather than feeling fulfilled, this collection hollowed me out.

I realise, of course, this is a reflection of my taste rather than Schutt’s literary powers. The eleven stories on offer in “Pure Hollywood” are thematically linked by their snapshots of familial dysfunction, loss, and grief. They vary in length, some shredded to micro-fiction level. My favourite, or at least the most impactful (and certainly most haunting) is “The Hedges,” about an unhappy couple vacationing with their sick and cranky toddler, in which Schutt masterfully foreshadows an incident that occurs in the climactic paragraph. The titular novella is a standout too, detailing the complicated fallout of the death of a woman’s much older husband, specifically as it relates to her step-children and her brother.

I am keen to read one of Schutt’s novels, if only to determine whether it’s the brevity of the tales in “Pure Hollywood” or her style I found so prohibitive. Perhaps to enjoy these stories one requires a level of intense concentration I’m incapable of. Whatever the reason, few of these stories connected with me on any level at all.

ISBN: 9780802127617
ISBN-10: 0802127614
Audience: General
Format: Hardcover
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 144
Published: 13th March 2018