Review: First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami

“First Person Singular” is an enjoyable short story collection by Haruki Murakami, with whom I’ve had such fond experiences through his fiction. But the further I delved into the eight stories on offer here, the more I realised that my nostalgia for the past was fulfilling me more than the book in my hands. Which isn’t to say any of these tales, or the quality of their writing, is substandard — Murakami hasn’t suddenly devolved into a hack producing work for a spare dime — but there’s a definite sense he coasted through their creation. 

A crowd-pleasing sense of familiarity is often enough for readers to coast through a novel, or short stories, on a sea of goodwill. But my barometer for any collection is my capacity to recollect specific stories (or at least moments from them) in the days after I’ve finished. There’s just not enough bite to “First Person Singular” for it to resonate. 

The stories gently probe themes of youth, love and memory, and provide tender meditations on music, childhood and (in one of my favourite tales) baseball. Many of the stories are tinged with Murakami’s trademark surreality — talking monkey, anyone? — but they’re all framed through a homogeneous first person narrator, so they’ve blurred indistinguishably in my mind. 

But even Murakami writing with his transmission lodged firmly in first gear provides indelibly graceful prose, and very occasionally, the glint of ingenuity. It’s a shame none of the stories sustained that magic for quite long enough. They’re all eminently readable, but their spark never ignites a flame. 

Published: 6 April 2021
ISBN: 9781787302600
Imprint: Harvill Secker
Format: Hardback
Pages: 256
RRP: $39.99

Review: Love Objects by Emily Maguire

People with hoarding disorder excessively accumulate items others view as superfluous. They’re unable to part with these possessions, and this stockpiling leads to clutter that detrimentally effects their lives. It’s easy to be derisive about it; caricaturize it; exaggerate the consequence rather than consider the cause, or provide a semblance of psychological insight. Most of us don’t form perpetual emotional attachments to the objects we gather during our lives. Some objects have greater meaning; others none at all. We catch and release with reckless abandon. 

But Nic, one of the three central characters in Emily Maguire’s “Love Objects,” is unable to do this. She glimpses an ethereal beauty in her vast assemblage of things; not just their aesthetic appeal. She doesn’t perceive the clutter; just objects that demand salvation, and a place inside her home.  Never mind this minefield almost leads to her death, were it not for the intervention of paramedics, led by her niece Lena, who find Nic sprawled among her vast detritus, having been trapped briefly in a kaleidoscope of memories.

With Nic laid up in hospital it falls upon Lena and her older brother Will to tidy their aunt’s home. Maguire captures each of these characters at a moment of monumental upheaval. The “cleansing” of Nic’s home is the nucleus of the novel, from which Maguire unlades the chaos of their lives: an illicit sex tape featuring Lena has been made public; a mistake Will made years earlier continues to cast a long, dark shadow as he struggles with unemployment and a breakup. They are bonded by blood and multigenerational trauma, and Maguire unspools their histories with extraordinary artistry.

Indeed, nothing about “Love Objects” feels contrived, archetypal or predestined, and it never coils towards melodrama. It’s an emotionally complex character-focused novel, weighted by issues of class and wealth, possession and intervention, and gender dynamics. Once again, Maguire proves herself unparalleled at rendering complex emotions with clarity and sympathetic intelligence. 

ISBN: 9781760878337
ISBN-10: 1760878332
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 400
Published: 30th March 2021
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Review: The 22 Murders of Madison May by Max Barry

If you’ve read any of Max Barry’s previous works ― particularly “Lexicon,” which remains the gold standard for a rip-roaring, up-all-night page-turner ― you won’t need any prompting to pick up “The 22 Murders of Madison May.” The guy writes tornado-paced blockbusters; techno-thrillers in the vein of Michael Crichton, with the pell-mell velocity of Blake Crouch. His latest is another relentless genre mashup: a dimension-hopping psychological thriller about one woman’s pursuit of a serial killer across parallel earths.  

Barry is a spectacular entertainer. But plenty of writers can conjure a high concept; a “what if” scenario. A select few are able to marry this with a cast of characters the reader cares about, that are developed beyond caricatures, or fodder to be annihilated in epic circumstances as dictated by an outlandish plot. The titular Madison May, for example ― the serial victim ― is fleshed out beyond mere prey, or a plot device, as each iteration of her is granted page-time to further establish her.

“The 22 Murders of Madison May” is a thriller of cyclonic speed and intensity. Barry has a gift for sustaining momentum that never lets up, and for creating scenarios and characters you won’t soon forget.

ISBN: 9780733645808
ISBN-10: 0733645801
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Available: 30th June 2021
Publisher: Hachette Australia

Review: The Covered Wife by Lisa Emanuel

In “The Covered Wife” Lisa Emanuel explores the harm we can do — to ourselves, and to others — in our desire for belonging and acceptance.

It follows Sarah, an ambitious twenty-nine-year-old mid-level lawyer at a top-tier firm in Sydney. She is starting to feel listless, like she’s merely treading water. She has become the team workhorse, the administrator, whose work is essential but so often goes unnoticed. She’s getting tired of it.

Sarah is Jewish, but religion is not a defining factor of her existence; more of an addendum, maybe. Which is more than you can say for her romantic life — a total non-starter; somewhat pulverised by a career that demands almost every waking hour. But also, she simply hasn’t found that person who might warrant overriding, or reducing, her professional commitments. That is, until she meets Daniel.

Sarah falls for Daniel — hard. To the extent she obliges him a visit to the progressive Bondi beachside synagogue he attends every weekend, led by the devilishly charismatic Rabbi Menachem Lev and his wife Chani. As Sarah and Daniel commence married life together, she is drawn into their fold, consequently rewriting the fabric of her life. But as time passes, the sense of community and heightened level of spiritual awareness gives way to something darker; something oppressive, maybe even dangerous. Is it too late for Sarah to escape? And even if she can, having sacrificed everything to establish herself as part of this community, what’s left for her beyond it?

Emanuel’s debut takes a paint-by-numbers conceit and fleshes it out into an intelligent, complex, challenging and utterly compelling novel, flavoured with local colour. It’s an examination of the boundaries of love and loyalty, and the wrong turns made in the quest for human connection, which plumbs the emotional core of its protagonist with the adroitness of a veteran.

ISBN: 9780648748915
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 364
Available: 1st June 2021

Review: Klopp – My Liverpool Romance by Anthony Quinn

“Klopp – My Liverpool Romance” is a book for Liverpool supporters, and Liverpool supporters only.  

Anthony Quinn’s love letter to Jürgen Klopp sketches a portrait of Liverpool’s Premier League winning manager through the prism of an unabashed Red. This isn’t a biography of the great German, who has resuscitated one of the giant clubs in England, although it makes references to his childhood, and his managerial history in Germany. It’s a tribute, pure and simple, pockmarked with reminders of their separate trials, tribulations and successes, and their beautiful collision.

The book works because it’s unabashedly written by a fan; Quinn’s affection for Klopp and Liverpool permeates every page. There is no pretence: this is not a “serious” biography or deep analysis of Liverpool under Klopp. It’s a jovial snapshot of one of the club’s greatest managers, easily read over a couple of hours, guaranteed to warm the heart of any fan wanting to reminisce on a couple of unforgettable seasons.

ISBN: 9780571364961
Format: Hardback
Pages: 208
Imprint: Faber & Faber
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Publish Date: 5-Nov-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Not Dark Yet by Peter Robinson

There’s something decidedly unsexy about reviewing serial detective fiction.

Each instalment is moulded into an archetypal shape, and designed to incrementally shift forward the lives of its characters. I love the familiarity of these tales; the recognisable framework of their narratives; their recognisable protagonists. But it means I’m so often relying on tired clichés to describe my feelings because — by design — they’re hitting the same notes time and time again. Virtuosically in many cases, without the slightest warble; but the same notes nonetheless.

Which is the case with “Not Dark Yet,” the 27th Alan Banks novel, another stellar entry in Peter Robinson’s long-running series, who is easily one of the most reliable practitioners of crime fiction, and who has been playing a damn fine tune from the same piano for more than 30 years. Here, a seemingly open-and-shut homicide case turns into something far more convoluted — and deadly, with the Albanian Mafia painting a target on Banks’s back.

When DCI Banks and his team — DI Annie Cabbot and DC Gerry Masterson — start rooting through the home of a murdered property developer in Eastvale, they uncover a cache of spy-cam videos on which they find footage of an unidentified young woman being raped. Banks takes on the murder investigation while his partners try to identify the female victim, and Robinson handles these parallel cases with trademark dexterity.

Bank’s inquiries send him on a collision course with Zelda, a sex trade survivor who has found made a new life for herself in Yorkshire with one of the Detective Chief Inspector’s closest friends. Abducted from an orphanage in Moldova when she was a teenager, she’s been assisting the National Crime Agency to demolish sex trafficking rings; but a series of murders with ties to her childhood abusers puts her firmly in the spotlight as a suspect, and Banks must wrangle with his romantic feelings for her, as well as his own interpretation of justice.

The plot might be gnarled, knotted and twisty, but the storytelling is slick and seamless. Peter Robinson is — still! — one of the best crime writers in the business.

ISBN: 9781529343120
ISBN-10: 1529343127
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 352
Published: 18th March 2021
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Review: Body Of Evidence by Patricia Cornwell

A writers’ toolbox is vast, which makes the ending of Patricia Cornwell’s “Body of Evidence” all the more vexing, as it essentially replicates the climax of her debut. I won’t go into details obviously — this is a safe, spoiler-free zone — but I was galled by the culmination of this otherwise superb mystery, mystified at how Cornwell didn’t recognise she was aping her own work. It’s the only false note in her second Kay Scarpetta novel. 

When successful historical romance writer Beryl Madison is barbarously slashed to death in her Richmond home after returning home from Key West, Chief Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta joins the police investigation led by Detective Pete Marino. A couple factors of the case immediately pique Scarpetta: the fact Madison evidently welcomed her killer into her home; the subsequential murder of her mentor, reclusive writer Cary Harper; and then suicide of his sister. Not to mention the looming shadow of an unscrupulous lawyer who is determined to obliterate Beryl’s final manuscript from existence; and the re-emergence of Kay’s former beau.

Putting aside its ending, Cornwell’s plotting is seamless, and the burgeoning claustrophobia of Scarpetta’s terror as Beryl’s killer closes in is utterly heart-pounding. The mystery unravels through forensic discoveries, exhaustive analysis of paper records, and various interviews with people of interest. The investigation builds steadily, not through melodramatic discoveries or explosive confrontations, but through dogged fact finding. Its crescendo is effective, sure; it works, functionally, for the story. But we just saw this play out; for me, less than a month ago, when I embarked on this mission to re-read the Scarpetta novels. It was a sour note to end on in a novel I otherwise wholeheartedly recommend.

Review: Dark Sky by C.J. Box

“Dark Sky” is another stellar C.J. Box thriller, his long-time hero Joe Pickett outgunned, outmanned, and adrift alongside a terrified Silicon Valley multibillionaire in the rough terrain of the Bighorn Mountains as temperatures plummet. Of course, the Wyoming game warden has demonstrated a propensity for overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds in his 20 previous adventures — but that doesn’t stop his 21st from being another page-turning success.

In “Dark Sky” Joe is tasked with guiding Zuckerberg-clone Steve Price, CEO of social media company Aloft, on an elk hunting trip. Price, who logs every moment of his life online, wants a genuine no-holds-barred experience, and the governor wants to ensure Price gets his wish; his hope is that Price will be so enamoured with the landscape, he’ll build Aloft’s enormous server farm in the county, creating jobs, and furthering the governor’s political career.

Things go to hell very quickly when Earl Thomas and his sons arrive on the scene, seeking vengeance on Price for the death of Earl’s daughter, who committed suicide after being trolled and bullied on Price’s social media platform. Their thirst for revenge is perhaps a tad flimsy, and it allows Box to offer social commentary on the dangers of our digital lives — but just go with it. Ultimately what matters here is that they’re the bad guys, they armed to the teeth, eminently capable of murder, and Joe Pickett is the only thing standing between Steve Price and certain death.

A subplot involving series-favourite Nate Romanowski, ex-special forces turned falconer, and his protégé, Joe’s eldest daughter Sheridan, is really more of a tease for Box’s 22nd Pickett novel. Someone is stealing valuable birds of prey, a very bad dude indeed, we discover; but just as this plot builds up a head of steam, it’s quickly snuffed out when Nate is dragged into Joe’s situation.

“Dark Sky” has all the elements I love most about this series, utilising the unforgiving landscape to great effect. Box’s novels always work best when the Wyoming environs play a key role. And every time I finish one, I can’t wait for the next. Is there a more consistent writer of high-quality crime fiction than C.J. Box?

ISBN: 9781788549325
ISBN 10: 1788549325
Imprint: Head of Zeus GB
On Sale: 04/03/2021
Pages: 368
List Price: 32.99 AUD

Review: Nancy Business by R.W.R. McDonald

Like its predecessor, R.W.R. McDonald’s “Nancy Business” is a masterclass in tonal balance: it’s one part mystery, another part family drama, and these two elements are glazed in a riotous celebration of all things camp and queer. In one scene you’ll be chuckling uproariously at the banter between Uncle Pike and Devon; the next chilled as an explosion rocks the main street of Riverstone; and periodically have your heart warmed by the interplay between young Tippy and her family, who are still reeling from the death of her father one year later.

I presumed — wrongly, it turns out — that following the events of “The Nancys” the investigative trio would reunite in Sydney; bigger city, bigger stakes, I figured. Actually, McDonald demonstrates just how essential his fictional small New Zealand town of Riverstone is as a sandbox for his larger-than-life cast and their eclectic personalities.  Riverestone is a Midsomer-esque municipality ripe with secrets and ne’er-do-wells, one of whom has set off an explosion on the main street, killing three people and destroying the town hall — too close for comfort to where Tippy’s mother works.

It’s an open-and-shut case for the local constabulary, but twelve-year-old Tippy, her Uncle Pike, and his partner Devon aren’t so sure; and they can’t shake the feeling the threat of a second bomber targeting the Riverstone Bridge is real. And so these unconventional detectives start digging, in secret, away from the prying eyes of her mother, while tensions between Pike and Devon fester, and cracks in a relationship Tippy once thought indestructible begin to form. Solving this mystery, she thinks, won’t just save lives — it might save their relationship.

“Nancy Business” is more of the same, certainly — but it’s also a tauter, pacier, funnier and more heartfelt tale, which demonstrates McDonald’s development as a storyteller. It’s a wonderfully entertaining comic caper with genuine emotional stakes that’ll having you ripping through its pages to determine the identity of the perp, and to see how things wind up for Pike and Devon. Lots of writers can create byzantine plots; few are able to create characters we care about so much.

ISBN: 9781760878870
ISBN-10: 1760878871
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 360
Available: 1st June 2021
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Review: Relentless by Mark Greaney

Mark Greaney’s 10th Gray Man novel reads like an R18+ “Mission: Impossible” blockbuster, a pedal-to-the-metal action thriller that doesn’t let up from its opening, when CIA Poisoned Apple operative Zack Hightower is nabbed by goons from a Venezuelan intelligence service in a Caracas marketplace when he’s tracking a presumed dead (but actually treasonous) former NSA computer scientist. 

When CIA deputy director for operations Matthew Hanley learns of Hightower’s failed mission he assigns fellow Poisoned Apple agent Court Gentry — the assassin formerly known as The Gray Man — to finish the job; nevermind the fact he’s still recovering from injuries suffered during a previous operation. But that’s the thing about action heroes: no matter how racked they are by pain and exhaustion, they always find a way — although Court’s rogues gallery has rarely been so substantial or lethal as they are in “Relentless.”

Bullets fly as Court faces off against American mercenaries working for the UAE, an unscrupulous international spy agency, and Russian agents hunting Zoya Zakharova, the love of Court’s life, and — you guessed it — also a Poisoned Apple asset. By now Greaney’s characters have enough flesh and blood to be convincing rather than mere gun-totting goons, and although he has a Clancy-esque eye for detail, narrative momentum never gets bogged down in the nitty-gritty particulars of the weaponry and gadgetry. 

Greaney unabashedly delivers what fans of action-lit desire. Readers who desire the subtlety and subtext of John le Carré may cringe at the undulated carnage on these pages, but those who’ve been with The Gray Man since day dot will delight in it. This is grade-A action pulp, and I can’t wait for the next one.

ISBN: 9780751578454
ISBN-10: 0751578452
Series: Gray Man
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 528
Published: 23rd February 2021
Publisher: Little Brown