Review: When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain

“When the Stars Go Dark” has all the makings of a tidy police procedural, but the mechanics of Anna Hart’s investigation into a missing teenager serve merely as the scaffolding for a shrewd examination into the detective’s devastated psyche. This is a sombre ballad about a traumatised woman’s dedication to finding justice for the missing and the dead, and why it has come at the expense of everything else. 

Hart is a detective from San Francisco who has recently experienced a personal tragedy. Haunted by this, and the many horrors she has encountered throughout her career as a missing persons expert, she escapes to her childhood home of Mendocino in North California, and is quickly drawn into the case of a missing girl named Cameron Curtis. 

Mendocino is a place of discordant emotions for Hart. She fondly remembers the foster family who provided her love and safety, and taught her survival skills. But this is punctured by the melancholy of the disappearance of a close friend in 1972; eerily similar to the present day mystery. 

When two other girls are abducted shortly after Cameron, I was sure McLain was pivoting towards a classic hunt for a serial killer. If this was Connelly, Sandford or Crais, I’d expect no less. They are writers who excel working within the conventions of the genre. 

But McLain isn’t a crime writer. Not by trade, at least.  She knows she owes readers a resolution, and this side of “When the Stars Go Dark” — its mystery — is grippingly and confidently realised. But it never pulls focus from her narrative’s true intention, which is its study of character. Here, McLain masterfully combines the classic components of the crime novel with a  forensic excavation of her detective, and what it takes to come back from the brink when everything seems lost. 

While most crime fiction is content to solve its crime and move its detectives onto their next case, McLain reminds us they are human. Fallible, anguished, and in search of redemption — just like everybody else.

Publisher: Ballantine
Publish Date: April 13, 2021
Pages: 384
ISBN: 9780593237892

Review: The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jónasson

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Is this a crime novel with ghostly undertones, or a ghost story with criminal connotations? Whichever way you look at it, “The Girl Who Died” is a bit of a disappointment. It never really chills or thrills, and its climactic revelations are curiously signposted. 

The story has potential; it just feels undercooked. The village of Skálar at the northeastern tip of Iceland, with its tiny population of ten, is perfect fodder for a creepy tale. Its protagonist, young school teacher Una, provides the ideal perspective to regard its unfriendly inhabitants. It’s set in the mid-1980s, before mobile phones made contacting the outside world a breeze. 

Una is isolated. She lives alone in the creaky attic bedroom of one of the town’s residents. And at night she hears singing. Is it the young girl named Thrá, who died in the house in 1927 under mysterious circumstances, whose ghost is rumoured to still haunt it? Or is she just losing her mind?

A few months into her stay, one of her two pupils collapses during the annual Christmas concert. It’s clear something maleficent has occurred. And given Skálar’s population, the pool of suspects is limited. The question bugging Una is whether the death is connected to the disappearance of a man who visited Skálar weeks earlier.

Ghost stories should build slowly and understatedly. Tension is derived from the reader’s knowledge that something nasty is around the corner — but which corner? Ragnar Jónasson’s “The Girl Who Died” reads too fast for its own good. I’m all for a page-turner, but not at the expense of mood. Scenes here have a sketched quality. Its characters aren’t given time to breathe, so they feel superficial. 

One of the great strengths of Stephen King’s most unsettling novels is their pacing, and that’s what feels off here. King understands the scale of scariness; how to intensify from a spine-tingle to teeth-chattering terror. Jónasson nails the claustrophobic atmosphere of a tiny town with secrets. But it never really elevates beyond mildly creepy, and its mystery is undercut by flashbacks that inform too much of the novel’s resolution. Readable as ever, and a pacy distraction, but this pales in comparison to the Hulda series.

ISBN: 9780241400135
ISBN-10: 0241400139
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 384
Published: 4th May 2021
Publisher: Penguin UK

Review: The Last Guests by J.P. Pomare

Rating: 5 out of 5.

An atmosphere of dread and stomach-churning paranoia permeates every page of J.P. Pomare’s “The Last Guests,” whose airtight plot proceeds with implacable logic and spine-chilling plausibility as it builds towards completely subverting its reader’s sense of right and wrong.

Pomare has already secured his reputation as a Robotham-class psychological thriller writer, who manages to elicit menace from familiar surroundings and the ordinary elements of our lives; the things we take for granted. In the case of “The Last Guests,” it’s the privacy of our own homes, eviscerated here by an online community of voyeurs known as Peephole who watch live footage of unsuspecting people going about their daily lives, witnessing their most intimate moments, unknowingly exposing their secrets. 

The engine of the plot involves New Zealanders Lina and Cain renting out their lakeside cabin on WeStay to assist with their financial troubles. Their relationship is imperilled by the legacy of Cain’s wartime experiences with the SAS. He returned wounded and distraught, and has subsequently struggled with a gambling addiction, and to get his small business off the ground. Further burdening Lina and Cain is their inability to get pregnant, which compels Lina to take imprudent action, with long-lasting consequences. Their lives threaten to unravel completely after a fateful night at their cabin broadcast live on Peephole.

Too many thrillers of this sort are curiously reluctant to get to their payoff — their premise hooks but their telling meanders — or are all unearned payoff, and don’t spend enough time creating genuine emotional stakes. Here the balance is perfect. “The Last Guests” is taut and tight. Pomare is attuned to the rhythms of suspense, and his character development is sumptuously succinct. Lina and Cain, compellingly imperfect, aren’t chess pieces to be manipulated for the sake of plot; their every action is rooted in human emotion, even when it feels extreme or irrational. 

Pomare is brilliant at building to a grand crescendo, absolutely. But he excels at depicting the fallout like nobody else.

ISBN: 9781869718183
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 336
Available: 28th July 2021
Publisher: Hachette Australia

Review: The Housemate by Sarah Bailey

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

There is something immensely satisfying about following a writer for several years, experiencing the consistent honing of their craft, and reading the brilliant culmination of their evolution as a storyteller; which is the case with “The Housemate,” the best crime novel Sarah Bailey has produced, and one of my favourites of the year. 

It opens with rookie Melbourne newspaper reporter Olive Groves at the scene of a murder in St Kilda. She doesn’t know it, but this case — dubbed the housemate homicide — will befuddle and enamour the police, and the public, for almost a decade. Of the house’s three cohabitants, one is dead, one is missing, and the other is accused of the murder. 

Almost ten years later, the corpse of the missing housemate is found on a remote property, and Olive — now an established reporter in a dying profession — is assigned the story, alongside Cooper Ng, a greenhorn reporter, who represents the changing face of the news industry as a podcaster.

“The Housemate” is very much a procedural, just without a detective at its centre. The labyrinthine plot builds slickly, and Bailey wrings suspense out of every possible aspect of Olive’s obsessive hunt for the truth. The facts she and Cooper uncover add up, but make no sense until the key is supplied in a flurry of revelations at the novel’s climax. 

With a mystery like this, I want to ride the plot twists like a passenger on a roller-coaster. I know there will be sharp curves and abrupt changes of speed and direction. But I also know I’m strapped in. However out of control I feel, my experience is being managed. “The Housemate” is pockmarked with red-herrings. It twists, and it turns, but there’s an assuredness to Bailey’s storytelling that establishes trust. I didn’t know where we were headed, but I had faith she would get me there, and that the ending would satisfy and surprise.

Reader, it does.

ISBN: 9781760529338
ISBN-10: 1760529338
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 464
Available: 31st August 2021
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Review: Who Gets To Be Smart by Bri Lee

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

It was my first week as a bookseller and I was shrink-wrapping DVDs when one of my colleagues quipped, “Your parents’ private school money at work, huh? Did they get what they paid for?”

It was a joke, a bit of careless banter, and I laughed along. But those words penetrated, and they’ve ricocheted around my brain ever since. Whatever my achievements as a bookseller, however you gauge my ‘success,’ a chunk of my brain wrestles with the fact my parents spent thousands of dollars on my education, and I turned to a career in retail. 

Did I fail them? Did I fail myself? Did I have the potential for more? And what does ‘more’ even mean, when I derive such immense satisfaction (and an award!) from bookselling?  

It’s hard, sometimes, not to feel a degree of intellectual inadequacy around old classmates during sporadic catch-ups. The lizard part of my brain attaches intelligence to identity, which is itself connected to one’s vocation, and the size of their paycheck. This thinking is flawed, but it pervades. It’s also loathsomely entitled.  And besides, whose “omnipresent ledger of legitimacy” am I comparing myself to?

So — it’s fair to say “Who Gets To Be Smart” got me thinking. 

I’m a huge admirer of Bri Lee’s writing, and her activism. I find her work thought-provoking and confronting. She forces me to examine the world around me, and my place in it. It’s often discomforting. 

In “Who Gets To Be Smart” Lee eloquently examines the inequities and systemic deficiencies ingrained in Western education systems, and meditates on the different ways to be smart. She scrutinizes concepts I was previously unfamiliar with, including kyriarchy, and concludes that ‘our most moneyed and powerful educational institutions — from primary through to tertiary — can only maintain their power by practising exclusion and discrimination.’

I imagine some scholars might desire an even deeper excavation of privilege, knowledge and power. But I appreciated the book’s accessibility and its relative brevity. Lee refers to a smorgasbord of existing sources and research, but things never get too textbook. In fact, it resonates because of its incisiveness; it’s a clear-eyed assessment of how things are, which will prompt further discussion, and hopefully — eventually — change.

ISBN: 9781760879808
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 304
Published: 1st June 2021
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Review: Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This is a story about family and celebrity, and how life can assign people roles they can’t realise, or that they can realise only by sacrificing their personal desires and aspirations. 

Set primarily on a hot summer’s night in Malibu, 1983, at Nina Riva’s annual end-of-summer party, “Malibu Rising” explores the tumultuous lives of the elder Riva child and her siblings: pro surfer Jay; surfer photographer Hud; and the youngest, Kit, who hopes to follow Jay’s path. 

Their father is Mick Riva, a famous singer, who fell in love with June in the 1950s, but could never attune himself to the life of a family man. He was lured away, time and time again, returning incrementally, until he disappeared for good. June was a good mother, but unable to cope with the heartbreak, and the cold, hard reality of her life. She turned to alcohol to dull the pain, and it ended up taking everything. 

After her death, Nina assumed the role of single parent and sole breadwinner. She became a surf model, selling her body to ensure the future of her family, loathing every moment of it. On the night of the party in 1983, her own relationship is breaking down, and the bonds between the siblings will be tested like never before; secrets are exposed, and long-bubbling resentments rise to the surface. 

Events transpire against Taylor Jenkins Reid’s foreshadowing of doom from her opening lines — ‘Malibu catches fire. It is simply what Malibu does from time to time.’ — and her handling of multiple characters and timelines is seamless. She is a consummate storyteller. 

Yes, the story machinery grinding its gears beneath the melodrama and celebrity guest stars is fairly ancient and conventional, but “Malibu Rising” is ultimately a classic family saga expounded pitch-perfectly and compulsively. The pleasures derived aren’t transcendental, but they’re genuine. And the novel does so much well for so long, it’s pat conclusion is entirely forgivable.

You know what: the Riva’s deserve it. 

ISBN: 9781786331533
Format: Paperback
Pages: 384
Published: 1st June 2021

Review: The Deep by Kyle Perry

Rating: 4 out of 5.

All of its bells and whistles aside, Kyle Perry’s “The Deep” reads to me like an exploration of the sliding scale or morality among his large gallery of characters, all of whom are bound by blood as members of the nefarious Dempsey family crime syndicate. 

His second novel, set in Shacktown on the Tasman Peninsula, is a battle between good and evil, you could say. Except that everyone in it is evil, at least to a degree, or has the capacity for it; but some are less evil than others, or are fighting against it; and most have their good sides. 

Its characters are knotted into a coiled mess of secrets, lies and revelations. 

The Dempsey family have run a drug ring for generations, using the fishing industry and the notorious Black Wind as cover. When thirteen-year-old Forest Dempsey — presumed dead for almost a decade — walks out of the ocean, bruised, battered, and branded, his return forcibly unites fractured members of the family; including Mackerel, desperately trying to keep out of trouble before his next court date; and his cousin Ahab, who renounced the underworld long ago. 

As they endeavour to understand what happened to Forest, the infamous drug Kingpin Blackbeard starts moving in on Shacktown, and their drug empire, compelling everyone with Dempsey blood coursing through their veins to confront their personal and familial ethos.   

“The Deep” is a mashup of Jane Harper and Matthew Reilly’s narrative sensibilities. Its location and landscape are fundamental to its being. But whereas Harper prefers a twisty slow burner, Perry chooses to flick on the afterburners, his sights set on crafting a rollicking thriller bursting with pages that grip and propel; those underwater scenes in particular. If Reilly wrote a small town mystery, it would be paced like this. The result is slightly undisciplined, but incredibly entertaining; like a whole season of television drama crammed breathlessly into 500 pages.

Published: 20 July 2021
ISBN: 9781760895716
Imprint: Michael Joseph
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 464
RRP: $32.99

Review: Follow Her Home by Steph Cha

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Steph Cha’s “Your House Will Pay” [2020] was an incredibly ambitious crime novel that confronted the legacy of the 1992 Los Angeles riots as it probed the residual pain, rage and grief felt by two families almost 30 years after a young black girl was shot to death by a Korean woman, who mistakenly believed the girl was stealing from her convenience store.

“Follow Her Home” is Cha’s first novel. Its scope is vastly different. It is a more contained, personal story, that still manages to bring LA to life through the eyes of Juniper Song: a twenty-something, Raymond Chandler-obsessed, Korean-American, who finds herself entangled in the kind of knotted caper Philip Marlowe would’ve struggled to untangle.

It starts with a simple favour. 

Luke Cook, Juniper’s longtime friend since high school, is convinced his father is sleeping with a young Korean girl who works for his law firm. Luke wants Juniper to find out for sure. Which is a weird request, sure; but it gives her a chance to play out her Marlowe sleuthing fantasy. Even though last time she dug into a similar affair involving her young sister’s seduction by her teacher, it resulted in Iris’s suicide. 

The night ends with Juniper being clubbed unconscious, and awakening to find a corpse in the trunk of her car. From there, the case unsnarls into a dangerous web of unscrupulous characters, murder and betrayal; everything you’d expect from a private eye novel, but prismed through the perspective of an atypical gumshoe. 

I could’ve done without the overt Chandler worshipping, which reaches saturation point by the halfway mark. The opening homage, and a couple lines here and there, would’ve been enough for me to get the gist: Marlowe is Juniper’s inspiration; she found solace in Chandler’s novels during a tumultuous period in her life. I get it. But this unsubtlety aside, “Follow Her Home” is brilliantly compelling and deeply atmospheric — a wonderful blend of classic hardboiled tropes married to contemporary ideals. Next, please.  

ISBN: 9780571360444
Publisher: Faber
Imprint: Faber Fiction
Pub Date:February 2021
Page Extent:288

Review: A Man Named Doll by Jonathan Ames

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’m a fan of a style of crime novel that was dead, or dying, before I was born. 

Hardboiled detective fiction, exemplified by Chander, Hammett and Spillane has been replaced in popularity by psychological thrillers, unreliable narrators, and small towns with dark secrets. Lehane and Pelecanos are two modern ambassadors for the form, but with their attentions seemingly turned wholeheartedly to TV, I’m desperate for someone to carry the torch. 

Enter: Jonathan Ames.

I adored Ames’s snack-size, violent masterpiece “You Were Never Really Here.” Its simple conceit belied its stylish execution, a John Wick-esque sledgehammer to the face kind of thriller. Not for everyone, but definitely for me.  

“A Man Named Doll” is an easier book to recommend, because reduced to its finest form, it’s a straightforward mystery told through the eyes of Happy Doll, a dysfunctional ex-LAPD cop who works security at Thai Miracle Spa in a strip mall just off the Hollywood Freeway. The novel opens with a pal, Lou Shelton, asking Doll for a favour — a big one. Doll’s kidney, specifically; his are failing, and he’s running out of time. By the end of the day, Lou is dead, Doll has killed a man, and the police want him for questioning.

Doll is a mostly archetypal gumshoe transposed to present-day LA. He blunders his way into trouble (and out of it, though not without suffering). Grit and gumption are in short supply; Doll’s ineptitude is mugged shamelessly for laughs. My tastes skew more deadpan, but I can see Robert Downey Jr. starring in an adaptation, and I imagine much of the comedy will translate better to the screen.

This is a superb series opener. If the names Marlowe, Hammer, Spade, Archer and Scudder fill you with warm nostalgia, “A Man Named Doll” is for you. It’s not hardboiled detective fiction masquerading as anything. It owns what it is, wholeheartedly and delightfully. 

ISBN: 9781782276999
ISBN-10: 1782276998
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 224
Published: 29th April 2021
Publisher: Faber Factory

Review: Bullet Train by Kotaro Isaka

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Kotaro Isaka’s “Bullet Train” gathers together an eclectic mix of underworld assassins on board the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Morioka, their fates entwined by the powerful crime lord Minegishi, for reasons that come to light during their 240–320 km/h journey.

The action flits persistently between the perspectives of the various contract killers on board. I won’t mention them all, because every page offers a potential landmine revelation, but here’s a taster:

There’s Nanao, the unluckiest assassin in the world, who is there to steal a suitcase full of cash. There are the two fruits — the calm, scholarly Tangerine, and his Thomas the Tank Engine-obsessed partner, Lemon — who are tasked with safeguarding both Minegishi’s son, and the suitcase. Kimura is in a nearby carriage, an ex-alcoholic (and ex-assassin) and single parent who wants revenge on the teenager who pushed his boy off a rooftop. But ‘The Prince’ isn’t going to go down without a fight. His outwardly youthful innocence masks his wicked cunning. The kid is actually the most psychopathic of the lot. 

In less assured hands the reader might not be able to see the forest through the trees, but Isaka (via his translator Sam Malissa) is remarkably adept at letting each character have a moment to make a lasting impression. And while it would be an exaggeration to suggest we form any sort of emotional connection with the cast — they are most assuredly bad people — they’re delineated beyond what you might expect, thanks to regular flashbacks and philosophical asides; not to mention countless scenes involving a character holding a gun to the head of another and gabbing.

“Bullet Train” is coated with a thick sheen of surreality, its most serious moments perforated with a whimsy that never quite turns into laugh-out-loud, but renders the violence more cartoonish than gratuitous. It’s ripe for film adaptation, a kind of “Murder on the Orient Express” directed by Tarantino.

Published: 16 March 2021
ISBN: 9781787302594
Imprint: Harvill Secker
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 432
RRP: $32.99