Review: Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates

JCO Carthage.jpgIt was only a matter of time before I read Joyce Carol Oates. Statistically the chances were always high; she’s one of the most prolific authors writing today. But when I started working beside a JCO aficionado, the odds improved dramatically. And so, here we are, one JCO book down, only, like, another hundred to go. Game on.

Carthage is my first for no other reason than I spotted it second hand, I had the five bucks in my pocket, and the words from the Financial Times review emblazoned on its cover were encouraging. “A suspense-filled thriller,” it reads; and you know me, I live for suspense, and I love a good thriller. Paid for, walking out, book in hand, I turned it over. The Guardian‘s review slapped the FT’s down: “Not just the suspense thriller it had seemed at first sight,” it reads. Imagine a dramatic piano key change as my thoughts screamed, “Oh no, but I live for suspense, and I love a good thriller! What have I done?!”

What I’d done, it turns out, was select a gem of novel that harbours the foundations of a straightforward missing persons mystery, but rather than focus on the mechanics of the investigation — in fact, it’s barely touched upon — it thrusts the members of the missing teenager’s family, and the Iraq veteran accused of her murder, into the spotlight, exposing their lives before, during and after the disappearance, the narrative twisting through time like the double helix of a DNA strand.

Carthage tackles some very heavy themes; the horror of war and its long-lasting impact; the legitimacy of incarceration and the morality of the death penalty, and life on death row. It explores grief, faith, the audacity of hope. It is a grand novel about family anguish. It is unflinching, tender and heartbreaking, and Oates’ prose reads like a dream. At long last, I am on the JCO bandwagon, desperate to read more, and decide where Carthage sits amongst her substantial body of work.

ISBN: 9780007485758 
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 400
Imprint: Fourth Estate Ltd
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publish Date: 20-Oct-2014
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Where the Dead Go by Sarah Bailey

9781760529321 (1).jpgIn DS Gemma Woodstock, Sarah Bailey has created a character as complex as the cases she investigates. Often crime writers can either concoct labyrinthine plots or develop believable characters. Bailey stands out because she does both masterfully, and demonstrates a veteran writer’s temerity to mine her protagonist with devastating psychological acuity. Where The Dead Go is the kind of mystery that has you reading the top of a page afraid of what you’ll read at the bottom; a heart-stopping plot twist, or a heart-rending emotional punch.

Each of Bailey’s  mysteries have been different in scope and texture, but equally spellbinding. Into The Night transferred Gemma Woodstock from the small town of Smithson (where The Dark Lake was set) to Melbourne; Where The Dead Go thrusts her into the coastal town of Fairhaven. A few years have passed since we last saw Gemma, and Bailey unpacks this backstory adroitly, highlighting a particularly unpleasant case, and a personal tragedy that has changed the entire trajectory of her life. She is not in the right frame of mind to be working a murder / missing persons case — heck, it’s not even her jurisdiction — but when offered the opportunity to lead an investigation and take her mind off her troubles, Gemma jumps at the chance.

A fifteen-year-old girl has gone missing after a party in the middle of the night, and the following morning her boyfriend is discovered brutally murdered in his home. The question immediately driving the investigation is whether the girl was responsible for the murder, or is she also a victim of the killer? Bailey weaves a web of suspicion around many characters before revealing the killer in the nerve-shredding climax, which raises the stakes to unprecedented levels. You’ll read the final fifty pages in a breathless, white-knuckled rush.

There are now few events more welcome in the world of crime writing than the appearance of another Sarah Bailey book. Where The Dead Go is the best entry in a stellar trilogy. Lets hope there’s more to come.

ISBN: 9781760529321
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 464
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Publish Date: 5-Aug-2019
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: It Sounded Better In My Head by Nina Kenwood

9781925773910Bursting with humour and heart, It Sounded Better In My Head should be required reading for for anyone who has ever felt even slightly uncomfortable in his or her skin. Set during that tempestuous period between high school and what comes next, Nina Kenwood’s Text Prize-winning debut is a poignant, realistic tale about the complexity, joy and weight of first love, and the unbreakable bonds of friendship. It reminded me of what it’s like to be young and in love, and the absolute joy of falling in love with a book.

When her parents announce their impending divorce — decided upon months ago, but revealed now, when it’s too late to do anything to change their minds — Natalie finds herself infuriated at the sheer calmness of the situation. Nobody is fighting; no one seems even mildly upset. Fine; these things happen. So her family life is a little rocky. At least she’s got the solid foundation of her two best friends, Zach and Lucy, right? Wrong. They’ve hooked up, which makes Natalie feel like an outsider, and just a little bit jealous; she always assumed a romance between herself and Zach was inevitable; they were just waiting for right moment. Now that future has been ripped from beneath her feet. Everything has changed, nothing makes sense. And then comes an unexpected romance…

It Sounded Better In My Head is a wonderful novel about love, friendship, and the anticipation of life beyond the walls of high school. It’s honest, joyous and unsentimental. Nina Kenwood has crafted a novel that will fill your heart to bursting.

ISBN: 9781925773910
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 288
Imprint: The Text Publishing Company
Publisher: Text Publishing Co
Publish Date: 6-Aug-2019
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Save Me From Dangerous Men by S.A. Lelchuk

save-me-from-dangerous-men-9781471183133_lgWith Save Me From Dangerous Men, S.A. Lelchuk puts the rest of the crime-writing world on notice. Packed with plenty of page-turning propulsion, with a swashbuckling, kick-ass heroine destined to be franchised, this series opener piles on the plot twists, false leads, and brutally-choreographed violent encounters. You’ll want to jump on the Nikki Griffin train before it leaves the station.

Nikki owns a small bookshop in Berkley called The Brimstone Magpie. She’s also a private investigator, who handles all the routine cases one would expect — but has developed a reputation for her pro bono work: she is the person to see if you’re a woman being abused. Her solution isn’t as lethal as you might be thinking; no body bag required, at least not during the first visit rather, Nikki believes in “equal justice,” dispensing the same amount of pain on abusers as they inflicted on their victims, demanding they change their ways, or else. Her vigilantism can be traced back to the horrific childhood tragedy that led her beloved younger brother into a life of addiction, which we learn more about throughout the story, when Lelchuk eases off the gas on the ‘A’ plot.

Speaking of the ‘A’ plot: when Nikki is approached by Gregg Gunn CEO of Care4, a child care tech company and is offered $20,000 to follow an employee named Karen Li to determine whether she is selling company secrets, Nikki accepts. But Nikki has read enough crime fiction to know nothing’s ever as simple as it seems; and she quickly discovers Li’s wrapped up in something far more dangerous and deadly than corporate espionage. And Nikki is trapped in this nest of vipers with her.

There’s a lot to like about Save Me From Dangerous Men. It’s pacey and action-packed, littered with bookish references (of which only a few are a little too on-the-nose), and exposes readers to a colourful cast they’ll want to meet again. At times it suffers from the ailments of most series openers, grinding the narrative to a halt in order to reveal more about the protagonist’s origin. It’s not that the genesis of Nikki’s vigilantism is uninspired or uninteresting;it just pulls attention away from the cracking core investigation. But now that’s out of the way for future instalments, I’m delighted to have encountered another private eye I’m ready to follow to hell and back. In a crowded genre, S.A. Lelchuk and his creation, Nikki Griffin, are standouts.

ISBN: 9781471183140
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 336
Imprint: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publish Date: 19-Mar-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Artist’s Portrait by Julie Keys

9780733640940In her virtuosic debut novel, Julie Keys masterfully renders the lives of two women — one (purportedly) Muriel Kemp, an infamous artist from Sydney in the 1920s, now in her eighties, living out her twilight years in isolation, prone to severe irascibility; the other, Jane Cooper, a young nurse and aspiring writer — whose unlikely friendship is tested by the potential falsehood of Muriel’s claims, not least of which is the fact that according to official history, and the foundation dedicated to (and named) in her honour, Muriel Kemp died in 1936. 

The true brilliance of The Artist’s Portrait is its architecture. Readers follow two narrative threads: one from the perspective of a young Muriel Kemp as she clashes with the conservatism of the 1920s Australian art world, and the disgusting trivialisation and outright dismissal of women artists; while the second thread transplants us 70 years into the future, 1992, when a chance encounter with her neighbour leads to Jane Cooper taking on the role of Muriel’s biographer, and attempting to make sense of the tapes Muriel has recorded for her, which don’t match up with established facts.

What’s undeniable, Jane quickly comes to realise, is that Muriel’s history is complicated and tempestuous, littered with mystery, murder and disappearances. Unravelling the truth serves as a perfect distraction for Jane, as she deals with tensions and secrets within her own family, and faces up to her pregnancy; not just reality of caring for a child as a single mother, but the echo of Muriel’s words: “If you were serious about being a writer, you’d get rid of that baby.” Is Muriel’s adamancy of this point simply a reflection of her upbringing, and the abhorrent patriarchy she spent years confronting? Or is tied to something far more personal and heartbreaking?

Some novels are such good company that you don’t want them to end. The Artist’s Portrait is one such novel. Engrossing and compelling in equal measure; a tale about long-buried secrets and the revelations that change everything.

ISBN: 9780733640940
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Imprint: Hachette Australia
Publication Date: March 2019

Review: Recursion by Blake Crouch

Recursion.pngA wildly ambitious, fast-paced, high-octane science fiction thriller about the apocalyptic consequences of one woman’s quest to build a machine that allows people to relive memories. Buckle up, put the seat back, adjust the headrest — and hang on.

In 2018, NYPD Detective Barry Sutton fails to stop Ann Voss Peters from leaping to her death from the Poe Building. Ann was suffering from a rare but proliferating condition known as False Memory Syndrome, in which detailed false memories of other lives lived flare to life marriages, children, careers and clash with conscious reality, often resulting in mental degradation, or complete psychotic breakdown. When Barry decides to dig deeper into the condition, he stumbles upon the Hotel Memory, and a life-changing discovery. In 2007, a stupendously wealthy philanthropist named Marcus Slade offers neuroscientist Helena Smith unlimited funding to achieve her life’s goal, inspired by her mother’s Alzheimer’s, of allowing people to relive their memories. But Slade’s objective isn’t quite to benevolent — particularly when they learn the incredible potential of Helena’s machine.

Recursion is a nerve-shredding, genre-bender of the highest calibre. It builds from shock to shock, intensifying with each turn of the page. It’s part love story, part meditation on grief and its long-lasting resonance, and how memories shape us. And it t is never anything less than electrifying. With Recursion, Blake Crouch has produced one of the must-read thrillers of 2019.

ISBN: 9781509866663
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: 11/06/2019
Imprint: Macmillan
Pages: 336
Price: $29.

Review: The Taking of Annie Thorne (The Hiding Place) by C.J. Tudor

9781405930970.jpgWith The Chalk Man, C.J. Tudor has crafted a slick, razor-sharp novel of psychological suspense, which dangled the possibility of a supernatural influence on the events that transpired sparingly enough to keep the story rooted in reality. Her sophomore novel, The Taking of Annie Thorne, suffuses classic Stephen King horror with small town noir. It’s a creepy, propulsive crime novel that whisks readers into a nightmare realm; a tiny mining village called Arnhill, where children have demonstrated a tendency to disappear, then return, but different somehow, not quite themselves; dehumanised.

Published as The Hiding Place in the United States, Tudor’s second novel opens with two Arnhill cops navigating the scene of a horrific murder-suicide. A local, respected teacher has killed her boy, then herself, smearing “NOT MY SON” in blood on the wall. Which doesn’t stop Joseph Thorne — who called Arnhill home as a child — taking up residence in the cottage. Not that he can afford to be selective. Joe’s got the kind of gambling debt that could cripple a man — seriously, the loan shark he owes money to has a female enforcer who takes pleasure in dishing out pain — so the cheap rent works in his favour.

The catalyst for Joe’s return was a mysterious email that read,  “I know what happened to your sister. It’s happening again.” The “it” in question was the murder-suicide at his new abode. Years back, when Joseph was a teenager, his sister Annie vanished  while Joe and his pals explored a mineshaft that has always been the source of spine-tingling ghost stories. When Annie returned, she wasn’t the same. She looked identical to the sweet, doll-carrying girl who disappeared into the darkness; but there was toxicity coursing through her veins. The girl who returned was not the same, appearances be damned.

The Taking of Annie Thorne flits back and forth between events of the present day, and the traumatic circumstances of Annie’s disappearance and return. Joe is an interesting narrator; not particularly likable, extremely flawed, yet we root for him because what happened to his sister — this undefinable, unexplainable thing — has haunted Joe his whole life. It has followed him everywhere. It has damaged him, tormented him. We want to see it exorcised.

The plot thrums, the pace is frantic, and its climax is pitch-perfect and bloody. Tudor has embraced the “heir to Stephen King’ tag she established following the publication of The Chalk Man, and it’s earned. I feel like King would’ve marinated a little more on certain elements of this tale; controlled the pace, let the creepy vibe really settle into the readers’ bones. Delved a little more deeply into the townspeople; explored the intervening years, and perhaps extrapolated on the mysterious, dark force possessing Arnhill. The Taking of Annie Thorne is a helter-skelter, race-to-the-finish kind of horror novel, which makes it brilliantly readable — a one-sitting binge-read, if you’re so inclined — which distinguishes it from the grandmaster’s work.  Like its predecessor, The Taking of Annie Thorne is immensely enjoyable.

ISBN: 9780718187460
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 352
Imprint: Michael Joseph Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 21-Feb-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom