Review: Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby

Truncated to a logline, you might think “Razorblade Tears” is your standard revenge fantasy thriller about two bereaved fathers from a small town in Virginia who unite to hunt down the men who killed their sons. 

But this is no “Death Wish” retread about middle-age pacifists turned apex predators by the murder of their loved ones. The two fathers at the centre of S.A. Cosby’s second novel, Ike Randolph and Buddy Lee Jenkins, are morally complex and deeply flawed; ostensibly bad men whose lives have been pockmarked by violence and prison sentences. Their sons, happily married to each other, were shot execution-style outside an upmarket wine store on their anniversary, and the police aren’t anywhere close to solving it.

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Review: Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

“Apples Never Fall” exists somewhere in the borderlands between psychological thriller and family drama. Suffused with domestic unease, and punctuated with emotionally astute and deeply empathetic observations about motherhood, marriage, and siblings, it’s Liane Moriarty exploring familiar themes at breakneck pace.

Joy and Stan Delaney have been married for almost half a century, and after dedicating their best years to their world famous Sydney-based tennis academy, they’ve finally retired. 

They can’t quite figure out what comes next. 

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Review: The Devil’s Advocate by Steve Cavanagh

I love a thriller whose premise can be boiled down to one sentence. Steve Cavanagh is the master of it. That tantalising “what if?” hook.

In the case of “The Devil’s Advocate” — his sixth Eddie Flynn novel — it’s diabolically simple: what if the district attorney responsible for sending more men to their deaths than any other DA in the history of the United States had spent his career orchestrating murders, and manipulating evidence and juries, to guarantee guilty verdicts? 

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Review: I Shot the Devil by Ruth McIver

Ruth McIver’s “I Shot the Devil” is set up like a conventional crime novel, but it’s more complex and emotionally-charged than your average whodunit. 

Erin Sloan, a journalist too close to the story, revisits the notorious Southport Three murders from almost twenty years ago, when five teenagers walked into the West Cypress Woods, and only three came out. 

When the dust settled on the initial maelstrom of sensationalised media reportage and incompetent policework, the two deaths were deemed a consequence of a murderous satantic ritual orchestrated by Ricky Hell, who was shot and killed at the scene. 

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Review: Winterkill by Ragnar Jónasson

The sixth entry in Ragnar Jónasson’s “Dark Iceland” series is a gloriously unpretentious mystery. 

“Winterkill” presents police inspector Ari Thór with the crumpled body of a nineteen-year-old girl on the main street of Siglufjörður in the early hours of Easter Thursday. The circumstances around her death suggest suicide: a fatal fall from the balcony of an apartment whose occupier was away at a conference in Reykjavík. 

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Review: Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Like only she can, in “Beautiful World, Where Are You” Sally Rooney observes, with great exactitude, the birth, decay and resilience of relationships.  

Set against the milieu of Brexit and Trump, Rooney’s novel is, as ever, a subtle masterpiece of construction, alive in its nuances. Its protagonists are two Irishwomen in their late 20s, both involved in romantic entanglements, Alice and Eileen; the former is a famous novelist recovering from a recent psychiatric hospitalization; the latter a poorly paid editorial assistant at a literary magazine in Dublin.

They keep in touch primarily through long, expository emails that philosophise on the current social and political climate. Alice and Eileen are so brilliantly erudite, there’s never a hint of soapboxing; these protracted exchanges are at the core of their friendship. It’s what sustains their relationship. 

“Beautiful World” builds towards Alice and Eileen finally reuniting in person with their partners, exposing feelings coiled just beneath the surface. This culmination feels neither contrived or artificial. That’s Rooney’s gift. Books of this type typically present characters we desire to see together, and a lot of devices to keep them apart. The complexity of the relationships here are rooted in the mundane, as potentially ruinous as anything manufactured by plot.

ISBN: 9780571365432
ISBN-10: 0571365434
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 352
Available: 7th September 2021
Publisher: Faber

Review: Assembly by Natasha Brown

In Natasha Brown’s “Assembly” an unnamed black woman of Jamaican descent considers her life and her place in the world through a series of vignettes that provide an incisive and erudite exploration of race, misogyny, capitalism and British colonialism.

It is a book — well, novella, really — I admired more than I enjoyed.

In “The Guardian,” Sara Collins suggests Brown’s brevity requires readers ‘to supply the connective tissue necessary to turn [“Assembly”) into narrative.’ Which is fine, and totally admirable. But I had the same problem here that I have with Jenny Offill’s work. Which is, quite simply, that I derive so much enjoyment from authors actually providing that connective tissue. From the narrative; the story beats; the development of characters; the structure of a conventional story.  

Without it, without that connective tissue, to me — and I freely admit this is purely a personal bias, a consequence of my own storytelling sensibilities rather than any deficiencies of Brown, Offill or their brethren — such novels read more like loosely connected thoughts.

Brown’s searing snapshot of race in present-day Britain is essential reading. Her most devastating observations are the subtlest; the microaggressions faced every day that I can’t even begin to imagine. Somehow their understatedness here makes the narrator’s experiences sharper.

The themes explored are so important. I just wish Brown had elaborated further and made her narrator a memorable presence. But I guess that’s the point. Her experiences aren’t individual; they’re emblematic.

ISBN: 9780241540473
ISBN-10: 024154047X
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 112
Published: 1st June 2021
Publisher: Penguin UK

Review: Two For the Money by Max Allan Collins

Fiction generally gets more interesting when characters are given humanity and dimension. But that’s not always the case. Take Nolan for example; a character created by Max Allan Collins inspired by Richard Stark’s master thief Parker. 

Parker is taciturn, ruthless and ferociously single-minded. Stark’s long-running series focused on the mechanics of Parker’s heists. There was no real character development: these were plot-driven novels, and I adored them. Still do, in fact.  

Nolan shares a lot of Parker’s traits. He’s a hardened professional, but cracks of compassion show. I wouldn’t want to have a beer with Parker; heck, he wouldn’t sit down with me for one anyway. I get the feeling Nolan would. Which also makes him slightly less interesting. 

Nolan is nearly 50 and ready to call it a day. Heisting is a young man’s game. Trouble is, years ago Nolan made an enemy of the entire Chicago mafia, and if he wants an easy retirement, he’ll need to broker a truce. He agrees to the terms of a ceasefire: one last, epic heist, alongside a ragtag trio of thieves.

“Two For the Money” collects the first two Nolan novels published in 1973, “Bait Money” and “Blood Money,” the latter of which is a direct sequel dealing with the aftermath of Nolan’s last job, so their pairing works well. They are unabashed pulp fiction, the type of which isn’t really published today, when everything has to have a superficial layer of complexity — or what I call extraneous plot. Padding, in other words. 

Some of the writing is cringingly archaic: Collins’s description of women always begins (and sometimes ends) with her breasts. The tough-guy vernacular wears a little thin, the rejoinders crude. But just like Fleming’s 007 novels, I can look past these elements and enjoy these potboilers for their whip-fast plots. I understand not every reader will be as forgiving.

ISBN: 9780857683175
ISBN-10: 0857683179
Series: Hard Case Crime
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 384
Published: 29th March 2011

Review: Catch Us the Foxes by Nicola West

Nicola West’s “Catch Us the Foxes” builds up to a blinding revelation few readers will anticipate.

Now, I’m a sucker for a killer twist, but it’s got to be earned. The clues need to be planted and visible to the reader, just presented in a fashion that mystifies until they’re reshuffled and, suddenly — a-ha!

It’s not an easy thing to accomplish. The author must play with our perceptions while showing us everything in plain sight. Which is the problem I had here. This dramatic curveball isn’t orchestrated with sleight of hand, but through a rather crude retconning of events we’ve just witnessed.

This spoiled some of my experience with young journalist Marlowe ‘Lo’ Robertson and her investigation into the murder of her friend Lily Williams, and the strange symbols carved into her back. It’s not that the twist isn’t a good one conceptually; it’s the inelegance of its unveiling. And I think the novel would’ve been better without it. Read it for yourself and get back to me.

Excluding its prologue and epilogue, “Catch Us the Foxes” is presented as Lo’s true crime book “The Showgirl’s Secret.” This has no stylistic impact on proceedings; the whole thing reads like a regular thriller, which thankfully reads exceptionally well. “Foxes” is a fast-paced mystery populated with an eclectic cast of potential suspects, and hints at a larger mystery involving the entire population of Kiama. West writes short, sharp chapters that end on compelling cliffhangers, and enticed me to binge large chunks at a time. I always wanted to know what happened next, and see the mystery through to its climax.

I do believe “Catch Us the Foxes” would have benefited from the cold-hearted cutting of its biggest twist. But there’s little question West has immense talent, and a clear penchant for trickery. She reads like a fusion of James Patterson and Harlan Coben. I’m excited to follow her career from here.

ISBN: 9781760857479
ISBN-10: 1760857475
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 384
Available: 7th July 2021
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Australia

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