My Favourite Books of 2021

Most years I split my “favourite” stacks into regular fiction and crime fiction, but this time round ― mainly because we just had a baby, and I’m typing this with one hand while my other comforts our daughter ―I decided to just grab the ten books that most entertained, moved me, or provoked the most thought, and highlight them together.

Everything below was published in 2021, but I read plenty this year, published previously, that deserve special mention, particularly “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters, “The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker, and “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon.

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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: 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: Into the Night by Sarah Bailey

Into the NightIs the dreaded ‘sophomore slump’ a genuine phenomenon for authors? I’ve often observed that to be the case, especially in my favourite genre — crime. Without delving into specific examples — I’m trying to eliminate unneeded negativity from my blogging life — it’s a very rare thing when a sequel betters the original. For long-running police procedural series, I’ve found the first book is often brilliant, the second and third kind of middling, and then — boom! The author hits their stride. Everything clicks.

But Melburnian crime writer Sarah Bailey has avoided the Second Novel Syndrome with Into the Night, the follow-up to last year’s fantastic The Dark Lake. She’s done this by being smart; doing what few writers have the courage to commit to so early on. She has totally changed things up. Eliminated the possibility of staleness by completely uprooting her protagonist, Detective Gemma Woodstock, and transferring her from the small town of Smithson to the hustle and bustle of Melbourne.

I started reading Into the Night thinking: Okay; what more of Smithson’s dark underbelly is there left for Woodstock to explore? And also, slightly nervously: I hope this series isn’t destined for Midsomer Murders territory. Because I was a huge fan of The Dark Lake; loved Bailey’s pitch-perfect balance of police procedural and deep-dive into Gemma’s personal life. I wanted more of the same, to a degree, but was wary as to how much more there was in these Smithon-based relationships to excavate. And also, there are only so many times you can mine the ‘this time it’s personal’ theme, which Bailey traversed with such panache in her debut.

The Dark Lake revolved around Gemma’s investigation into the murder of a former classmate, and insights into her past were smoothly incorporated to make the book a brilliant character piece, as well as a compulsive page-turner. Into the Night thrusts Woodstock into a far larger investigation. The personal element to the investigation is gone — she doesn’t know the victim this time — instead she is spurred on by a determination to prove herself in a much larger police department; both to her superiors, and herself, to justify her new life, away from her young son.

When a homeless man is found murdered in a Carlton park, Gemma makes it her personal mission to find his killer. But before she begin, she’s pulled off the case to work a violent and public murder: that of the lead actor in a blockbuster flick being filmed in the CBD. But when every suspect has a secret, how do you determine the murderer? Partnered with the abrasive Detective Sergeant Nick Fleet, Gemma enters a dangerous vortex that puts her career, and life, at terrible risk.

Everyone is this meticulously crafted novel might be playing — or being played —by everyone else. Bailey, elevating herself to the pantheon that houses Michael Robotham, Jane Harper and Candice Fox, demonstrates an exquisite touch with characterisation, plotting and page-turnability. This is crime writing at its absolute best.

ISBN: 9781760297480
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 420
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Publish Date: 23-May-2018
Country of Publication: Australia