Review: Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

9780857525017Piercingly effective and genuinely terrifying, Gin Phillips’ Fierce Kingdom is that rarest of thriller: one in which the emotional stakes are just as extreme as the physical threat faced by its characters.

Joan and her four-year-old son, Lincoln, are playing in the Dinosaur Discovery Pit at the zoo when the crack of gunshots echo. Puzzled by the noise, but not immediately anxious by it, mother and son make their way towards the exit… which is where they discover the bodies on the ground.

And a gunman.

Very soon, more than one.

Joan and Lincoln flee into the heart of the zoo, desperate for a place to hide, to see out the violence undiscovered. But how does a mother explain such savagery to a four-year-old boy? How will she cope with the fluctuating emotions and questions of a child faced with an extreme scenario? And what are the heartbreaking decisions and sacrifices she must make to keep her child safe?

Fierce Kingdom is a relentless page-turner that relies more heavily on psychological drama than it does high-impact violence. Brilliantly paced to maximise tension and its emotional impact, this is compulsively readable but incredibly chilling, with more than a few heart-in-mouth moments. Dripping with moral ambiguity, until Phillips’ novel, if you’d told me I’d be enraptured by a tale of a mother deliberating her maternal instincts, I might not have believed you: but this macabre tale proves horribly fascinating.

It’s a book that begs for discussion; that demands readers ask themselves, What would you do? Because faced with certain death, there is no right or wrong. There is just survival. And, ultimately, living with the consequences.

ISBN: 9780857525017
ISBN-10: 0857525018
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x 20mm)
Pages: 288
Imprint: Doubleday
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
Publish Date: 15-Jun-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Call For the Dead by John le Carré

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Call For the Dead, published in 1961, was both John le Carré’s first novel, and the world’s introduction to the inimitable George Smiley, who returns later this year in A Legacy of Spies. Paced with  le Carré’s trademark assuredness, it’s less an espionage novel and more of a murder mystery, whose main players happen to work for British Intelligence, with a plot that revolves around East German spies inside Great Britain.

Samuel Fennan, a Foreign Office civil servant, apparently commits suicide after a routine security check by Circus agent George Smiley. Certain erroneous details, however, identified by Smiley’s keen eye, bring Fennan’s fate into question. With  Inspector Mendel in tow, Smiley unravels a clandestine spy ring, the members of which will stop at nothing to keep their secrets safe.

Call For the Dead is perhaps John le Carré’s simplest story in terms of scope, but it still manages to highlight the inherent complexities of the life of a spy. Smiley is one of the unlikeliest heroes in espionage fiction, described here as a somewhat short and fat man, but it’s his tenacity and intelligence that shines through, as always. It’s no wonder le Carré decided to continue relaying the man’s adventures to his burgeoning readership. Having said that, the novel hasn’t aged especially well, and modern audiences might struggle with this one. Most readers will accept the now-outdated technology of the time, of course; that’s not the issue. It’s the structure of the book itself — an opening chapter, for example, that is nothing more than a history of George Smiley (it’s actually titled A Brief History of George Smiley!) — that occasionally grinds and clunks. Also, Call For the Dead ends with a summation of the core plot points, penned by Smiley, which is quaint, but something contemporary writers wouldn’t get away with so plainly. Le Carré’s thrillers are now celebrated for their nuance, and in that regard, Call For the Dead definitely has a “first book” vibe.

Nonetheless, re-reading Call For the Dead was a worthy exercise, reminding me of how much more elaborate and nuanced Le Carré’s novels later became. It will be interesting comparing this with A Legacy of Spies, surely the final Smiley thriller, and charting the immeasurable advancements of the world’s greatest writer of espionage fiction.

ISBN: 9780141198286
Format: Paperback
Pages: 160
Imprint: Penguin Classics
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 1-Nov-2011
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Golden Prey by John Sandford

Golden PreyGolden Prey is the 27th novel starring Lucas Davenport, and while it’s not a standout entry in John Sandford’s long-running series, it is a well-spun, fast, proficient thriller. Its pleasures are primitive, but they’re genuine. Sandford remains the king of the page-turner.

The key to a long-lasting, relevant series is both tonal consistency and a willingness to subvert continuity. After umpteen novels as an investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Golden Prey sees Davenport donning his U.S. Marshals Service badge for the first time. Whereas previously his turf was isolated to Minnesota, Davenport now has carte blanche to pick his cases, and hunt killers anywhere across the country. His first target: the notorious gun-slinging thief Garvin Poole, whose last job — a ballsy assault on a drug-cartel counting house — left behind five bodies, including that of a six-year-old girl.

Davenport’s hunt for the killer is complicated by a pair of brazen, sadistic torturers also on the lookout for Poole. Hired by the cartel to both retrieve the money and send a message to other would-be thieves, the “Queen of home-improvement tools” is a particularly awful type of murderer, who derives genuine pleasure from her activities. And while her partner isn’t quite as vicious, make no mistake: he’s a stone-cold killer. Also making Davenport’s life more difficult is the internal bureaucratic resentment that has festered since his appointment as a U.S. Marshal. At the BCA, Lucas was top dog. As a U.S. Marshal, he needs to prove himself to his colleagues. Poole — a longtime target of the Marshals — would be a serious feather in his cap, and a step in the right direction.

Golden Prey is essentially a cat-and-mouse game, in which the roles of hunter and prey are continually reversed. It’s fast-moving, slick, and not overly deep; the kind of book you’ll rip through in a night or two. A conventional thriller elevated by Sandford’s masterly juggling of characters and subplots.

ISBN: 9780399184574
Format: Hardback (231mm x 150mm x 41mm)
Imprint: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Publish Date: 25-Apr-2017
Country of Publication: United States

Review: UNSUB by Meg Gardiner

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Darkly and extravagantly imagined, full of pulse-pounding action and brutally emotional highs and lows, UNSUB is a tremendous work of suspense fiction. The nerve-shredding never lets up for a minute as Edgar Award-winner Meg Gardiner picks you up by the scruff of the neck and shakes you vigorously, over and over again, until finally shoving you to the ground, standing over you, and with a smile, asks if you’re ready to go again, with a sequel clearly already in the works. Canny plotting, tight prose, swift tempo; the only thing readers will be left wanting is more.

Two decades after a five-year murder spree that cost 11 lives and the sanity of Alameda County Sheriff’s Department Detective Mack Hendrix, the serial killer dubbed the Prophet resurfaces. Mack’s daughter, Caitlin — a freshly-appointed Narcotics detective — is assigned to Homicide to work the case, her superiors hoping she can utilise her father’s exhaustive knowledge of the killer to facilitate a quick resolution. But the Prophet is shrewder, bolder, and far more savage than ever, leaving taunting notes addressed to the wider public, and later to Caitlin herself. It’s clear he wants an audience as he builds to his psychotic, bloody crescendo, in a case that becomes significantly more personal for Caitlin.

Gardiner piles on the plot twists, false leads, violent set pieces and climactic surprises in a novel that at times strays into implausible territory as the Prophet’s schemes become increasingly grandiose, but with its breakneck pace and plethora of memorable homicides, readers won’t have a chance to second-guess its extravagances, and in fact, will appreciate its pedal-to-the-medal summer blockbuster style. Gardiner has a gift for sustaining momentum that never lets up, constantly upping the ante, topping off proceedings with a genuinely heart-stopping climax.

Agonisingly suspenseful, served up with pulpy panache and a hero to root for, UNSUB stands as the best thriller of the year, securely positioned as the book to beat.

ISBN: 9781101985526
Format: Hardback (229mm x 152mm x 25mm)
Imprint: Dutton Books
Publisher: Dutton Books
Publish Date: 27-Jun-2017
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Fifty Fifty by James Patterson and Candice Fox

9780143783107.jpgCrimson Lake — published earlier this year — remains one of the best crime novels of 2017. It boasted — (well, still does, even if you’re reading this in 2021, so why am I using past tense?) — Candice Fox’s signature style, edge and humour that made her one of my Must-Read Authors, surpassing the brilliant Bennett / Archer trilogy. And though I was disappointed with her inaugural collaboration with James Patterson in 2016’s Never Never — it read like a diluted pastiche — I remained hopeful its follow-up, Fifty Fifty would be less Patterson-like, and more Fox-y. And I’m delighted to report: it’s a huge step up. Nowhere near the genius of Crimson Lake, but a solid page-turner, with a climax that promises another sequel, with greater stakes.

Never in doubt was Harriet Blue’s potential as a great lead for a long-running series.  Tough-as-nails, a more than capable brawler, with a never-say-die attitude and a thirst for justice. Damaged, too, as the best protagonists are; emotionally warped from a youth spent drifting between various Child Services homes, sometimes with her brother, sometimes not; her mother a drunken, broken, ethereal presence. Trouble is, in both Never Never and Fifty Fifty, she’s never really given the chance to assure readers of her investigatory prowess. Both novels suffer from a nasty knack of shunting Blue into precarious situations, solving cases not through smarts, but because of happenstance; bumbling into danger, or becoming the target of the overarching villain. This builds suspense, sure; nerve-shredding moments when her life — or someone else’s — is on the line; but makes me question her actual, y’know, detective skills.

In Fifty Fifty, the detecting is left to Sydney Detectives Tox Barnes and Edwardnever-never.jpg Whittacker, who — following Harriet’s reassignment — are determined to uncover the true identity of the Georges River Killer. Harriet’s brother, Sam stands accused of the brutal murders of three young students, but she is adamant he’s not the killer, despite both siblings sharing a penchant for aggressive outbursts. Harriet would be there with them, on the frontlines, but one such act of aggression — punching Sam’s prosecutor in the face — has forced her out of the spotlight, to the outback town of Last Chance Valley, to investigate an unknown suspect’s plan to massacre the entire town, alongside Federal Agent Elliot Kash and local cop Victoria Snale.

These parallel investigations are suitably intriguing, Patterson and Fox handling dual cases with professional dexterity. The result isn’t exactly memorable, but with its short, sharp chapters and rapid-fire plotting, readers will race to the cliff-hanger conclusion. You’ll see hints of Fox’s trademark strengths, paled by the Patterson effect; characters who deserve fleshing out reduced to caricatures for the sake of expediency; my eyes nearly rolled out of their sockets when Kash and Harriet wrestle — actually wrestle! — for control of the investigation. But James Patterson’s fans are legion, and Fifty Fifty is certain to sate readers of a particular brand of storytelling.

ISBN: 9780143783107
Format: Paperback
Pages: 416
Imprint: Century Australia
Publisher: Random House Australia
Publish Date: 31-Jul-2017
Country of Publication: Australia

 

Review: Heather, The Totality by Matthew Weiner

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A spare, propulsive, ever-intensifying noir novella by the creator of Mad Men.

With Heather, The Totality, Matthew Weiner has written a superior, haunting thriller about obsession and parental love, laced with moral ambiguity, with a sobering ending that lands like a gut-punch.

Almost entirely void of dialogue, Weiner’s sparse expository style works thanks to razor-sharp sentences and characterisations. We’re introduced to Mark and Karen — set up by mutual friends — who marry and quickly find themselves expecting a baby, Heather, who — when she enters their lives — becomes the centre of their universe. It would seem the perfect life, the Breakstone’s the idyllic family living in an apartment building west of Park Avenue, with barely a hint of menace in the text. That is, until Weiner introduces Robert ‘Bobby’ Klasky, born into poverty and violence ten years after Mark and Karen’s first date, whose emotional corruption results in a spree of crimes that escalate in seriousness as he gets older. From then on, the reader knows: at some point Klasky and the Breakstone will cross paths, and the repercussions will be catastrophic. But events don’t necessarily play out as you’ll expect.

Heather, The Totality is a superb read-in-one-session book that exposes the harsh realities of love, and obsession’s inescapable links to violence.

ISBN: 9781786890634
Format: Hardback  (214mm x 135mm x mm)
Pages: 144
Imprint: Canongate Books Ltd
Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd
Publish Date: 7-Nov-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

9781408854877In Katherine Rundell’s gem of a book, The Explorer, a crash-landing in the Amazon leaves four children stranded deep in the jungle, who must find within themselves the strength, courage, perseverance, and wisdom to survive.

Rundell immediately thrusts readers into the action. The opening chapter details the plane’s mid-flight stutter as it travels from England to Manaus; the sudden shift from normalcy to desperation as the plane plunges into the fauna below. Before readers can catch their breath, we’re introduced to your young survivors — Fred, a white English boy, Constantia, an English girl, and biracial Brazilian siblings Lila and 5-year-old Max — and their plight for survival. At first uneasy allies, they surge through their fear and their discomfort, searching for shelter and foraging for food, scraping by as best they can on their wits alone; until Fred stumbles across an old map, and they decide to follow it to the X. Boarding their handmade raft,  the children make the precarious journey down the river, until they rediscover a lost city, and among its ruins, a mysterious man they refer to only as ‘the Explorer,’ who has the knowledge, and the tools, to see them home safely. Which he will do, right? He’s the adult amongst children, thereby the leader, thereby responsible for their wellbeing. But something from the Explorer’s past has hardened him; and he might not be the saving angel the kids hoped he would be.

The Explorer is a spirited, timeless tale of  self-discovery masquerading as a rip-roaring adventure story. Young readers will delight in Rundell’s ability to bring to life the sounds and smells (and the dangers!) of the Amazon, and will be white-knuckled during the pulse-pounding moments of near-death that punctuate the narrative. But its the underlying message — that these kids, that all children — are stronger, braver, and more resilient than they give themselves credit for — that elevates the book above other titles on the shelves. It’s easy — well, relatively so — for an author to craft an action-packed story of survival; it’s far more difficult to write one with as much heart as Rundell’s story. The Explorer pulsates with emotional turmoil, adventure, and suspense.

ISBN: 9781408854877
Format: Hardback (198mm x 129mm x mm)
Pages: 416
Imprint: Bloomsbury Childrens
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
Publish Date: 10-Aug-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom