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.
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.
Number Of Pages: 336
Available: 28th July 2021
Publisher: Hachette Australia
If J.P. Pomare’s Call Me Evie was a slow-burner of a psychological thriller, thick with a constant undercurrent of menace, his follow-up, In the Clearing, is a pared-down firecracker, the danger clear and present, even if its exact shape remains opaque until its climax.
Chapters alternate between Amy and Freya, dual storylines building in intensity as the page count deepens. Amy is an adolescent fully indoctrinated in the ways of the Blackmarsh; a cult whose home is in remote bushland known as ‘the Clearing.’ She knows what’s expected of her, how to placate her elders, and make sure life in the community remains harmonious. Until a newcomer destabilises her beliefs, and Amy begins to wonder what life is like on the outside. Freya is a mother, who faces a daily struggle to seem normal; your everyday mother and neighbour, nobody worthy of a second glance. But it’s clear she’s struggling with traumas from her past, which threaten to completely undo her carefully constructed life; particularly when a young girl goes missing, and someone from her past arrives in town, tearing open old wounds.
Pomare’s prose purrs so smoothly, you’ll read In the Clearing in one sitting, barely comprehending you’ve been turning its pages. It stays true to the genre’s conventions, and if you’re like me, you may pick some of its bombshells: but each one lands so plausibly, and at such speed, with such gravitas, it’s impossible not to be swept away.
Available: 31st December 2019
In J.P. Pomare’s cleverly claustrophobic, impossible-to-put-down debut Call Me Evie, a 17-year-old girl stranded in rural New Zealand with a man named “Jim” wrestles with her hazy memory to recall the truth about a violent incident that occurred in Melbourne.
Jim assures Kate — who he calls “Evie” — he has brought her to the small, isolated beach town of Maketu to protect her from police interrogation and the public’s vitriol awaiting her back home, and to aid the restoration of her memory by asking probing questions about the incident that eviscerated the normality of her life. But there’s nothing magnanimous about Jim’s intentions, or his methods: Kate isn’t allowed to go online; her phone has confiscated; she’s locked in her room at night; and on the few occasions she ventures beyond the perimeter of the property, it’s clear Jim has corrupted the local population into viewing her as mentally unbalanced, a danger to herself and potentially others. All Kate wants to do is go home to align the fragments of her fractured recollections into a cohesive whole — but as her attempts to escape become more desperate, Jim becomes increasingly unhinged and unpredictable. There is little doubt from the start that their relationship is doomed; Pomare keeps readers guessing on just how everything will implode.
Call Me Evie is a slow-burner of a psychological thriller, thick with a constant undercurrent of menace, where nothing should be taken at face value, which ignites into a nail-biting finale. It’s got all the elements the genre demands — an unreliable narrator, a plot that cuts between past and present — and it twists and turns, then twists again. A page-turner for sure, but one that lingers.
Format: Paperback / softback
Imprint: Hachette Australia
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Publish Date: 27-Dec-2018
Country of Publication: Australia