Lying Beside You by Michael Robotham

If you’re after a gripping thriller, you can’t do better than Michael Robotham; as close to a sure thing as you get in the genre, which is a line I used last year when reflecting on “When You Are Mine,” but one that deserves repeating. He makes it look so easy, you wonder why all suspense novels aren’t this slick.

“Lying Beside You” is the third novel in his Cyrus Haven series, which sees the forensic psychologist embroiled in a complicated police investigation involving two missing women; the second of whom was last seen by Evie Cormac, the young woman Cyrus has opened his home to as she struggles to deal with her traumatic childhood.

Read more

Shit Cassandra Saw by Gwen E. Kirby

“Shit Cassandra Saw” is a treasure trove of short stories centred around women dealing with everyday grievances and aggressions precipitated by the perpetual behaviours of men. Gwen E. Kirby bequeaths her characters the superhuman fortitude — and even superhuman abilities, in the case of “A Few Normal Things that Happen a Lot” — to fight back in this collection that is ablaze with her wild ingenuity and suffused with genuine laugh-out-loud humour. 

Read more

Review: The Deep by Kyle Perry

Rating: 4 out of 5.

All of its bells and whistles aside, Kyle Perry’s “The Deep” reads to me like an exploration of the sliding scale or morality among his large gallery of characters, all of whom are bound by blood as members of the nefarious Dempsey family crime syndicate. 

His second novel, set in Shacktown on the Tasman Peninsula, is a battle between good and evil, you could say. Except that everyone in it is evil, at least to a degree, or has the capacity for it; but some are less evil than others, or are fighting against it; and most have their good sides. 

Its characters are knotted into a coiled mess of secrets, lies and revelations. 

The Dempsey family have run a drug ring for generations, using the fishing industry and the notorious Black Wind as cover. When thirteen-year-old Forest Dempsey — presumed dead for almost a decade — walks out of the ocean, bruised, battered, and branded, his return forcibly unites fractured members of the family; including Mackerel, desperately trying to keep out of trouble before his next court date; and his cousin Ahab, who renounced the underworld long ago. 

As they endeavour to understand what happened to Forest, the infamous drug Kingpin Blackbeard starts moving in on Shacktown, and their drug empire, compelling everyone with Dempsey blood coursing through their veins to confront their personal and familial ethos.   

“The Deep” is a mashup of Jane Harper and Matthew Reilly’s narrative sensibilities. Its location and landscape are fundamental to its being. But whereas Harper prefers a twisty slow burner, Perry chooses to flick on the afterburners, his sights set on crafting a rollicking thriller bursting with pages that grip and propel; those underwater scenes in particular. If Reilly wrote a small town mystery, it would be paced like this. The result is slightly undisciplined, but incredibly entertaining; like a whole season of television drama crammed breathlessly into 500 pages.

Published: 20 July 2021
ISBN: 9781760895716
Imprint: Michael Joseph
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 464
RRP: $32.99

The Decameron Project: 29 New Stories from the Pandemic by The New York Times Magazine

Inspired by Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” the editors of The New York Times Magazine assembled a conclave of twenty-nine authors for “The Decameron Project” — an anthology of short stories memorialising the COVID-19 pandemic.

But however ripe our present is for depressive, maudlin and despotic fiction, “The Decameron Project” features stories that explore the entire emotional spectrum, and sometimes touch on the virus abstrusely; the pandemic merely the spark for an idea on which these writers expand upon in tales kept to fewer than 10 pages, some grounded in reality, others dipping into the supernatural. It’s a stylistically eclectic collection, but the quality of the fiction is universally high, and their brevity means even those that don’t quite connect are worth persisting with.

My favourites include Victor LaValle’s “Recognition,” which stars a Black woman in a rapidly emptying apartment building, who connects with one of her neighbours; “Outside” by Etgar Keret hauntingly explores the first steps outside the confines of one’s home after 120 days of isolation; Dinaw Mengestu’s “How We Used to Play” examines the relationship between a nameless protagonist and their taxi driver uncle; Karen Russell’s “Line 19 Woodstock / Glisan” is centred around the driver of a bus and her passengers frozen in a moment in time; “The Perfect Travel Buddy” delves into the complicated relationship between a man, his wife, and his step-son during lockdown; and “Barcelona: Open” by John Wray spotlights Xaxi, who realises he can monetize strangers walking his dogs: a loophole in lockdown rules means people are allowed outside their homes to exercise their canine companions.

More than a mere snapshot of 2020, “The Decameron Project” is a wonderfully tantalising taster of fiction by authors I’ve never sampled, but who I’m determined to read more of.

Publisher: Scribner UK
Publication date: November 18, 2020
Length: 320 pages
ISBN13: 9781398502147

Review: Tell Me Lies by J.P. Pomare

J.P. Pomare’s “Tell Me Lies” is a spellbinding psychological thriller that was originally penned as an Audible Original. I can’t tell you whether its prose form has been edited or expanded upon in any way. What I can tell you is that it’s slick and twisty, constructed like a Michael Robotham novel on speed, but forsaking none of the psychological acuity.

I won’t go into plot details. The less you know, the more you’ll enjoy the ride: Pomare’s plot twists explode like percussion grenades. But its opening hook is genius. Psychologist Margot Scott — who lives a tranquil life with her husband and two kids, essentially the epitomised lifestyle of the Australian dream — approaches one of her clients on a busy Melbourne train platform. As the train approaches, she makes a fatal decision. She shoves her client onto the tracks. We then smash-cut to a month earlier, and learn what has led to that moment: the (almost) complete destruction of Margot’s personal and professional life.

“Tell Me Lies” uses the tricks of the thriller trade well, but why it really works is that it withholds essential information from the reader until Pomare is ready. What I admired most about the novel is how tightly constructed it is. It’s conventional in the sense that Pomare is not reinventing anything; but he’s polishing its requisite elements to a perfect sheen.

ISBN: 9781869718169
ISBN-10: 186971816X
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 272
Available: 29th December 2020

Review: Kill Your Darlings New Australian Fiction 2020 edited by Rebecca Starford

The teeming diversity of Australian writers is reflected in this anthology edited by Rebecca Starford, whose hand-picked cavalcade of short fiction demonstrates the pliability of the form and reflects the tumultuousness of our lives, albeit with the exemption of COVID-19, musings on which will have to wait until next year’s collection (although Mirandi Riwoe’s opener, “So Many Ways,” touches on its impact).

This is a collection of uncommonly high value. Personal highlights include Madeleine Watts’ “Floodwaters,” in which a woman witnesses the unravelling of a friend following a sexual assault accusation. Ka Rees explores the commodification of a nuclear disaster in “Among the Ruins,” as her protagonist Hetty surveys a nuclear wasteland for a role playing videogame she’s developing.

“The Fingerprint” by Donna Mazza might be my favourite; it’s creepy and subversive as it dives into the world of genetic experimentation and its entanglement with art. “I Go To Pieces” by Elizabeth Flux is a much quieter story, involving an unnamed narrator retracing an international holiday, from Rome to Barcelona, with the ashes of the friend she originally travelled with.

Jack Kirne’s “Holy Water” is unsettlingly compelling as two men do some work on the house of a troubled woman, who keeps bottled holy water in her fridge. And in “Long Road: Becoming” Mykaela Saunders spotlights a day in the life of a young man awaiting the visit of his parole officer. 

The stories here avoid narrative experimentation and excessive stylistic virtuosity. They are heavy in thematic depth, but written in plain, artful language. Nothing is exclusive or elitist. These are stories for everyone. And with these tidbits, I’ve opened my eyes to a whole host of new-to-me writers I want to read more of.

ISBN: 9780994483362
ISBN-10: 0994483368
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 224
Published: 1st September 2020
Publisher: Kill Your Darlings Pty Ltd
Country of Publication: AU
Dimensions (cm): 19.8 x 12.8

Review: The Museum of Desire by Jonathan Kellerman

9780525618522It’s been maybe 15 years since I last read one of Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware novels, of which  “The Museum of Desire” is the 34th. They were a staple of my adolescence, alongside James Patterson’s Alex Cross series. There was no discernible reason why I stopped. Some characters live with you forever — Harry Bosch, Jack Reacher, Joe Pickett, Matthew Scudder, etc — and others you leave behind.

A scintillating premise gives way to a slightly pedestrian procedural in “The Museum of Desire,” when LAPD Lieutenant Milo Sturgis ropes psychologist Alex Delaware into a case involving a bizarre massacre. In a stretch limousine parked outside an abandoned mansion in Bel Air are four corpses — strangers — each killed in a different manner, and posed grotesquely.

The novel is an endless cycle of interviews and interrogations, as Milo and Alex doggedly maze their way through lies, misremembrances and manipulations to get to the truth. It’s enhanced by sharp dialogue, distinct characters and taut exposition, but despite the depravity of the crime, its unravelling feels prosaic. Artfully placed red herrings and a gripping pace will keep you engrossed, and Kellerman’s gifts as a writer will have you quickly turning the pages, but when it’s over, it’s out of sight, out of mind.

ISBN: 9780525618522
Format: Hardcover
Number Of Pages: 368
Published: 4th February 2020
Publisher: Ballantine Books

Review: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

9781474613453As readers, we’re always looking for dynamic new iterations and interpretations of our favourite authors and genres. We know what we like, and we want the same, but different; enough so it feels fresh, but not to the extent it feels totally unfamiliar. Which is how I feel about Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times. The twenty-something Irish author was christened “the new Sally Rooney” long before I plucked her debut novel from my stack. Which was inevitable, given her biography, and the territory trodden in her book: 22-year-old narrator Ava has relocated from Dublin to Hong Kong to teach English, and finds herself entangled in a love triangle with a man and woman, and floundering to find meaning, and indeed any semblance of sincerity, in the burgeoning years of her adulthood.

We are entrenched in Ava’s headspace for the duration of the novel, which is often exasperating, if only because Dolan pitch-perfectly captures the prevailing nihilism seeped into the psyches of most young adults. It sure was in mine. At various occasions throughout its slight page count, Ava is portrayed as manipulative, self-loathing, and cynical. I’m not sure I ever liked her, but I sure as heck sympathised with her plight to find purpose, and chuckled along at her acerbic observations about class, race, gender, wealth and relationships, and basically every element of society at a microscopic level.

Oh, there were so many moments I wanted to shake the book and bellow, “Why are you like this, Ava? Why are you even with Julian; can’t you see what he is? What’s with the chip on your shoulder? Oh, not again; this is a blatant example of self-sabotage!” Because at its heart, Exciting Times is a love story, in the purest sense, because it doesn’t just present the glitz and glamour and tenderness of romance; it shoves the reader’s face in the mud and muck of opening up your heart, and the high-risk reality of tethering your happiness to another. Ava is battle-hardened; emotionally unavailable, until the moment she isn’t, which sneaks up on her — and the reader — with such poignant clarity in a moment of beautifully inadvertent intimacy.

Ava is a real person; frustratingly so, and sometimes — for me — loathsomely so. Which is the genius of the novel. Through sketched-out anecdotes of her year in Hong Kong, Dolan exposes us to Ava’s real, unvarnished thoughts and fears. True and honest insight into the mind of a young woman finding herself in a messy world. Paint my introspections on the page, and I’m sure the result would be ugly, too. Garnished with Ava / Dolan’s specific brand of caustic wit, Exciting Times is elevated beyond mere Sally Rooney cookie-cutter. It’s a millennial parable.  

ISBN: 9781474613453
ISBN-10: 1474613454
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 240
Published: 14th April 2020
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co

Review: Amnesty by Aravind Adiga

9781509879045Amnesty | Aravind Adiga | Pan Macmillan AU | February 2020 | RRP $30.00 | 9781509879045

“There is a buzz, a reflexive retinal buzz, whenever a man or woman born in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh sees another from his or her part of the world in Sydney — a tribal pinprick, an instinct always reciprocal, like the instantaneous recognition of homosexuals in a repressed society. Because even if both of you believe that one brown man holds no special significance for another in Sydney — a city and civilisation built on the principle of the exclusion of men and women who were not white, and which fully outgrew that principle only a generation ago — which is to say, even if you want to stay icebox or indifferent in the presence of the other brown man, you are helpless.”

Booker Prize-winning author Aravind Adiga returns with the story of a day in the life of Dhananjaya ‘Danny’ Rajaratnam, an illegal Sri Lankan immigrant, who unwittingly becomes embroiled in a murder, and must decide whether coming forward with information that would aid the police investigation is worth the risk of deportation. As he evaluates the morality and consequences of either decision, we learn of Danny’s past, and his daily struggles to survive as a cleaner in Sydney; living in a grocery storeroom under the thumb of its tyrannical owner; wracked by the fear of the authorities who want him expelled; and the desperate measures he must go to in order to assimilate into Australian society.  

What makes Amnesty propulsive, powerful and unsettling in equal measure is Adiga’s ability to render this tale apolitically. The novel neither berates nor bolsters Australia’s immigration policy, merely spotlights a singular human story that so often gets lost amidst the debate, framed around a young man’s quest to negotiate the blurred line between justice and responsibility. It’s a story of dreams; those already shattered, those for the future, and the cost of making them a reality.

This timely novel depicts the struggles faced by immigrants — legal and illegal — with heartbreaking specificity; the constant fear of being discovered by immigration officers alongside the desire to acclimate to a society that doesn’t want you. It’s one of best, and most bittersweet novels I’ve read in some time; as a reader, you are burdened by the knowledge that whatever Danny chooses to do, the ramifications will be ruinous. Sober and erudite, Amnesty is another tour-de-force from a brilliant writer whose literary powers show no signs of abating.

Review: Neon Prey by John Sandford

neon-prey-9781471184383_lgRelentlessly formulaic, this is assembly-line stuff from John Sanford. Lucas Davenport remains a strong enough protagonist to keep the pages turning, but it’s starting to feel like the author is phoning it in. Neon Prey is slick, swift, and utterly forgettable. It hits all the right beats, but with an impotence that undermines any tension or compulsivity.

Thing is, there’s enough here to elevate this manhunt beyond routine. The ingredients just seem undercooked. Initially Clayton Deese seems like your run-of-the-mill gun-for-hire criminal. But when he skips bail after job goes wrong, U.S. Marshals start digging deeper into his background and discover Deese is actually a prolific cannibal serial killer, who has gone undetected for years. Enter: Lucas Davenport, whose job is to hunt Deese down and bring him in, or put him down. But for all his supposed menace, Deese never feels terrifying. He’s a sketched villain rather than a fully-formed threat. He’s a bad guy because he does bad, bloody things, that we sometimes see on the page, but it all happens so hurriedly, there’s absolutely no resonance. Sandford has created some truly terrifying villains; Deese is not one of them. A problem when he’s the driving force of the narrative.

Not much of a thriller, not much of a mystery. Sandford has a brilliant ear for dialogue, and it’s the character interactions that make Neon Prey worth sticking with, assuming you like the cut of the author’s jib. Sandford has done better, and hopefully will again. The thirtieth novel in the series is out next year.

ISBN: 9781471184390
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 400
Imprint: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publish Date: 25-Apr-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom