Review: Every Vow You Break by Peter Swanson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is an audacious, twist-filled thriller whose enjoyment hinges on whether you’re able to buy into its central conceit, which morphs outlandishly from its opening premise, when Abigail Baskin enters her marriage to ridiculously wealthy Bruce Lamb carrying a secret.

During her bachelorette party weekend a few weeks before her wedding, Abigail slept with a stranger named Scottie. Although she’s wracked by guilt, she decides not to mention her one night stand to Bruce: the ramifications would be severe given his (ominous) stance on fidelity. So she’ll live with the secret, and it will be hers alone. Or so she hopes. Soon Scottie emails Abigail suggesting they share a deep connection. They’re soulmates. They should be together.

Abigail ignores him.

She marries Bruce, and towards the end of their wedding night, she thinks she spots Scottie. Again, she considers owning up to Bruce. Their honeymoon to a secluded Maine island serves as the perfect distraction. Abigail can deliberate, in peace, in these tranquil surroundings.

But Scottie’s there too. And another guest, who shares Abigail’s plight: a secret from her husband. What happens next is bloody and violent, and will stretch some reader’s credulity to the limit; maybe beyond. There’s no question that Peter Swanson has crafted a breakneck thriller. And it goes places I didn’t expect it to, which is preferential to another assembly-line thriller. Nothing about the opening of “Every Vow You Break” telegraphs its wild climax, which sees Abigail taking on a virulent manifestation of powerful men committed to patriarchy. Ultimately implausible, but also unputdownable. 

ISBN: 9780571358502
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 320
Published: 30th March 2021
Publisher: Faber

Review: Repentance by Eloísa Díaz

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In my experience, readers who besmirch crime fiction do so because of the supposed ‘limitations of the form.’ Crime novels have no ‘literary merit’ (a dubious concept) because they are merely ‘entertainments’ ― thanks, Graham Greene.

But here is a novel I would happily recommend to any reticent crime reader, whose mystery is vital to its plot, but whose solving is secondary to the exploration of its central character, and the city of Buenos Aires. It’s entertaining, sure: but it’s also got plenty to say about greed, corruption, guilt and redemption.

I wonder where it would fit on Greene’s spectrum of ‘entertainments’ and ‘novels?’

Eloísa Díaz’s “Repentance” vividly depicts the brutality, uncertainty and fragility of life in Buenos Aires during two tumultuous periods in Argentina’s history. In 1981, the Dirty War was at its peak. By its end, 30,000 people would be ‘disappeared’ by the state as the country’s military dictatorship turned against its own people.

Among them: the brother of Policía Federal inspector Joaquín Alzada.

Twenty years later, as thousands of protestors start revolting against the government, an unidentified corpse is discovered in a skip behind the city morgue. Then a woman from one of the city’s wealthiest families goes missing, and the only clue to her disappearance is a number plate linked to a high-ranking government official. Alzada is ruled off the case. She hasn’t been missing long enough to warrant an investigation. But Alazada can’t leave it alone. He decides to present the corpse from the morgue as the missing woman’s… and open a murder file.

This gritty, absorbing novel is served well by Díaz’s concise prose. I could’ve done without the overuse of italics to demarcate Alazada’s inner monologue, but it’s the one flaw in a novel I rushed to finish, only to have it linger in my thoughts long after I was done. It’s an absolutely enthralling portrait of the darkest days of Argentine suppression and sedition, and one man trying to make sense of it.

ISBN: 9781474613842
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 304
Imprint: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Publisher: Orion
Publish Date: 4-Feb-2021
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Old Enemy by Henry Porter

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The arrival of a new Henry Porter novel will forever be accompanied by a sense of sweet nostalgia. When his debut “Remembrance Day” was published in 1999, I distinctly remember my father reading a copy of it poolside in a Phuket resort — I think the Jack Higgins quote on the cover was the key selling factor, ‘The best book of its kind I’ve read since “The Day of the Jackal'” — while I read my copy of Raymond Benson’s James Bond novel “Doubleshot.” Back then, Dad did all the book buying. Nowadays it’s me sharing my Henry Porter’s. The cycle is complete.

“The Old Enemy” is the perfect culmination of Porter’s two most recent spy thrillers. Though it can be read as a standalone, it rewards readers who’ve been with this cast of characters from the beginning, when former MI6 agent Paul Samson was tasked with tracking a thirteen-year-old Syrian refugee with vital intelligence relating to an ISIS terrorist cell (“Firefly”), and later hired by philanthropist Denis Hisami to find his kidnapped wife — and Samson’s former lover — Anastasia (“White Hot Silence”).

In “The Old Enemy” we learn much of the turmoil faced by Porter’s characters in these preceding volumes was orchestrated by a Cold War-era nemesis that has infiltrated the highest echelons of the UK and US government and industry. They’ve assassinated one of Britain’s finest spymasters (and one of Porter’s legacy characters, who has appeared beyond this trilogy) Robert Harland, exposed Denis Hisami to a nerve agent, and dispatched a hitman to assassinate Samson.

Porter keeps his complex story from snarling by crosscutting chapters between Anastasia and Samson as they work to expose and dismantle this immense Kremlin cabal from different sides of the world. There’s a barrage of finely-paced action set-pieces, electrified by his crisp prose, but Porter writes espionage fiction for the more discerning thriller reader, with a greater focus on character and atmosphere. If you’ve done all of le Carré, Cumming, Greene and Ambler, and still crave more? Porter’s the guy you should be reading.

ISBN: 9781529403299
ISBN-10: 1529403294
Series: Paul Samson Spy Thriller
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 416
Available: 26th October 2021
Publisher: Quercus Books

Review: The Truth About Her by Jacqueline Maley

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The battles and joys of single parenthood are depicted vividly in Jacqueline Maley’s “The Truth About Her, ” which presents newspaper journalist Suzy Hamilton navigating through a particularly tumultuous Sydney summer. 

After Tracey Doran takes her own life in the wake of Suzy’s searing exposé that disclosed the young wellness blogger’s various deceptions, she is approached by Tracey’s mother to write a follow-up piece — the ‘truth,’ which takes into account her history and the myriad experiences that transmuted into such extraordinary fraud. Suzy accepts the task, not only to assuage any residual guilt, but because she needs the money. Following the spectacular collapse of her career, she finds herself creeping ever closer to the poverty line, working dually as a freelance writer and tending a local bar. Excavating Tracey’s life forces Suzy to audit her own; her relationships, both familial and romantic; her career; her capacity as a parent. 

The opening fifty or so pages of “The Truth About Her” have the energy of a thriller, which then slows to something more introspective, and perhaps a little too overwrought for my tastes. Maley quarries deep to discover emotional truths about the meaning of truth, love and parenthood, and she handles these hefty themes with sensitivity, honesty, and realism. I just think I would’ve preferred a slightly condensed version, some of her potent observations sharpened, or detached from the novel’s melange, which might’ve made the experience more affecting for me.

ISBN: 9781460759165
ISBN 10: 1460759168
Imprint: 4th Estate AU
On Sale: 07/04/2021
Pages: 368
List Price: 32.99 AUD

Review: All That Remains by Patricia Cornwell

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In Patricia Cornwell’s third Kay Scarpetta mystery, Richmond’s chief medical examiner hunts a serial killer who has been operating more than two years.

The press have dubbed the murders “The Couple Killings.” Not the most inventive moniker — but an apt one. When “All That Remains” opens, we learn there have been four sets of victims so far; eight young people — couples who have disappeared without a trace, only to be eventually discovered within a fifty-mile radius of Williamsburg. The FBI and the Richmond Police Department have few clues to work with. Scarpetta herself has so far been unable to determine their cause of death, left with only bones and rotted clothing scattered with leaves to work with. And now there’s a ninth and tenth victim — one of whom is the daughter of Pat Harvey, the high-profile female national drug policy director and vice-presidential hopeful.

Several characters who’ve featured in the series’ two preceding entries reappear; Detective Pete Merino, obviously; FBI Special Agent Benton Wesley; and newspaper reporter Abby Turnbull, whose sister was herself murdered by a serial killer in “Postmortem,” and is still dealing with the psychological fallout. Scarpetta’s investigation unspools over weeks and months, but there is nothing glacial about its pace, and in fact the extended time-frame makes for an intriguing change of rhythm compared to most novels I’ve read in the genre.

On this expansive canvas, Cornwell is able to complicate relationships between characters, and demonstrate the painstaking processes involved in forensic science. Readers of this kind of fiction (myself included) are so accustomed to forensic answers being offered with an exaggerated immediacy; but in reality, it’s slow, meticulous work. And as always, there’s nobody better than Cornwell at eloquently and compulsively describing these methodologies and techniques.

In my review of “Body of Evidence” I mentioned my disappointment at that novel’s culmination; too similar to the ending of Cornwell’s debut. No such resemblance here. Oh, sure — it mightn’t be as intense; but it’s a worthy conclusion, splendidly binding the threads of all that came before it. Well-drawn characters and a well-tuned pace make this a winner.

ISBN: 9780751544480
ISBN-10: 0751544485
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 416
Published: 1st November 2010
Publisher: Little Brown

Review: The Others by Mark Brandi

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Even with two extraordinary novels under his belt, this stands as a radical achievement for Mark Brandi. “The Others” is a spare yet emotionally sumptuous psychological drama, laced with page-turning suspense, and a creeping sense of dread that turns into something excruciatingly claustrophobic as it builds to its heart-pounding crescendo.

In my mind, “The Others” is an antithetical revision of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” In both books there are two main characters, a father and a son, who are each other’s universe, and whose existence consists of surviving from one day to the next. But the challenges facing McCarthy’s protagonists were clear, to them and the reader: they’re scavengers in a post-apocalyptic world, the dangers clear and present. The world of eleven-year-old Jacob and his father in “The Others” is rather more implicit, framed through the prism of the elder, who insists a plague has decimated society, and their only chance of survival is to remain secluded on their farm, away from ‘the others.’

In both “The Road” and “The Others,” the boys look to their father for reassurance, safety, and to make some kind of sense of this chaotic world. The father in “The Road” provided a glimmer of lightness and hope. Jacob’s father offers something darkly capricious. It’s hinted at throughout Jacob’s narration — which is presented as a diary, replete with sketches and dictionary definitions of newly-discovered words — and made patently clear at various intervals, when his father’s eyes shine ‘black as pitch,’ and he spews menacing explanations for his wavering behaviour: ‘Sometimes, you have to do the most terrible things. Sometimes, you just have to.’

Rendered in plainsong prose that perfectly encapsulates the perspective of its young protagonist, “The Others” is easily one of the most compelling and compulsive books I’ve read in ages. A story of paternal love twisted into something ruinous, about a boy trying to live under the rule of his father’s authoritarian regime while compelled to see and understand the world for himself, it seizes you by the throat from its opening pages and never lets go.

ISBN: 9780733641145
ISBN-10: 0733641148
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 304
Available: 30th June 2021
Publisher: Hachette Australia

Review: Doll by Ed McBain

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This is the 20th novel in the 87th Precinct series, but there’s nothing hackneyed about it. Ed McBain was the unequivocal master of the police procedural, able to twist and re-shape conventional whodunits into top-drawer crime fiction. “Doll” (1965) is no different. It’s a scalpel-sharp, beautifully stripped-down mystery thriller in which Detective Steve Carella and Detective Bert Kling investigate the brutal slaying of fashion model Tinka Sachs, whose daughter Anna heard the entire murder unfold from the room next door, her favourite doll clutched tightly.

Kling is a good detective turning bad, ‘a cop who was going to hell with himself’ following the murder of his fiancée, whose grief has mutated into a toxic attitude that’s put him on the lieutenant’s shit list and a possible transfer out of the precinct. Working the Sachs case with Carella is his last shot to prove himself, but when he messes up a simple interview with a witness, Carella works it solo – and quickly finds himself in dire straits, taken hostage by a seductress who hooks him on heroin, and presumed dead by the world at large.

“Doll” is a breathless procedural, razed of everything but its lean, mean plot. I treated it like a tasty hors d’oeuvre, down in one swallow, desperate for the next.

Review: Falling by T.J. Newman

Rating: 4 out of 5.

T.J. Newman’s “Falling” is a well-oiled, audacious, supremely entertaining blockbuster about a terrorist plane hijacking; the twist being the ringleader isn’t on board the aircraft, but on the ground, holding hostage the pilot’s wife and two kids, a trigger-pull away from their demise.

The terrorist’s demands are preposterously simple: he wants Bill Hoffman to crash the plane, at a specific location; and he wants Bill to unleash a canister of something deadly, some kind of toxic gas, into the cabin as a show of compliance. Do that, and Bill’s family gets to walk away. Refuse, and well — never mind. There is a contingency in place; a second unidentified terrorist on the plane, who could be anyone, a passenger or member of the crew, who will see the mission through to its end.

So, if you’re Captain Bill Hoffman — what do you do?

My favourite movies include “Air Force One,” “Die Hard,” “The Rock,” and other films of that ilk. Newman’s novel is stapled together out of ingredients from these types of blockbusters. It has few macro surprises — it follows the genre playbook; one of the flight attendants in the aunt of an FBI agent, which is an excuse to get the feds involved early; the President deliberates over blowing the plane out of the sky; everyday people unite over a shared enemy; there’s a scene of extraordinary patriotism with disaster impending at a baseball stadium — but there are some micro ones, including efficient character building, and Newman’s decision to not make her protagonist a John McClane facsimile. To survive, and keep his family and the souls on board alive, Hoffman needs to outsmart rather than outfight his foe.

Faced with a seemingly impossible, unsurvivable scenario, where the easy option would be to curl up and die, the characters in “Falling” choose not to submit. It’s a suspense-filled pleasure reading Newman’s untangling of this chaos. This is unpretentious thriller-lit for those who like their plots at mach-speed.

ISBN: 9781398507258
ISBN-10: 1398507253
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 304
Available: 2nd June 2021
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK

Review: First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“First Person Singular” is an enjoyable short story collection by Haruki Murakami, with whom I’ve had such fond experiences through his fiction. But the further I delved into the eight stories on offer here, the more I realised that my nostalgia for the past was fulfilling me more than the book in my hands. Which isn’t to say any of these tales, or the quality of their writing, is substandard — Murakami hasn’t suddenly devolved into a hack producing work for a spare dime — but there’s a definite sense he coasted through their creation. 

A crowd-pleasing sense of familiarity is often enough for readers to coast through a novel, or short stories, on a sea of goodwill. But my barometer for any collection is my capacity to recollect specific stories (or at least moments from them) in the days after I’ve finished. There’s just not enough bite to “First Person Singular” for it to resonate. 

The stories gently probe themes of youth, love and memory, and provide tender meditations on music, childhood and (in one of my favourite tales) baseball. Many of the stories are tinged with Murakami’s trademark surreality — talking monkey, anyone? — but they’re all framed through a homogeneous first person narrator, so they’ve blurred indistinguishably in my mind. 

But even Murakami writing with his transmission lodged firmly in first gear provides indelibly graceful prose, and very occasionally, the glint of ingenuity. It’s a shame none of the stories sustained that magic for quite long enough. They’re all eminently readable, but their spark never ignites a flame. 

Published: 6 April 2021
ISBN: 9781787302600
Imprint: Harvill Secker
Format: Hardback
Pages: 256
RRP: $39.99

Review: Love Objects by Emily Maguire

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

People with hoarding disorder excessively accumulate items others view as superfluous. They’re unable to part with these possessions, and this stockpiling leads to clutter that detrimentally effects their lives. It’s easy to be derisive about it; caricaturize it; exaggerate the consequence rather than consider the cause, or provide a semblance of psychological insight. Most of us don’t form perpetual emotional attachments to the objects we gather during our lives. Some objects have greater meaning; others none at all. We catch and release with reckless abandon. 

But Nic, one of the three central characters in Emily Maguire’s “Love Objects,” is unable to do this. She glimpses an ethereal beauty in her vast assemblage of things; not just their aesthetic appeal. She doesn’t perceive the clutter; just objects that demand salvation, and a place inside her home.  Never mind this minefield almost leads to her death, were it not for the intervention of paramedics, led by her niece Lena, who find Nic sprawled among her vast detritus, having been trapped briefly in a kaleidoscope of memories.

With Nic laid up in hospital it falls upon Lena and her older brother Will to tidy their aunt’s home. Maguire captures each of these characters at a moment of monumental upheaval. The “cleansing” of Nic’s home is the nucleus of the novel, from which Maguire unlades the chaos of their lives: an illicit sex tape featuring Lena has been made public; a mistake Will made years earlier continues to cast a long, dark shadow as he struggles with unemployment and a breakup. They are bonded by blood and multigenerational trauma, and Maguire unspools their histories with extraordinary artistry.

Indeed, nothing about “Love Objects” feels contrived, archetypal or predestined, and it never coils towards melodrama. It’s an emotionally complex character-focused novel, weighted by issues of class and wealth, possession and intervention, and gender dynamics. Once again, Maguire proves herself unparalleled at rendering complex emotions with clarity and sympathetic intelligence. 

ISBN: 9781760878337
ISBN-10: 1760878332
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 400
Published: 30th March 2021
Publisher: Allen & Unwin