Review: Assembly by Natasha Brown

In Natasha Brown’s “Assembly” an unnamed black woman of Jamaican descent considers her life and her place in the world through a series of vignettes that provide an incisive and erudite exploration of race, misogyny, capitalism and British colonialism.

It is a book — well, novella, really — I admired more than I enjoyed.

In “The Guardian,” Sara Collins suggests Brown’s brevity requires readers ‘to supply the connective tissue necessary to turn [“Assembly”) into narrative.’ Which is fine, and totally admirable. But I had the same problem here that I have with Jenny Offill’s work. Which is, quite simply, that I derive so much enjoyment from authors actually providing that connective tissue. From the narrative; the story beats; the development of characters; the structure of a conventional story.  

Without it, without that connective tissue, to me — and I freely admit this is purely a personal bias, a consequence of my own storytelling sensibilities rather than any deficiencies of Brown, Offill or their brethren — such novels read more like loosely connected thoughts.

Brown’s searing snapshot of race in present-day Britain is essential reading. Her most devastating observations are the subtlest; the microaggressions faced every day that I can’t even begin to imagine. Somehow their understatedness here makes the narrator’s experiences sharper.

The themes explored are so important. I just wish Brown had elaborated further and made her narrator a memorable presence. But I guess that’s the point. Her experiences aren’t individual; they’re emblematic.

ISBN: 9780241540473
ISBN-10: 024154047X
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 112
Published: 1st June 2021
Publisher: Penguin UK

Review: Two For the Money by Max Allan Collins

Fiction generally gets more interesting when characters are given humanity and dimension. But that’s not always the case. Take Nolan for example; a character created by Max Allan Collins inspired by Richard Stark’s master thief Parker. 

Parker is taciturn, ruthless and ferociously single-minded. Stark’s long-running series focused on the mechanics of Parker’s heists. There was no real character development: these were plot-driven novels, and I adored them. Still do, in fact.  

Nolan shares a lot of Parker’s traits. He’s a hardened professional, but cracks of compassion show. I wouldn’t want to have a beer with Parker; heck, he wouldn’t sit down with me for one anyway. I get the feeling Nolan would. Which also makes him slightly less interesting. 

Nolan is nearly 50 and ready to call it a day. Heisting is a young man’s game. Trouble is, years ago Nolan made an enemy of the entire Chicago mafia, and if he wants an easy retirement, he’ll need to broker a truce. He agrees to the terms of a ceasefire: one last, epic heist, alongside a ragtag trio of thieves.

“Two For the Money” collects the first two Nolan novels published in 1973, “Bait Money” and “Blood Money,” the latter of which is a direct sequel dealing with the aftermath of Nolan’s last job, so their pairing works well. They are unabashed pulp fiction, the type of which isn’t really published today, when everything has to have a superficial layer of complexity — or what I call extraneous plot. Padding, in other words. 

Some of the writing is cringingly archaic: Collins’s description of women always begins (and sometimes ends) with her breasts. The tough-guy vernacular wears a little thin, the rejoinders crude. But just like Fleming’s 007 novels, I can look past these elements and enjoy these potboilers for their whip-fast plots. I understand not every reader will be as forgiving.

ISBN: 9780857683175
ISBN-10: 0857683179
Series: Hard Case Crime
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 384
Published: 29th March 2011

Review: Catch Us the Foxes by Nicola West

Nicola West’s “Catch Us the Foxes” builds up to a blinding revelation few readers will anticipate.

Now, I’m a sucker for a killer twist, but it’s got to be earned. The clues need to be planted and visible to the reader, just presented in a fashion that mystifies until they’re reshuffled and, suddenly — a-ha!

It’s not an easy thing to accomplish. The author must play with our perceptions while showing us everything in plain sight. Which is the problem I had here. This dramatic curveball isn’t orchestrated with sleight of hand, but through a rather crude retconning of events we’ve just witnessed.

This spoiled some of my experience with young journalist Marlowe ‘Lo’ Robertson and her investigation into the murder of her friend Lily Williams, and the strange symbols carved into her back. It’s not that the twist isn’t a good one conceptually; it’s the inelegance of its unveiling. And I think the novel would’ve been better without it. Read it for yourself and get back to me.

Excluding its prologue and epilogue, “Catch Us the Foxes” is presented as Lo’s true crime book “The Showgirl’s Secret.” This has no stylistic impact on proceedings; the whole thing reads like a regular thriller, which thankfully reads exceptionally well. “Foxes” is a fast-paced mystery populated with an eclectic cast of potential suspects, and hints at a larger mystery involving the entire population of Kiama. West writes short, sharp chapters that end on compelling cliffhangers, and enticed me to binge large chunks at a time. I always wanted to know what happened next, and see the mystery through to its climax.

I do believe “Catch Us the Foxes” would have benefited from the cold-hearted cutting of its biggest twist. But there’s little question West has immense talent, and a clear penchant for trickery. She reads like a fusion of James Patterson and Harlan Coben. I’m excited to follow her career from here.

ISBN: 9781760857479
ISBN-10: 1760857475
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 384
Available: 7th July 2021
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Australia

Review: When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain

“When the Stars Go Dark” has all the makings of a tidy police procedural, but the mechanics of Anna Hart’s investigation into a missing teenager serve merely as the scaffolding for a shrewd examination into the detective’s devastated psyche. This is a sombre ballad about a traumatised woman’s dedication to finding justice for the missing and the dead, and why it has come at the expense of everything else. 

Hart is a detective from San Francisco who has recently experienced a personal tragedy. Haunted by this, and the many horrors she has encountered throughout her career as a missing persons expert, she escapes to her childhood home of Mendocino in North California, and is quickly drawn into the case of a missing girl named Cameron Curtis. 

Mendocino is a place of discordant emotions for Hart. She fondly remembers the foster family who provided her love and safety, and taught her survival skills. But this is punctured by the melancholy of the disappearance of a close friend in 1972; eerily similar to the present day mystery. 

When two other girls are abducted shortly after Cameron, I was sure McLain was pivoting towards a classic hunt for a serial killer. If this was Connelly, Sandford or Crais, I’d expect no less. They are writers who excel working within the conventions of the genre. 

But McLain isn’t a crime writer. Not by trade, at least.  She knows she owes readers a resolution, and this side of “When the Stars Go Dark” — its mystery — is grippingly and confidently realised. But it never pulls focus from her narrative’s true intention, which is its study of character. Here, McLain masterfully combines the classic components of the crime novel with a  forensic excavation of her detective, and what it takes to come back from the brink when everything seems lost. 

While most crime fiction is content to solve its crime and move its detectives onto their next case, McLain reminds us they are human. Fallible, anguished, and in search of redemption — just like everybody else.

Publisher: Ballantine
Publish Date: April 13, 2021
Pages: 384
ISBN: 9780593237892

Review: The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jónasson

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Is this a crime novel with ghostly undertones, or a ghost story with criminal connotations? Whichever way you look at it, “The Girl Who Died” is a bit of a disappointment. It never really chills or thrills, and its climactic revelations are curiously signposted. 

The story has potential; it just feels undercooked. The village of Skálar at the northeastern tip of Iceland, with its tiny population of ten, is perfect fodder for a creepy tale. Its protagonist, young school teacher Una, provides the ideal perspective to regard its unfriendly inhabitants. It’s set in the mid-1980s, before mobile phones made contacting the outside world a breeze. 

Una is isolated. She lives alone in the creaky attic bedroom of one of the town’s residents. And at night she hears singing. Is it the young girl named Thrá, who died in the house in 1927 under mysterious circumstances, whose ghost is rumoured to still haunt it? Or is she just losing her mind?

A few months into her stay, one of her two pupils collapses during the annual Christmas concert. It’s clear something maleficent has occurred. And given Skálar’s population, the pool of suspects is limited. The question bugging Una is whether the death is connected to the disappearance of a man who visited Skálar weeks earlier.

Ghost stories should build slowly and understatedly. Tension is derived from the reader’s knowledge that something nasty is around the corner — but which corner? Ragnar Jónasson’s “The Girl Who Died” reads too fast for its own good. I’m all for a page-turner, but not at the expense of mood. Scenes here have a sketched quality. Its characters aren’t given time to breathe, so they feel superficial. 

One of the great strengths of Stephen King’s most unsettling novels is their pacing, and that’s what feels off here. King understands the scale of scariness; how to intensify from a spine-tingle to teeth-chattering terror. Jónasson nails the claustrophobic atmosphere of a tiny town with secrets. But it never really elevates beyond mildly creepy, and its mystery is undercut by flashbacks that inform too much of the novel’s resolution. Readable as ever, and a pacy distraction, but this pales in comparison to the Hulda series.

ISBN: 9780241400135
ISBN-10: 0241400139
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 384
Published: 4th May 2021
Publisher: Penguin UK

Review: The Last Guests by J.P. Pomare

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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.

ISBN: 9781869718183
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 336
Available: 28th July 2021
Publisher: Hachette Australia

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: Who Gets To Be Smart by Bri Lee

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

It was my first week as a bookseller and I was shrink-wrapping DVDs when one of my colleagues quipped, “Your parents’ private school money at work, huh? Did they get what they paid for?”

It was a joke, a bit of careless banter, and I laughed along. But those words penetrated, and they’ve ricocheted around my brain ever since. Whatever my achievements as a bookseller, however you gauge my ‘success,’ a chunk of my brain wrestles with the fact my parents spent thousands of dollars on my education, and I turned to a career in retail. 

Did I fail them? Did I fail myself? Did I have the potential for more? And what does ‘more’ even mean, when I derive such immense satisfaction (and an award!) from bookselling?  

It’s hard, sometimes, not to feel a degree of intellectual inadequacy around old classmates during sporadic catch-ups. The lizard part of my brain attaches intelligence to identity, which is itself connected to one’s vocation, and the size of their paycheck. This thinking is flawed, but it pervades. It’s also loathsomely entitled.  And besides, whose “omnipresent ledger of legitimacy” am I comparing myself to?

So — it’s fair to say “Who Gets To Be Smart” got me thinking. 

I’m a huge admirer of Bri Lee’s writing, and her activism. I find her work thought-provoking and confronting. She forces me to examine the world around me, and my place in it. It’s often discomforting. 

In “Who Gets To Be Smart” Lee eloquently examines the inequities and systemic deficiencies ingrained in Western education systems, and meditates on the different ways to be smart. She scrutinizes concepts I was previously unfamiliar with, including kyriarchy, and concludes that ‘our most moneyed and powerful educational institutions — from primary through to tertiary — can only maintain their power by practising exclusion and discrimination.’

I imagine some scholars might desire an even deeper excavation of privilege, knowledge and power. But I appreciated the book’s accessibility and its relative brevity. Lee refers to a smorgasbord of existing sources and research, but things never get too textbook. In fact, it resonates because of its incisiveness; it’s a clear-eyed assessment of how things are, which will prompt further discussion, and hopefully — eventually — change.

ISBN: 9781760879808
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 304
Published: 1st June 2021
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Review: Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This is a story about family and celebrity, and how life can assign people roles they can’t realise, or that they can realise only by sacrificing their personal desires and aspirations. 

Set primarily on a hot summer’s night in Malibu, 1983, at Nina Riva’s annual end-of-summer party, “Malibu Rising” explores the tumultuous lives of the elder Riva child and her siblings: pro surfer Jay; surfer photographer Hud; and the youngest, Kit, who hopes to follow Jay’s path. 

Their father is Mick Riva, a famous singer, who fell in love with June in the 1950s, but could never attune himself to the life of a family man. He was lured away, time and time again, returning incrementally, until he disappeared for good. June was a good mother, but unable to cope with the heartbreak, and the cold, hard reality of her life. She turned to alcohol to dull the pain, and it ended up taking everything. 

After her death, Nina assumed the role of single parent and sole breadwinner. She became a surf model, selling her body to ensure the future of her family, loathing every moment of it. On the night of the party in 1983, her own relationship is breaking down, and the bonds between the siblings will be tested like never before; secrets are exposed, and long-bubbling resentments rise to the surface. 

Events transpire against Taylor Jenkins Reid’s foreshadowing of doom from her opening lines — ‘Malibu catches fire. It is simply what Malibu does from time to time.’ — and her handling of multiple characters and timelines is seamless. She is a consummate storyteller. 

Yes, the story machinery grinding its gears beneath the melodrama and celebrity guest stars is fairly ancient and conventional, but “Malibu Rising” is ultimately a classic family saga expounded pitch-perfectly and compulsively. The pleasures derived aren’t transcendental, but they’re genuine. And the novel does so much well for so long, it’s pat conclusion is entirely forgivable.

You know what: the Riva’s deserve it. 

ISBN: 9781786331533
Format: Paperback
Pages: 384
Published: 1st June 2021

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