Review: Fair Warning by Michael Connelly

9781760877989Veteran journalist Jack McEvoy — hero of The Poet and The Scarecrow — has burned all his bridges and been relegated to reporting on consumer issues for a nonprofit investigative news organisation called Fair Warning. It’s good, honest work in a world where traditional newsrooms have been hollowed out and replaced by click-bait websites, and the president is openly hostile towards the media — but it’s not the kind of work that gets Jack’s blood pumping. Death is his beat; it’s the oft-repeated mantra of the series. So when a woman he had a one-night stand with is brutally murdered, and Jack becomes a suspect, he finds himself suckered into the murder beat once more, hunting a sadistic killer .

Shrikes — also known as butcherbirds — are  carnivorous passerine birds famous for impaling their prey on twigs and barbed wire, and for their killing methodology: Shrikes grasp their victims by the neck with their beaks, squeeze the spinal cord to induce paralysis, then shake vigorously until their quarry’s neck snaps. It’s how the latest serial killer stalking Los Angeles got his name: his female victims have all been discovered with their necks broken in very specific fashion.

In searching for a connection between the victim how and why did the Shrike pinpoint these women as targets? — Jack former FBI agent Rachael Walling (a series regular in this series, and the wider “Bosch” universe) uncover the corruption ripe in the DNA testing business. There are very few regulations regarding who genealogy and DNA companies can sell your DNA to while making a profit. And the repercussions are unfathomable. Not now, perhaps; but what about the future, when usernames and passwords become defunct, and DNA becomes our exclusive identifier, and you’ve given yours away?

What separates Connelly from the competition is his interest in the blockbuster moments as much as the cartilage that binds them. He delivers authenticity as well as suspense. Fair Warning is a methodical procedural, pockmarked with insights about the changing shape of journalism and warnings about the current state, and future, of genetic testing. And its denouement hints there’s more to come from Jack. Hopefully we’re not waiting another ten years for the next instalment. Or maybe we can have the Bosch / Ballard / McEvoy / Haller crossover dreams are made of.

ISBN: 9781760877989
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 416
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Publish Date: 26-May-2020
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: The Poet by Michael Connelly

9781760113247On the eve of the publication of the third Jack McEvoy novel Fair Warning — amid my re-read of every book Michael Connelly has published — I went back to where it all started for the intrepid newspaperman: 1996’s The Poet. The book holds up. In fact, it’s even better than I remember.

Mysteries about serial killers are my least favourite type of crime novel. When they’re done well — Meg Gardiner’s UNSUB, for example — they’re brilliantly pulse-pounding and terrifying, laden with tension and byzantine twists and turns. I understand their popularity; the cat-and-mouse game of predator/prey has been fodder for great stories for eons. But I often find serial killer stories luxuriate in the depravity and gruesomeness of the violence, and lose any semblance of realism as the killer hunts their prey and evades capture through theatrics, slowly getting under the skin of their pursuer(s), driving them mad, until the grand denouement. My favourite crime novels deal with “smaller,” less grandiose murders. I have a morbid fascination with the evil that men do — the “everyman” — rather than organised, methodical killers with an insatiable appetite for murder. Connelly’s The Poet is the exception. It’s my favourite serial killer novel.

Jack McEvoy is the crime reporter for the Rocky Mountain News. He has seen death in all of its forms. Death is his beat. But nothing prepares him for the death of his brother — a Denver homicide detective, haunted by a case he was unable to solve — who evidently turned his gun on himself in the backseat of his car. Jack doesn’t buy it. Driven by grief — remorse that he’ll never make pace with Sean — and his suspicions about the dying message his brother left behind (a quote from a work by Edgar Allan Poe), Jack uncovers a series of similar killings that have occurred across the country. It looks like someone is executing police officers and camouflaging their murders as suicides. And it appears these killings are connected to the murder of several children.

The Poet is an impeccably crafted crime novel by an absolute master. Its twists, turns and revelations are pitch-perfect. Rich in character, and ripe with thrills and chills that affected me once, ten years ago when I first read it, and did so for a second time. Just try putting it down.

ISBN: 9781760113247
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 512
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Publish Date: 1-Nov-2014
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Love by Roddy Doyle

9781787332287I’m a latecomer to Roddy Doyle, but was enraptured by Smile (2017) — a bleak novel about the legacy of institutional abuse in Ireland — and Charlie Savage (2019) — a collection of a year’s worth of hilarious, self-effacing and often poignant anecdotes, first published in the Irish Independent, about a middle-aged Dubliner reconciling with his own mortality. But Love is mysteriously expunged of the guffaw-inducing humour of the latter, or the shocking revelations of the former. And without either element, his latest is disappointingly bland, and by Doyle’s lofty standards, oddly prosaic.

Love shines the spotlight on two men in their late middle ages, who walk into a pub to drink and talk and reminisce. Several decades and hundreds of miles have separated Davy and Joe, but tonight they’re united, their conversation becoming increasingly drunken and sloppy, and pockmarked with revelations, the most significant (we think, until the novel’s latter stages) that Joe recently left his wife for Jessica, a woman he first met in one of the pubs he and Davy frequented in their youth.

Doyle’s the master of dialogue, and that’s showcased here, as he demonstrates the exacting nature of discourse between two emotionally stunted men, who are desperate to unveil their feelings, but burdened by the expectations of toxic masculinity. There are machinations on family and fatherhood, love and friendship, as they talk around their emotions; hide sentiment behind crude banter. Some of it is poignant, but much of it is exhausting. For a good hundred pages we are treading water, waiting for the novel to get to its point. I can’t help feeling this is a novel begging for a leaner page count.

ISBN: 9781787332287
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 336
Imprint: Jonathan Cape Ltd
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 14-May-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

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: Trouble Is What I do by Walter Mosley

9781474616522When 92-year-old Mississippi blues musician Phillip “Catfish” Worry approaches Leonid McGill with the simple task of hand-delivering a letter to a wealthy heiress revealing her black heritage, the private eye accepts, unknowingly becoming the eye of a storm involving her flagrantly racist and vindictive father, and a notorious assassin with Catfish firmly in his sights.

The Leonid McGill series — Trouble Is What I Do being its sixth instalment — embraces the hardboiled private detective genre invented by Hamnett, refined by Chandler and Macdonald, and emulated by countless others; but few as successfully as Walter Mosley. The story is deceptively simple, its eclectic cast, crisp, lean and spare prose the perfect vehicle to highlight the systemic racism still prevalent in society.

It’s slick, quick, bread-and-butter stuff from Mosley, whose mastery of the genre is still evident even when he’s not at his peak. The biggest problem with his latest is that it reads like something he could write in his sleep. An entertaining addition to the McGill canon, best enjoyed by those already familiar with the ex-boxer and underground fixer turned PI.

ISBN: 9781474616522
Format: Hardback
Pages: 176
Imprint: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 27-Feb-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Adversary by Ronnie Scott

9780143796640This is one of those books where not a lot happens — but, prospectively, a lot happens, or is about to, depending on how the reader extrapolates its ending. It doesn’t manifest in action on the page, nor in a significant obtaining of wisdom that would pigeonhole it as a conventional “coming-of-age” tale. It is a novel whose magnitude is measured in precise, smaller moments, in which its author microscopically examines the evolution of a close friendship between two gay men as a scorching Melbourne summer ignites.

The Adversary eschews a traditional narrative structure, and casts the reader into the mind of its unnamed protagonist, exposes us to the vicissitudes and complexities of his life — noteworthy for its ordinariness, unembellished by genre-trappings — lays out the jump-start cable necessary to revive him from his almost-paralytic physical and emotional indolence, then shunts the reader out again. It reads like a bridging novel; we are witnessing an essential interval in a young man’s life, unbeknownst to him, and not pockmarked by elaborate embellishment or genre-surreality, that is leading towards something undefined. It is brilliantly true to life and relatable.

Writing with the assurance and authority that belies his status as first-time novelist, Ronnie Scott reveals the contradictions of the human heart and the complexities of friendship, love and sexuality. Compulsively readable, and memorable for its lack of clear-cut finality. The story – the narrator’s life – continues beyond the page.

ISBN: 9780143796640
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 256
Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Publish Date: 15-Apr-2020
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Sisters by Daisy Johnson

9781787331778In Booker-shortlisted author Daisy Johnson’s unsettling second novel, two sisters — July and September — move across the country, with their mother, to a long-abandoned family home, where the deep bond they’ve always shared begins to contort into something noxious, something wicked, that reveals itself in its sharpest form when they meet a boy.

Sisters is a compelling and nuanced psychological drama you read feeling like there’s a fist in your stomach, squeezing your guts. There’s a great slathering of tension, that ratchets up adroitly, building to a climax that isn’t necessarily ferocious, but suitably haunting and disturbing. Johnson excavates maximum suspense from the most quotidian of human relationships, and the novel’s slight size does nothing to impede its richness; rather, it’s enhanced by its brevity, making it an all the more potent concoction.

Published: 2 July 2020
ISBN: 9781787331778
Imprint: Jonathan Cape
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 192
RRP: $29.99

 

Review: Either Side of Midnight by Benjamin Stevenson

9780143795643With his second novel, Benjamin Stevenson  once again demonstrates his mastery of the genre and proves himself to be page-turning royalty. In Either Side of Midnight he employs the same skill set that made Greenlight such a noteworthy debut: masterfully paced plotting pockmarked with explosive revelations strung together like fireworks that create an escalating and exhilarating sense of urgency that’ll keep even the most fatigued crime reader white-knuckled throughout its duration.

In this direct sequel to Greenlight — which can be satisfactorily read as a standalone (but why would you; you’ve got until September, and we’re in lockdown) — disgraced television producer Jack Quick is hired by Harry Midford to investigate the murder of his brother. Only, Jack — and the rest of the world — are adamant it was suicide. Because they saw it. Everyone saw it, on live television: Sam Midford put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Case closed. But Jack needs the money. So he digs deeper into Sam’s past. And he discovers something dark, something twisted. Something that might get him killed. What seems at the start to be a straightforward investigation seamlessly transforms into a crafty tale of murder and deception

Stevenson is Australia’s Harlan Coben. Using an unconventional detective, he keeps his plot boiling, piling on plot twists, false leads, and adds depth and edge to traditional genre characters. The writing is assured, the pace is whip-fast. Stevenson is the hottest ticket in town. 

ISBN: 9780143795643
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 336
Available: 1st September 2020
Edition Number: 1

Review: Into the Fire by Gregg Hurwitz

9780718185510On the eve of his retirement as “the Nowhere Man” — a harbinger of justice for those in need of desperate aid — former clandestine government assassin Evan Smoak — the infamous “Orphan X” — finds himself pitted against a seemingly endless supply of gun-totting goons as he attempts to liberate Max Merriweather from the looming threat of the bad guys who murdered his cousin.

Gregg Hurwitz writes with the pace and economy of a blockbuster action movie. Think Michael Bay’s The Rock or Bad Boys; not so much Transformers; thrillers with some semblance of heart and humanity. He understands the lurid pleasures readers want from their action-lit, and delivers in spades. In Into the Fire, Smoak is forced to infiltrate a police precinct; go undercover (and unarmed) into a maximum security prison; and face off against a barrage of gunmen nursing a concussion, armed with only a sniper rifle. All par for the course for Hurwitz’s hero, who readers know will walk out of every confrontation (relatively) unscathed; the pleasure comes from witnessing how he escapes these impossible odds.

The fifth book in the series, Into the Fire leans heavily into its established continuity. In some respects, this feels like a bridging novel between the next momentous phase in the life of Orphan X. Plot threads related to his Max Merriweather mission are suitably tied; but there’s plenty left dangling to suggest the next novel could be truly cataclysmic for Evan. New readers will still enjoy the bombastic action and bodycount, but longtime fans will truly appreciate the repercussions it potentially has for the series moving forward.

In the hotly-contested field of action-lit, Gregg Hurwitz comes out on top, time and time again.

Published: 11 February 2020
ISBN: 9780718185510
Imprint: Michael Joseph
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 480
RRP: $32.99

Review: Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

9780857526137Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel is more than a dazzling and seductive alternate history about a world in which Hillary Rodham decided not to marry Bill Clinton to maintain her independence. It’s a searing commentary on the unjust compromises and aspersions faced by female politicians compared to their male counterparts, and how much harder it is for women to make their way in politics, or any facet of public life; any walk of life, in fact.

Hillary is merely the vehicle Sittenfeld uses to showcase this inequality; but saturating her fiction in the texture of Hillary’s reality, with one major twist, adds a brilliant vitality to the work, and a layer of verisimilitude that using a totally fabricated character would not have allowed. This narrative decision is utterly seductive, and Sittenfeld clearly had great fun contemplating the seismic ramifications that one different decision might’ve produced. Where is Donald Trump in this new world? Barrack Obama? Indeed, what actually happened to Bill Clinton; did he achieve his political ambitions without Hillary as his first lady? Sittenfeld answers all of these questions, and more. I was addicted to learning more, and incredibly impressed by her ability to humanise Hillary, and turn her into a sympathetic character rather than a caricature. I’ve no doubt it’ll be one of my favourite books of the year.

ISBN: 9780857526137
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 400
Available: 19th May 2020
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd