Box 88 by Charles Cumming

“Box 88” is the start of a new espionage series by le Carré heir Charles Cumming — or at the very least the first in a duology, the author having penned a two-book deal for what HarperCollins has described as a “game-changing” series.

Hyperbolic? Well, perhaps. Not that “Box 88” isn’t worthy of accolades — this is my favourite spy novel of the year, and if you take one thing away from this, it should be that. But not because it’s revolutionary; not because it’s changed the face of the spy novel. Rather, because it’s a refinement of the genre’s tropes. Cumming gets back to the fundamentals, and polishes them to a gleam. He delivers a salvo of exciting action set-pieces, strips his story of political bureaucratese, and tinges his narrative with emotional depth. In a genre saturated with gun-totting renegade operatives, “Box 88” is a novel for the more discerning thrill-seeker.

The titular Box 88 is a covert transatlantic anti-terrorism spy agency that’s blacker than black; even MI6 and the CIA aren’t sure of its existence. Lachlan Kite is one of its agents, recruited from an elite boarding school in 1989, towards the end of the Cold War, to gather intelligence on an Iranian businessman implicated in the Lockerbie bombing, who has ties to the family Kite is staying with in France, at the holiday home of one of his closest friends.

What happens on this operation for the young, inexperienced Kite will have massive repercussions more than 30 years later in 2020, when he is kidnapped off the streets of London by Iranian intelligence, in front of a team of MI5 observes who are watching Kite, hoping to find evidence of Box 88’s existence. Kite’s kidnappers want to know the truth about events three decades ago — and are willing to kill, wound and maim anybody connected to Kite to illicit answers.

Rejecting simplistic linearity, Cumming’s book flits smoothly between timelines, building to a fabulous crescendo of action and revelations; and plenty of reason to return for its sequel. Spy fiction at its very best.

ISBN: 9780008200374
ISBN 10: 0008200378
Imprint: HarperCollins – GB
On Sale: 02/12/2020
Pages: 496
List Price: 29.99 AUD

Daylight by David Baldacci

David Baldacci has penned his Atlee Pine novels like a television series. Each of the three books so far have involved an over-arcing story involving the kidnapping of her sister, Mercy, thirty years ago. That investigation inches towards a revolution with each instalment, but is relegated to the “B” story, as a more urgent situation arises, drawing the FBI agent’s attention away.

Sounds great, conceptually; but with a year between books — and having skipped last year’s “A Minute to Midnight” (for no other reason than I never got around to it) — I wasn’t totally up to speed on where things stood with Pine’s investigation. And though Baldacci provides the necessary information to support newcomers, its detailing is a little contrived. Perhaps a “Previously in…” page before the story begins might be a way around this? It’s artificial, sure; but would spare the reader recap banter.

When “Daylight” opens, Pine and her bureau colleague Carol Blum arrive at a house in Trenton, New Jersey, the last known location of Ito Vincenzo, Mercy’s kidnapper. They inadvertently stumble into — and ruin — an Army CID investigation run by John Puller; an established Baldacci hero, who is working a case involving a drug ring tied to a military installation.

Determined to make amends for her screw-up, and figuring their investigations are connected and will lead her to Vincenzo, Pine and Puller team up. But they’re blighted at every turn: by powerful people high up in the government, and a smorgasbord of gun-totting goons, naturally.

Baldacci’s no stylist, but his prose is economical, and his story moves quickly, pockmarked with all kinds of roadblocks for his characters to detour around. The action scenes read perfunctorily rather than pulse-poundingly; sketched too briskly to maintain suspense. But there are plenty of them. It’s unenterprising stuff from a guy who’s earned his legion of fans, and delivers precisely what they want, like clockwork, year after year. And I’ll be back with them, to hopefully finally learn the truth of Mercy’s fate.

ISBN: 9781509874583
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: 27/10/2020
Imprint: Macmillan
Pages: 464
Price: $32.99

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

The titular Queenie in Candice Carty-Williams’s debut is a 25-year-old Black British-Jamaican woman who is going through a very bad time. Her self-worth has entirely eroded as a result of her “trial” separation from her long-term boyfriend Tom, which has lead to a series of sexual episodes with strangers, and a work colleague; not to mention an overriding sense of purposelessness at her job.

Queenie is no stranger to emotional turmoil: the repercussions of her mother’s relationship with an abusive lover, which left her living alone at the age of 11, continue to undulate, and there is a standoffish relationship between Queenie and the rest of her family, who demonstrate no pride in Queenie’s accomplishments — she finished school and college, has a full-time job; the first in her family to do so —but are quick to vilify her when she announces her intention to start therapy. Thank goodness she has a strong network of supportive friends to lean on: the bristly, sharp-tongued Kyazike and gold-hearted colleague Darcy.

“Queenie” is one part laugh-out-loud romantic comedy — Queenie desperately trying to decode a sloppily drunk-texted ‘X’ from Tom, navigating her feelings for work colleague Ted — and part candid portrait of a young Black woman unravelling through the pressures of modern life. It’s a delicate balance of tone. The opening is uncomfortable — Queenie learns she had a miscarriage, despite her IUD — and though it never strays towards slapstick, the rest of the novel coruscates with moments of necessary levity. It’s pitch perfect.

ISBN: 9781409180074
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 400
Imprint: Trapeze
Publisher: Orion
Publish Date: 6-Feb-2020

The Silence by Don DeLillo

“Seemingly all the screens have emptied out, everywhere. What remains for us to see, hear, feel?”

“The Silence” reads like Don DeLillo’s sketched manifesto on humankind’s relationship with technology, how much of our lives are currently lived online, and the fallout if that connection was abruptly severed. All great fodder for an interesting story, no doubt; but such is the sparseness of “The Silence” — which is the length of a short-story exploded into novella-size thanks to double-spacing and absurdly large font — that any sort of subtlety is almost entirely eroded, and its characters read as caricatures who disgorge stilted dialogue.

DeLillo opens with an epigraph, a quote from Einstein: “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” We then cut to our first exposure to the great technological blackout that has afflicted the world (we assume) when the plane on which Jim Kripps and Tessa Berens are returning home from Europe drops out of the sky. We don’t know for sure what has happened. We never find out. “Whatever is going on, it has crushed our technology,” says a nurse, much later, when their injuries are tended to.

Soon they’ll leave the hospital and wind their way on foot through the dark city to the apartment of Diane Lucas and Max Stenner, where alongside their guest, Diane’s former-student Martin, they had planned to watch the Super Bowl; no longer an option, the television blank, not even static. Here they engage in artificial conversations clearly designed to showcase how blighted we are as a species without our precious screens. For generations technology has interposed itself between ourselves and our neighbours; with it gone, DeLillo questions our capacity to reconnect as humans, with our capacity for empathy obliterated.

“The Silence” has neat, thought-provoking ideas at its centre that deserve meatier exploration. At times I wondered whether DeLillo intended this as some kind of fable. But, then, what was the lesson?

ISBN: 9781529057096
Format: Hardback
Pub Date: 27/10/2020
Imprint: Picador
Pages: 192
Price: $29.99

Anthony Horowitz’s “Magpie Murders” and “Moonflower Murders”

The genius of Anthony Horowitz’s “Magpie Murders” and “Moonflower Murders,” two books I read back-to-back recently for book club, is that they’re ostensibly complex — murder mysteries within murder mysteries, with overt and obscure connections — but effortlessly transliterated. Both novels provide intricately-plotted parallel stories that twist around each other like the double helix of a DNA strand: Susan Ryeland, literary editor extraordinaire, stars in the “real life” narrative; and Alan Conway’s fictional creation, the German-born private investigator Atticus Pund, is the other lead. The books involve Susan unlocking the parallels between Pund’s fictional investigations and a real world mystery.

“Magpie Murders” and “Moonflower Murders” are love letters to the golden age of crime fiction, the Agatha Christie era, when the number of red-herrings matched the page-count, and everyone was a suspect, if not of the actual murder, then of some other act of maleficence. The cases themselves are relatively simple, albeit populated by a dense cast: the layering of one mystery atop another adds the veneer complexity.

“Moonflower Murders” is a direct sequel to “Magpie Murders,” with Susan retired from publishing and running a small hotel on a Greek island with her boyfriend. But she misses her literary life in London, and jumps at the opportunity to assist the Trehernes. Years ago, a murder took place the same day as their daughter’s wedding, in their family-owned hotel, when author Alan Grant was a guest.  She is now missing. Before she disappeared she believed she unlocked clues in the novel “Atticus Pund Takes the Case” that suggest the wrong man was arrested. The Trehernes want Susan to spot what their daughter did in Grant’s novel, which will hopefully lead to her discovery.

Though the connection to another Atticus Pund novel is rather more tenuous and coincidental than in “Magpie Murders,” when the “real life” murder was in fact Alan Grant’s, “Moonflower Murders” is a brick-sized, compulsively readable page-turner. Horowitz is quite brilliant at playing with the tropes of the genre — not just here, but in “The Word is Murder” and “The Sentence is Death” — and revitalising them. He’s on that rarefied “Must Read” list.

Trio by William Boyd

William Boyd’s “Trio” is an effortlessly realised portrait of an American actor (Anny Viklund) with an insidious ex-husband lurking in the background; a film producer (Talbot Kydd) struggling to reconcile his sexuality; and an alcoholic, formerly-lauded novelist, “the new Virginia Woolf” (Elfrida Wing), during the turbulent summer of 1968.

“Trio” reads every bit like the work of a seasoned novelist in absolute control of his craft; like Boyd had this fragment of an idea — three characters, whose lives are entwined because of a film shoot in Brighton for “Emily Bracegirdle’s Extremely Useful Ladder to the Moon,” whose lives are upended in quite separate circumstances, the machinations of which are felt by all — and simply sat down to write the story with his customary exquisitely graceful artistry.

I loved “Trio.” In fact, it might even be one of my favourite novels of the year. But there’s no denying there’s an element of “safeness” about it. Like Boyd is treading well-worn territory, refusing to risk colouring outside the lines.

“Trio” is a well-oiled machine. It thrums in all the right places thanks to its well-developed emotional core. Its examination of the complex ecosystem of the film business is played for equal parts drama and comedy. It’s a snapshot of a very distinct era, a tumultuous year, which saw North Vietnam launch the Tet Offensive against the United States and South Vietnam, and stirred a withdrawal of support for the war with Americans back home; the civil rights movement; the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

My overriding feeling upon turning its final page was a contented sigh, an acknowledgement of a job well done, when it felt like Boyd, evidently a grandmaster storyteller, is capable of so much more; of making me shattered, or ecstatic, or a hybrid of both. “Trio” is a great book, but it reads like Boyd is capable of even greater. That’s an exciting prospect.

Published: 20 October 2020
ISBN: 9780241295960
Imprint: Viking
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 352
RRP: $32.99

A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing by Jessie Tu

“A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing” is subversive, abrasive, and brilliant. Jessie Tu’s brazenness rips through the landscape of Australian fiction like a tornado as she ruthlessly excavates themes of race, sex, womanhood and patriarchy through the lens of Jena, an exceptional violinist, a former child prodigy, now a young adult, living in Sydney while she grapples with the fallout of her breakdown on stage years earlier, and re-establishing her career as a soloist.  

Jena relationship with her mother is strained. She sabotages her friendships. And she uses sex as a refuge from her overriding loneliness; the pain and affection of intercourse a fleeting escape from the monotony of rehearsals, concerts, auditions and relentless practice. Tu’s descriptions are brutal and raw. Her prose is no holds barred. There’s not a trace of emotional saccharinity. Jena burns bridges, and they remain ablaze. Life is difficult, particularly as an Asian woman in a dominantly white, upper-middle-class industry. This isn’t a story about overcoming those discriminations. Nothing is wrapped in a neat bow. This isn’t fantasy. That’s the genius of “A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing.” It’s about a character facing up to the truth of her foibles without downplaying the toxic and discriminatory verisimilitude of her reality.

ISBN: 9781760877194
ISBN-10: 1760877190
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 304
Published: 2nd July 2020
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

The Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly

In “The Law of Innocence,” as reports of a deadly virus in China with possible global implications begin to gather steam, Los Angeles defence attorney Mickey Haller takes on the most important case of his career: his own.

After an open-bar celebration of a not-guilty verdict at the Redwood on Second Street, Haller — a teetotaller, definitely not over the limit, and most assuredly not driving erratically — is pulled over by an LAPD cruiser. During a terse exchange with officer Milton, the cop notices a blotch of blood-like liquid beneath the bumper of Mickey’s car. The Lincoln Lawyer is handcuffed and made to watch from the backseat of the police cruiser as Milton pops the trunk. Inside is the corpse of a former client.

Charged with murder and unable to make the $5 million bail, Haller opts to defend himself. He assembles a defence team from his jail cell in the Twin Towers Correctional Centre in downtown LA, which includes his half-brother, former LAPD detective Harry Bosch. But this frame-up is far more extensive, and watertight, than Haller could’ve ever imagined.

Bosch’s investigation leads him to the port of Los Angeles, and a biofuel company run by a serial scam-artist with connections to the mob. He believes they’re running an elaborate scheme involving illicit supplementary government subsidies payouts. Which means the feds are involved. And unwilling to get involved in Mickey’s trial.

The tension rises steadily as Haller prepares his defence, and the courtroom drama is as nail-biting and riveting as anything else you’ll read this year, grounded in authenticity rather than pyrotechnics. We know Haller is innocent. The question is, can he prove it? Michael Connelly, the unequivocal master of the police procedural, again proves himself the master of the legal thriller, too. Grisham and Turow might do it more often — but nobody does it better.

ISBN: 9781760878917
ISBN-10: 176087891X
Series: Mickey Haller
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 432
Available: 10th November 2020
Publisher: A&U

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

“Red at the Bone” reads so smoothly you’ll want to imbibe it in a single swallow.

You shouldn’t.

Pace yourself, dear reader. Savour the cadence and poetry of Jacqueline Woodson’s words. Admire the extraordinary artistry and economy of her sentences, the construction of her paragraphs, the architecture of the novel as a whole; restrained but replete. Yes, “Red at the Bone” can be read in a couple of hours, but it demands and deserves more.

It opens on 31 May 2001, at sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming-of-age ceremony in her grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone. Through the voices of five characters spanning three generations of her family, and slicing backward and forward in time, from the 1921 Tulsa Massacre to 9/11, “Red at the Bone” sketches the history of Melody’s parents and grandparents to show how they arrived at this moment, and what their future holds. Her mother, Iris, gave birth too young, and fled across the country for an education, leaving Melody in the care of her father, Aubrey, who feels untethered as he witnesses his daughter’s transition into adulthood.

A wrenching, beautiful book, whose graceful sparseness still allows space for intense examinations of parenthood, race and family.

ISBN: 9781474616454
ISBN-10: 1474616453
Audience: Professional
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 208
Available: 27th January 2021
Publisher: Orion

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

“Being a heterosexual woman who loved men meant being a translator for their emotions, a palliative nurse for their pride and a hostage negotiator for their egos,” observes 32-year-old successful food writer Nina Dean as she awaits the arrival of her new boyfriend in the company of her ex, Joe, who remains a close friend and confidant.

She met Max on a dating app, where she’d had “twenty-seven conversations on the go with twenty-seven different men,” which seems a lot, until you realise Nina spent “approximately four hours of each working day on the app, green-lighting hundreds upon thousands of men.” That a mere twenty-seven wanted to match her back “seemed meagre.” Her gregarious (and perennially single) friend Lola explains matches halve when women turn thirty. So Nina feels comparatively lucky to have met Max, who declaratively states “I’m certain I’m going to marry you” after their first date, which would be cringeworthy if uttered by anyone else, but Max is the perfect cocktail of earnestness and charm. She believes him. Until the day he vanishes from her life.

Dolly Alderton’s “Ghosts” is one of the best novels of the year. It’s a very smart, very funny, and very touching snapshot of a woman in her thirties coping with the rigmarole of adulthood. As her father’s dementia razes the bedrock of her family, and her closest friends start dissipating from her life as they focus on marriage and parenthood, Nina is reminded constantly of the gendered double-standard of the biological clock: “the female population [is] just an endless source of chances” for men, she realises. They have the luxury of being able to decide when they want to fall in love and have a family, and grow up.    

“Ghosts” flows like running water, punctuated with poignant moments, lightning comedy and searing social commentary. In one scene, Lola is asked what her love language is. She deadpans “Anal, probably.” In the next, they’re discussing politics; “I’m fiscally conservative but socially liberal,” remarks a fellow wedding guest. Nina retorts, “I’m not sure that really exists… ‘I love the gays but don’t care about the poor’ can’t be described as liberal in any sense.”

“Ghosts” is warm-hearted, sharp-edged, and unmissable.

Published: 20 October 2020
ISBN: 9780241465332
Imprint: Fig Tree
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 352
RRP: $32.99