Review: Call Me Evie by J.P. Pomare

call me evieIn J.P. Pomare’s cleverly claustrophobic, impossible-to-put-down debut Call Me Evie, a 17-year-old girl stranded in rural New Zealand with a man named “Jim” wrestles with her hazy memory to recall the truth about a violent incident that occurred in Melbourne.

Jim assures Kate — who he calls “Evie” — he has brought her to the small, isolated beach town of Maketu to protect her from police interrogation and the public’s vitriol awaiting her back home, and to aid the restoration of her memory by  asking probing questions about the incident that eviscerated the normality of her life. But there’s nothing magnanimous about Jim’s intentions, or his methods: Kate isn’t allowed to go online; her phone has confiscated; she’s locked in her room at night; and on the few occasions she ventures beyond the perimeter of the property, it’s clear Jim has corrupted the local population into viewing her as mentally unbalanced, a danger to herself and potentially others. All Kate wants to do is go home to align the fragments of her fractured recollections into a cohesive whole — but as her attempts to escape become more desperate, Jim becomes increasingly unhinged and unpredictable. There is little doubt from the start that their relationship is doomed; Pomare keeps readers guessing on just how everything will implode.

Call Me Evie is a slow-burner of a psychological thriller, thick with a constant undercurrent of menace, where nothing should be taken at face value, which ignites into a nail-biting finale. It’s got all the elements the genre demands — an unreliable narrator, a plot that cuts between past and present — and it twists and turns, then twists again. A page-turner for sure, but one that lingers.

ISBN: 9780733640230
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 416
Imprint: Hachette Australia
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Publish Date: 27-Dec-2018
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

9780349012810Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend is a bright shining gem of a book; a sharp, intimate examination of the human-canine bond, grief, and — unexpectedly — writing. The understated simplicity of Nunez’s writing — its  bold unsentimentality that only adds to its unique charm and poignancy — is artistry of the highest order.

Ostensibly The Friend is about an unnamed middle-aged writing professor (and the book’s narrator) whose best friend and mentor commits suicide, leading her to become the caretaker of his ageing Great Dane, Apollo. Our narrator isn’t especially fond of dogs, though nor does she particularly abhor them; she’s just never wanted one as a companion, and even if she did, her lease in her Manhattan apartment forbids it. But guilted into adopting the friendly giant — not because of arguments supplied by her friend’s third wife, but because of her enduring devotion to the dead man — Apollo becomes her companion.

You’re wrong if you’re thinking the book then becomes a comedy of errors, as human and dog acclimate to each other’s tendencies, overcome their loss, and form an unbreakable bond, although their allegiance is ultimately absolute. Though our narrator’s commentary on her new life with Apollo is peppered with drily comedic moments, The Friend is a wholly melancholic tale, though somehow not depressive or grim, almost entirely free of plot, essentially a meditation on grief and the art and world of writing and writers, peppered with a ton of literary references that had me scratching author names and their works in my notebook for future reference. My favourite moments didn’t actually involve Apollo; reserved instead for the narrator’s savage yet subtle takedowns on the literary world.

The Friend seduces and endures because of its voice: meditative, hypnotic, and very real. It has set a gold-star standard of reading for 2019, and it will be a book I return to regularly in years to come.

ISBN: 9780349012810
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 224
Imprint: Virago Press Ltd
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Publish Date: 8-Jan-2019


Review: Run Away by Harlan Coben

9781780894263.jpgIn Harlan Coben’s capable hands, the familiar runaway daughter plot is revitalised and exacerbated, in a thriller replete with several truly sneaky twists and a haunting dénouement. Although Coben’s customary wit and banter is diluted — the repercussions of Simon Greene’s search for his daughter, Paige, doesn’t really allow for sass or wisecracks — Run Away is another masterful domestic thriller, and another impressive page-turner from one of my favourite writers.

When Simon, a successful Manhattan money manager, identifies his runaway college dropout (now junkie) daughter Paige playing guitar in Central Park, he approaches her, hoping to encourage her back into rehab, or at the very least a few nights away from her abusive boyfriend, Aaron. Things do not go well. Strung out on drugs, Paige barely seems to recognise her father — and their resulting confrontation results in Simon punching Aaron in the face, and becoming a viral sensation as a rich guy abusing the poor. Paige disappears, and for three months, Simon and his wife, Ingrid, hear nothing;  that is until Bronx Homicide Detective Isaac Fagbenle turns up at Simon’s office, asking questions about the murder of Aaron. The Greene’s are suspects, but Paige is the obvious one and she’s still missing. So Simon and Ingrid launch their own investigation, which brings them into the path of Chicago PI Elena Ramirez, hired to find the missing adopted son of wealthy Sebastian Thorpe III, and a murderous duo named Ash and Dee Dee, the latter of whom waxes lyrically about the Maine religious commune she belongs to. Somehow Coben manages to successfully connect these threads, building momentum until the very last page.

Fasten your seat belt for this roller-coaster ride through family hell.

ISBN: 9781780894263
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 352
Imprint: Century
Publisher: Cornerstone
Publish Date: 21-Mar-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Darkness by Ragnar Jónasson

image (1)Damn, Ragnar Jónasson, where have you been all my life?

(In the crime section of every good bookshop I’ve visited, actually; including the one I work at — I’ve just never picked one up.)

The Darkness is a book that completely subverted my expectations and stunned me with its climax. Which is a rare thing. I read a lot of crime fiction. Like, a lot. It takes something special to impress me. And it takes something brilliant to steal the air from my lungs; that physically stops me launching up the escalator when I alight from my train at Kings Cross and instead take up residence on the left side of the moving staircase to enable an extra minute of reading. Jónasson’s writing is razor sharp. Nothing goes to waste. And its short, sharp chapters, and creeping sense of dread, tantalise you into reading just one more page, just one more page until you’re all out of pages, all out of book, and left with nothing but despair when you realise there’s months to wait until the next entry in the series.

On the eve of her abrupt and unwanted retirement, Reykjavík inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir is allowed to pick a cold case to work on while she dwindles away her final days with a badge. Hulda reminded me a lot of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch; addicted to the mission, bleeds police blue, who truly relishes putting bad guys away. But she’s almost 65 and retirement is non-negotiable. The deaths of her husband and daughter — adroitly extrapolated  — have left her with nothing to look forward to, save for a fledging relationship with a man she’s not quite in love with, but in whose presence she finds great comfort.

The cold case Hulda plucks from the ether is a doozy: the death (suicide? murder?) of a Russian immigrant named Elena, who had applied for political asylum, which as Hulda quickly discovers, was granted; which makes her colleague Alexander’s handling of the investigation and ultimate conclusions all the more incongruous. Ineptitude? Corruption? A mixture of the two? As she digs deeper, Hulda confronts a legion of dark forces, not least of which are tendrils from her past, that threaten to finally consume her.

The Darkness will have you burning the midnight oil till 2:00am. It’s a gloriously compelling yarn, whose spell continues to hold even when you’ve turned its final page thanks to its unexpected ending, which, though confounding, is thematically apt. I can’t wait for Jónasson’s next; in the meantime, I’ve got his backlist to keep me busy.

ISBN: 9781405930802
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 352
Imprint: Penguin Books Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 4-Oct-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Newcomer by Keigo Higashino

9781408711828“Newcomer” is the second Detective Kyochiro Kaga mystery translated from Japanese into English after “Malice, back in 2014. Having been demoted from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s elite Homicide Division, Kaga now finds himself working in the Nihonbashi Precinct; specifically a murder in Kodenmacho, where Mineko Mitsui, a woman with seemingly no enemies, was discovered strangled in her apartment.

Kaga’s investigation unfolds through the eyes of various inhabitants of the neighbourhood. The detective’s deliberations and observations are shrouded from the reader; we are mere witnesses to his brilliant deductions. It’s an interesting narrative choice, but without access to his thoughts and feelings, or any idea of what he does when he’s not hunting bad guys, there’s nothing to latch onto, no emotional connection to Kaga; he is too enigmatic to be a memorable protagonist, at least based on this novel alone.

As he interposes himself in the lives of the Kodenmacho locals, their stories start to intersect in unexpected ways. The beauty of their associations is that they’re neither far-flung or forced; there’s not some mass conspiracy among the shopkeepers in Kodenmacho tied to Mineko’s murder; they’re linked in the subtlest of ways. And just when you think Higashino is leading you to an a-ha! revelatory moment, or indeed a denouement, we learn it’s merely another red-herring or building block towards determining the true killer. If only the climactic revelation that establishes the killer’s motive was as ingenious as the preceding twists and turns. Rather than end with a thunderclap, “Newcomer” ends with a rumble. Still, there’s enough here to warrant a second visit to Keigo Higashino’s Tokyo.

ISBN: 9781408711828
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 352
Imprint: Little, Brown
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Publish Date: 20-Nov-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Overstory by Richard Powers

9781785151644 (1)A few years back, Annie Proulx published Barkskins, a vast multi-generational and ecological saga that was enormous in size and scope. I adored the books for its lofty ambition — to chronicle the world’s deforestation from the perspective of two distinct bloodlines — and figured I was done with environmental novels for a while. Then came The Overstory by  Powers — shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize, and loved by several of my colleagues — and lo and behold, here I am, another enormous novel about trees behind me.

The Overstory is about our relationship with nature, and our responsibility to the planet and to ourselves. It has a cast of operatic proportions; nine characters share the spotlight as Powers’ unravels a full half century of their involvement with activism and resistance. Despite its scale, The Overstory never feels bloated it drags a little, maybe, for a hundred pages in its middle, but it’s always engaging thanks in no small part to Powers’ luminous prose — but there were times when I questioned its architecture. The Overstory is structured unlike any novel I’ve read in recent memory; its first section — “Roots” — reads like a collection of short stories, as nine characters are introduced, whose only association is their relationship with trees. “Roots” is a truly magnificent example of Powers’ unparalleled craftsmanship; and it’s here the book truly thrums. It then breaks from that style, and slows down, becomes less revelatory and more perfunctory; “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seed” sees these nine characters being inextricably drawn together, their lives entangled. The writing is still exemplary, but the narrative energy of “Roots” is lost.

The Overstory is impressive; masterful, even, as Powers weaves an impossible number of threads together. Its scope is fantastic, but its execution, in my view, is uneven. But if I could reread”Roots” again, for the first time, I would it’s exceptional storytelling.

ISBN: 9781785151644
ISBN-10: 1785151649
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 512
Imprint: William Heinemann Ltd
Publisher: Cornerstone
Publish Date: 5-Apr-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

9780099572237After lavishing Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance with praise last year — in fact, it was named in my Top 10 Books of 2018 — a few readers got in touch lamenting its place in that echelon, labelling Tyler’s novels ‘boring’ and homogeneous. Honestly, I’ve not read enough of her work to confirm or deny those allegations; of her 22 books, I’ve read six of them. All I know is, each one of them has been of a sufficiently high quality to warrant further exploration into her backlist. Sure, many navigate similar themes and locales, and revolve around thoroughly messed-up families but honestly, I can’t name you an author more capable of rendering complex emotions with such devastating clarity and sympathetic intelligence; whose I novels I’ve become increasingly infatuated with. It’s not a matter of if I’ll get around to reading all of Tyler’s novels, but when, and prolonging that process as long as possible.

The narrator of The Beginner’s Goodbye is Aaron Woolcott, who works for a family publishing company, who are the originators of the successful Beginners series, which breaks large topics into manageable increments. So less ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Cooking,’ more ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Boiling an Egg.’ Following a childhood illness, Aaron’s right arm and leg are paralysed, so he wears a brace, uses a cane (when he’s not purposefully leaving it behind) and drives a modified car. He also suffers from a bad stutter. As a result, his mother (now dead) and older sister have sought to protect him from the harsh realities of the world, thinking Aaron hapless prey. Aaron despises that notion — spends his days “fending off the two women in my life” and they try, in his eyes, to “cosset me to death.” Which is why he falls for the brusque, almost aloof, Doctor Dorothy Rosales, eight years his senior, who doesn’t treat him with kid gloves. Even Aaron admits: he deliberately chose a non-caretaker as a wife.

But when Dorothy is killed in a freak accident — so swift and unlikely, it’s almost comical — Aaron is forced to revaluate his life, and his marriage. He begins to perceive its cracks, but also the comfort he garnered from Dorothy’s presence. Their marriage was less than ideal: in moments, told in flashbacks, it feels like there’s no affection between the two at all. But they were a unit, had established a routine, valued their companionship, even if it was at times distant. The Beginner’s Goodbye deftly handles Aaron’s nosedive into grief; his steadfast refusal to accept the offerings from neighbours, and the companionship of friends and family, which climaxes with Dorothy’s “return” from the dead; a mirage conjured from extreme melancholic loneliness. But it’s through his dialogue with Dorothy that Aaron gradually begins to move on.

The Beginner’s Goodbye is a light, engaging, poignant story about love and loss. I adored it until its denouement, which reads a little false, more like a fairy tale, a little too convenient, and far too conventional. Good Tyler; not great Tyler.

ISBN: 9780099572237
Format: Paperback / softback (198mm x 129mm x 17mm)
Pages: 272
Imprint: Vintage
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 17-Jan-2013
Country of Publication: United Kingdom