Review: The Faces by Tove Ditlevsen

In “The Faces,” Tove Ditlevsen — whose history of substance abuse is well documented, alongside her repeated stays in psychiatric hospital, and her death by suicide due to an overdose of sleeping pills — relates a searing tale of mental health anguish in the voice of a children’s author and mother.

This is a short, sharp, terrifyingly claustrophobic novel, set in late sixties Copenhagen, about Lise Mundus’s torturous descent into mental illness. Narrated in third person, but exclusively from her perspective, “The Faces” depicts Lise’s horrific disorientation as she struggles to ascertain reality through clouds of delusions. The reader shares her confusion, a deliberate narrative device on Ditlevsen’s part designed to suffuse the narrative in a thick layer of ambiguity.

Early on, Lise makes a conscious decision (albeit one shaped by disembodied faces and voices that plague almost every waking moment) to overdose on sleeping pills as a means to escape her tumultuous home life in which she believes her husband Gert, having witnessed his previous lover Grete kill herself, is having an affair with their housekeeper Gitte. This similarity between their names is another method Ditlevsen’s uses to keep readers off balance and blur reality and mirage. It works, almost too well; there were occasions I’d need to skim previously read passages to recalibrate my understanding of a scene. If I was struggling, imagine poor Lise.

Most of the novel takes place in her hospital bed as Lise recovers from her overdose, and struggles with cacophony of disparate voices inside her head, and the familiar faces that form over the top of doctors and nurses, who spit venomous taunts. Her sense of terror is palpable. She is sure the hospital staff are trying to kill her and that her family has abandoned her. The line between reality and her perception of it has been obliterated. Stretched over a wider canvas, “The Faces” might’ve been all too bewildering, but its brevity means it reads like a fever dream.

Published: 26 January 2021
ISBN: 9780241391914
Imprint: Penguin Classics
Format: Paperback
Pages: 144
RRP: $19.99

Review: The Imitator by Rebecca Starford

It’s March 1948, and Evelyn Varley’s beau Stephen — an Italian translator — has been offered the opportunity to travel to Rome for a month to begin a new translation of Ovid. He wants Evelyn, a bookseller at a quiet London shop, to join him; but all she can do is promise to think about it. There are complications involved, which neither Stephen — or the reader — know about. Yet.  

Then she spots someone over Stephen’s shoulder, through the window of the hotel bar; a person she hasn’t seen in eight years, whose eyes meet hers, which careens her clandestine past into her present, threatening to devastate the life she has built from the ashes. And so we spool backwards in time to 1939, just before Evelyn is recruited by M15, to Bennett White’s elite counter-intelligence department, where she learns to become a chameleon, a master of deceit…

Betrayal is the great theme of Rebecca Starford’s novel — and the dark undercurrent that ripples beneath the best espionage novels. Tension in “The Imitator” is derived not from gunplay or pyrotechnics, but from the moral dilemma faced by its young protagonist as she infiltrates an underground group of Nazi sympathisers, forming connections she’ll inevitably have to snap. But the duplicitous nature inherent in her profession soon manifests in her personal life; after all, Evelyn hasn’t been seconded to a foreign country. She’s a spy operating on the same streets as her friends and family. Which inevitably means someone she knows is entangled in her mission. So it becomes a question of what matters most: Queen and Country, or friendship?

Starford puts a puts a human face on the moral complexities of espionage. And while it’s not laden with bombshell twists, the author is exemplarily erudite with its telling; the prose smooth, the characters and historical backdrop textured. Starford is a natural born storyteller, whose fiction debut suggests even greater things to follow.  

ISBN: 9781760529796
ISBN-10: 1760529796
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 352
Published: 2nd February 2021
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

For years people have been telling me to read Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.” But although I make my living recommending books, too many people telling me something is going to be my favourite thing ever is a total turn-off. So I’ve let this sit for a while. More than a decade actually, since it was first prescribed essential reading. Until now.

“Kavalier and Clay” is based on the history of the Golden Age of comic books, and its titular protagonists — Czech immigrant Josef Kavalier and his cousin Sammy Clayman — are inspired by several real-life comic creators of the era, particularly Siegel and Shuster, Simon and Kirby, and Steranko. (I’m sure they bear resemblances to other important creators too — Chabon cleverly plucking various characteristics and histories to form these two magnificently realised characters — but these seem the most glaring to my eye).

After they meet in 1939, Sam and Joe decide to utilise the latter’s artistic talent and the former’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the costumed heroes taking the world by storm, and create “The Escapist,” part Houdini, part Robin Hood, and inspired by Joe’s traumatic upbringing in the shadow of Nazism (and the tragedy of his family, still trapped in Prague), and his training as a magician and escape artist. The Escapist is a mega-hit; a Superman-like phenomenon.

But for all their success, both Sam and Joe battle their own demons. Josef thirsts for vengeance against Hitler, unable to find solace in his depictions of The Escapist taking on the Nazis, hardened by heartbreaking tragedies that befall his family, leading him to depart the life he knows for an unlikely and outlandish pilgrimage. Sam, too, is burdened by his polio-stricken body and repressed sexuality, and a desire to be more than a writer of pulps.

“Kavalier and Clay” is big and bold. Chabon luxuriates in its telling. There were times I wished he quickened its pace, but on reflection, able to perceive the narrative’s tapestry from a distance, I can’t imagine what he might redact. This is one of those rare books that shines more brightly in hindsight. Scrutinizing it is like polishing gold. It’s supreme entertainment; a genre-meshing symphony: an epic adventure story that’s also an intensely interior examination of the psyches of two men. And a wonderful ode to comic books.

ISBN: 9781841154930
Imprint: 4th Estate – GB
On Sale: 23/01/2002
Pages: 656
List Price: 22.99 AUD

Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The best novels are experienced rather than merely read, and Sarah Waters’ “The Paying Guests” is one of those rare and brilliant creations. I fell in love with this book, utterly addicted to all 600 of its pages, unperturbed by its glacially-paced first half, and obsessed with discovering the fate of its characters after the narrative takes a darker, violent turn.  

It’s 1922, and Frances Wray lives with her mother in their grand family home in South London. Her two brothers were killed in the war, and her father died soon afterwards, leaving behind immense debt the surviving Wrays can’t possibly resolve on their own. To alleviate their financial woes, and much to their chagrin — who, after all, wants strangers gallivanting around their home — they rent out rooms to Leonard and Lilian Barber.

Frances is initially wary of her lodgers; standoffish, almost, their exchanges brusquely genteel. But an attraction quickly forms between Frances and Lilian, and the story is soon fuelled by ‘will they/won’t they’ tension, which thickens when they do, as they desperately scrabble for time alone to consummate their love. And then, something happens, an act of violence, a moment of crescendo, that tilts the narrative on its axis, transforming it into a suspense-filled, white-knuckled crime drama, turning my compulsion to read into a physical force.

“The Paying Guests” is so perfectly formed, deliberately paced in order to richly texture its characters, so its melodrama reverberates. It was my first Sarah Waters, and it won’t be my last. “The Little Stranger” awaits on my reading stack.

ISBN: 9780349004600
Format: Paperback
Pages: 608
Imprint: Virago Press Ltd
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Publish Date: 4-Jun-2015
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Girl A by Abigail Dean

Touted as ‘the biggest mystery thriller since “Gone Girl,”‘ Abigail Dean’s “Girl A” thrums on intrigue rather than suspense. It explores the long echoes of trauma born of childhood abuse, and has more in common with Emma Donoghue’s “Room” than it does with the archetypal psychological thriller. Which is not a complaint about this impeccably-paced, immersive psychological study, rather a caveat for readers expecting a narrative laden with explosive twists and shockwaves.

Alexandra “Lex” Gracie is the titular Girl A, and the protagonist of Dean’s debut. Alongside her older brother and four younger siblings (Boy A, Girl B, etc), Lex grew up in an abusive home in Hollowfield, England — until she escaped, and led the authorities to their rescue, where her father promptly committed suicide, and her mother was sent to prison. The children were all placed in various foster homes, with limited, and sometimes no, contact.

Fifteen years later, Lex is now a 30-something lawyer in New York when she learns of her mother’s death. She has made Lex the executor of her estate, which includes the “house of horrors,” and Lex is determined to turn Hollowfield House into something beneficial to the local community. In order to do so, she needs approval from each of her siblings. Thus, as she meets with them, readers learn how their shared traumatic past has shaped their lives, complicating relationships between each other, and those beyond their private circle. Because no matter how much time has passed, there’s a darkness at the root of each of them that has germinated differently.

The tight and polished control demonstrated from her opening hook — “You don’t know me, but you’ll have seen my face” — to the final, haunting line mark Dean as a writer to watch. Gritty, peopled with rich characters that so easily could’ve been caricatures of trauma, “Girl A” isn’t the white-knuckle thrill ride you might expect, but it’s brilliantly compelling. 

ISBN: 9780008389062
Imprint: HarperCollins – GB
On Sale: 20/01/2021
Pages: 336
List Price: 29.99 AUD

Review: People Like Her by Ellery Lloyd

This debut suspense thriller by Ellery Lloyd — the pseudonym for wife-and-husband writing team Collette Lyons and Paul Vlitos — explores the dark underbelly of Insta-fame, and the dangers (and superficiality) of living life on the internet.

“People Like Her” is slick, suspenseful and smartly plotted. It has three separate perspectives: London-based Instagram sensation Emmy Jackson, better known as “Mamabare,” celebrated for always telling the unembellished truth about parenthood; her husband Dan; and the mysterious antagonist scheming against them, targeting one of their children, for reasons that come to light in the novel’s final third.

Everything about Emmy’s Mamabare personality is premeditated. Bad hair days are prearranged; the mess of the kids’ playroom is controlled. But despite the artificiality of her posts, Emmy believes her intentions are pure, even when they’re guided by paid sponsorships. Dan is thankful for the income — Emmy is the sole breadwinner of the family while he toils away at his novel — but he remains concerned about the constant invasion of his family’s privacy. And he should be.

Emmy’s off-the-cuff, unsubstantiated parental advice has the potential for unintended consequences. And indeed, unbeknownst to her, one glib remark has set off a chain of events leading to an unquenchable thirst for revenge by a person with the audacity and skill to pull of the unthinkable.

“People Like Her” builds steadily, ratcheting up to revelations that turn out to be red-herrings, keeping readers on tenterhooks as the menacing presence closes in on the Jackson’s. It’s never anything less than utterly absorbing, at times nail-bitingly harrowing,  lives and relationships in the balance as the climax looms. It’s just a shame that the payoff is rushed, the novel’s coda all-too predictable, plucked from the genre playbook. It’s entirely efficient and satisfactory, but in a crowded field you need that standout twist, something to make the reader gasp, to stand apart. There’s enough here to suggest Ellery Lloyd is capable of producing something like that. In the meantime, if you’re after a page-turner to propel you through a weekend, give it a whirl.

ISBN: 9781529039399
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: 12/01/2021
Imprint: Mantle
Pages: 336
Price: $32.99

Rereading Agatha Christie — Part One

It started with “Death on the Nile.”

It was a Potts Point Bookshop Crime Book Club selection. A few members indicated they had never read Agatha Christie; or it had been years — decades, even — since their last dalliance with the Queen of Crime. And I recalled it from childhood as one of my favourites. Little did I know it would lead to a literal orgy of Christie. During the last month I’ve devoured eight of her novels; seven Poirot’s and a standalone. I’ve had a grand time. I’ve only stopped now because my profession requires wider reading. 

I chose these at random, based on what the shop had in stock, and recommendations from the Twittersphere. The writing in each is elegantly simple. Characters are mostly brushstrokes. They exist to service the plot. A suspension of belief is required. But as far as summer reading goes, these were ideal. Pacy, devised with precision, packed with red-herrings. 

DEATH ON THE NILE (1937) ★★★★
CARDS ON THE TABLE (1936) ★★★★
THE ABC MURDERS (1936) ★★★★

The absolute standout was “And Then There were None,” which might just be my favourite mystery of all time. It’s no wonder contemporary writers iterate on it constantly. Ten strangers are united on an isolated island off the Devon coast, whence they quickly begin dropping like flies. It’s ingeniously preposterous, and ridiculously good fun; the kind of novel you can read again and again, to unlock its clues, and to understand its architecture.

“Death on the Nile,” “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Cards on the Table” were other favourites. Christie was a genius at the closed-room, limited suspect, constrained mystery. It’s especially impressive in “Cards on the Table,” where there are only four suspects. 

“The ABC Murders” impressed me too, with its brilliant final twist, while “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” and “Evil Under the Stars” were satisfactory whodunits, cleverly plotted, but without the conspicuous ingenuity of the others. The only dud of the bunch, relatively so, was “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe,” whose crime and characters are rooted in ideologies of the day, and unravelled too convolutedly for my liking.

Review: The Chase by Candice Fox

More than six hundred of the United States’ most dangerous prisoners break out from Pronghorn Correctional Facility in this turbocharged suspenser from Candice Fox — her most ambitious and byzantine novel yet. 

As some of the scariest humans on the planet flee into the Nevada desert following a bold escape plan actioned by persons unknown, death row supervisor Celine Osbourne makes it her mission to capture one specific fugitive: John Kradle. His crimes — the murderous rampage that massacred his family  — elicit traumatic memories from Osbourne’s childhood, and she is determined to see him returned behind bars; even if it means partnering with another inmate to access his particular skill set, and splitting from the official manhunt run by U.S. Marshal Trinity Parker, whose focus is a terrorist she is certain will strike again, and soon.

But Kradle is less interested in hiding from his pursuers and more concerned with finally unearthing the truth about the crime he was convicted of, and finally enacting vengeance.  Taking advantage of the pandemonium, he spends his first hours of freedom trailed by the serial killer who has befriended him, and who Kradle can’t shake; then gradually peels back the layers of deception that landed him in Pronghorn. 

“The Chase” is brilliantly cinematic, tailor-made for adaptation into a slick television mini-series. While Kradle and Osbourne are the protagonists, Fox splices interludes from various other players, including fugitives and bystanders, which orbit the primary plotline, and engender an epicness to the story. But despite the grandness of the tale, Fox’s distinct brand of wry humour still shines through; the dialogue is sharp, and the characters are characteristically quirky. This is trademark Fox, but using a wider canvas: a proper blockbuster. 

These are some of the most carefully-crafted, well-groomed pages Candice Fox has produced. Breathless and compelling to the end, “The Chase” is a strong contender for thriller of the year.

Published: 30 March 2021
ISBN: 9781760896799
Imprint: Bantam Australia
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 480

RRP: $32.99

Review: Dead Letters by Michael Brissenden

It’s been a while between drinks for Michael Brissenden and his cop hero Sid Allen. “The List,” published in 2017, was a satisfying thriller, if not a tad mechanical in its unravelling: a blend of “Bosch” and “24,” one part police procedural, another part political thriller. Its direct sequel “Dead Letters,” one of those dreaded sophomore novels, is superior in every way: tighter-plotted, richer in character, and pacier. 

It opens with the murder of Dan LeRoi, Chairman of the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, whose burgeoning political career is cut short by four bullets to the head. The crime scene is chaotic, a kaleidoscope of local and federal investigators, the media swarming on the biggest news story of the year. 

Among them is journalist Zephyr Wilde, a Lois Lane facsimile, whose tenaciousness is rooted in her tragic past. When she was a kid, Zephyr’s mother was killed by an unsub. It’s a cold case that’s remained on ice despite her dogged attempts to probe deeper, fuelled by letters from her long-dead mother that keep appearing in her mailbox. Breaking the golden rule of their professions, Sid and Zephyr partner up to look into LeRoi’s murder against the backdrop of a looming federal election. In doing so they awaken dark, dangerous forces operating within the corridors of power in Canberra. Brissenden weaves these threads together with skill, and pulls the curtain down with a couple of piercing twists.

Despite a deluge of brilliantly distinct local crime fiction published over the last half-decade, Australia — specifically Sydney, the city closest to my heart — is still looking for its answer to Michael Connelly and his (now former) LAPD detective Harry Bosch. The crime genre is so malleable, but the police procedural is my favourite form. Michael Brissenden’s Sid Allen series might be just what I’m looking for.

ISBN: 9780733637445
ISBN-10: 0733637442
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 368
Available: 27th January 2021
Publisher: Hachette Australia

Review: The Burning Girls by C.J. Tudor

Over the course of three novels, C.J. Tudor has established herself as a master practitioner of the supernatural suspense novel — and her latest, “The Burning Girls,” is exactly that, a breakneck page-turner, tinged with horror, wrapped up in family drama.

The town of Chapel Croft has a history of tragedy. Five hundred years ago, eight protestant martyrs were burned at the stake. Thirty years ago, two teenage girls vanished without a trace. And two months ago, the vicar of the local parish killed himself for reasons unknown.

The vicar’s replacement is Jack Brooks, single mother of fourteen-year-old daughter Flo — burdened by her own traumatic past. Chapel Croft, she hopes, offers the chance of a fresh start, and an opportunity to escape it. But that seems unlikely from the start, when an old exorcism kit and a note quoting scripture is left for Jack as a welcoming present. Never mind the stick dolls scattered around the town in remembrance of the burning girls from its past. Or the strange sightings in the decrepit chapel…

As Jack and Flo install themselves within the close-knit community, they begin probing and untangling the mysteries of the town’s dark legacy, which leads to dire consequences. Tudor loves playing with the conventional horror tropes, and slicing them down to their purest form. While the ingredients might be familiar, she has a habit of blending them into something distinctly her own.

Published: 19 January 2021
ISBN: 9780241371312
Imprint: Michael Joseph
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 400
RRP: $32.99