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

Review: The Performance by Claire Thomas

I’d love to sit down with Claire Thomas and deconstruct “The Performance.” I am in awe of its architecture; the elegant circumscription of its staging; its multidimensional exploration of womanhood, the power of art, the geometry of relationships, and the state of the world; the vibrancy of its language, and the vividity of its character and place. This is a novel that thrums not with ferocious dramatic force, but with naked emotional power and insight.

As bushfires blaze on the outskirts of the city, three women — Ivy Parker, a forty-something philanthropist; Margot Pierce, a professor in her 70s; and Summer, a theatre usher in her twenties — watch a performance of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” during which they meditate on their lives. At intermission their paths briefly cross, but “The Performance” is not crammed with incident. Thomas’s gift is that she is able to make the most mundane detail beautifully compelling: she spins gold out of everyday material. Her novel is a sharply incisive, profound depiction of three women at different stages of their lives, rendered in gorgeously captivating prose. An indisputable masterpiece.  

ISBN: 9780733644542
ISBN-10: 0733644546
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 304
Available: 23rd February 2021
Publisher: Hachette Australia

Review: Win by Harlan Coben

The trouble, I think, with making the long-running sidekick of an established crime series the lead is that it diminishes the facets of their character that made them cool in the first place. Specifically the kind of sidekick who is notorious for last-minute rescues, or doing the dirty work the hero refuses to muddy their hands with; like Nate Romanowski from C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett mysteries, or case in point, Windsor “Win” Horne Lockwood III, from Harlan Coben’s eleven-book long Myron Bolitar series.

Win’s always been happy to handle the messier side of Myron’s vigilantism. He has a natural predilection for violence, rooted in his tumultuous childhood. He’s brilliant in a supporting role: ridiculously wealthy, a self-trained combatant, incredibly intelligent. And hedonistic as hell. Win is basically Batman without the Batsuit, only because he prefers the feel of thousand-dollar tailored suits against his skin.

In “Win” he is approached by the FBI to accompany them to one of most prestigious buildings in Manhattan, the Beresford. An unidentified older man has been found dead. Win doesn’t recognise the victim — but he immediately spots the Vermeer painting hanging on the man’s wall as one stolen from the Lockwood family home twenty years ago. So, too, a suitcase with Win’s initials. The case gets more convoluted when the dead man is identified as the leader of a radical left group responsible for the accidental deaths of seven people decades ago. Then comes a connection to another crime from the past, also close to home: the traumatic abduction and abuse of Patricia Lockwood; Win’s cousin.

There are lots of pieces to this puzzle that eventually connect satisfactorily, though without Coben’s trademark blockbuster final twist. “Win” is a breeze, the definition of a perfect beach read, laced with plenty of moral ambiguity and pockmarked with action, and the author’s established cracking dialogue and wit. But without Myron to gloss over his harshness, Win is an unsympathetic protagonist, and honestly, I think Coben has proved his storytelling is better suited to standalone novels that focus on the everyperson  rather than “heroes.” 

Published: 16 March 2021
ISBN: 9781529123852
Imprint: Century
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 400
RRP: $32.99

Review: Daddy by Emma Cline

I’ve been meaning to read Emma Cline’s debut “The Girls” for the longest time, but haven’t, for no other reason than the timing has never been right. I’d be midway through another book, see it on the shelf and think, “Oh yes, that’s exactly what I feel like reading,” only to start something else, which is the sad fate of so many books: the “one day’s.” Cline’s short story collection “Daddy” offered me an introduction to her writing, which piqued me enough to maintain my interest in one day reading “The Girls,” but not enough to move the needle into “Oh my God, I need it now.”

The stories here are populated with gross, self-entitled, narcissistic (mostly older) men, oozing toxic masculinity, oftentimes in its subtlest (but no less noxious) form, sometimes outright barbaric. These men are messed up. Some of them know it, and assumed they’d always get away with their behaviours; others demonstrate perniciousness through their attitudes, fuelled by personal failures and disappointments.

The best stories are the most understated, like my favourites, “Los Angeles,” about a young woman who works at a clothing store, takes acting classes, and makes extra cash through a rather disturbing side hustle (which you just know will have serious ramifications) and “What Can You Do With a General,” which follows a father trying to reconnect with his adult children during the holidays, barely able to disguise his contempt.

I devoured the first four stories in “Daddy”, then trudged (not unhappily) through the rest. I’ve been marinating over why. There’s certainly no technical fault with these latter tales. I think it’s the uniformity of Cline’s themes, and the speed at which I read the collection. Maybe if I’d read “Daddy” over a week, rather than binged it, I mightn’t have felt so claustrophobic.

ISBN: 9781784743727
ISBN-10: 1784743720
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 272
Published: 1st September 2020

Review: New Animal by Ella Baxter

“If anyone ever asks me how I dealt with this grief, I will tell them honestly: by killing the light of everything that reminded me of her.”

Ella Baxter’s striking debut novel “New Animal” is a blazing cocktail of icy honesty and heart-wrenching tenderness, told in starkly beautiful language.

Amelia — a twenty-something cosmetician at her family’s mortuary business — reminded me a lot of Jena from Jessie Tu’s “A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing.” She’s having a lot of sex with a lot of random men, trying to blunt and distract from the trauma of her every day, struggling to find (but not really looking for) further connection.

But when her mother dies suddenly, a flood of unfamiliar emotion overcomes Amelia, and she escapes to Tasmania to stray with her biological father, where the memories of her mother lack the piercing sharpness they possessed closer to home. She inadvertently stumbles into the world of a BDSM club, and a group of people hoping to diminish their own pain through their experiences in a place that demands trust, consent and clear and constant communication.

Elements of “New Animal” are viscerally confronting, one scene in particular — Amelia’s first experience as a “dom” — still reverberating in my brain days later. But for all its braveness and boldness, and the savagely deadpan wit enmeshed in every scene, what stands out most is Baxter’s magisterial insight into the human heart and mind. She has fashioned an intense and unflinching account of a young woman’s journey through grief. And it’s all told in a style distinctly her own.

Category: Fiction
ISBN: 9781760877798
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Pub Date: March 2021
Pages: 240

The Best Fiction of 2020

Maybe it’s indicative of the year we’ve had, but my favourite fiction of 2020 was almost universally harrowing, sometimes outright devastating. The endings of several still haunt me weeks and months later. I’ll never forget the final pages of Leah Swann’s “Sheerwater,” or the coda to Aravind Adiga’s “Amnesty,” or the epilogue to Sophie Laguna’s “Infinite Splendours;” never mind the total gut-wrenching experience of Tiffany McDaniel’s “Betty.” This was the year I demanded books that shook me to my core, that shredded me emotionally, or at the very least induced the smallest cut.

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Review: The Second Son by Loraine Peck

In Loraine Peck’s debut crime novel, the eldest son of Croatian crime boss Milan Novak is shot dead in his driveway, and the titular “second son” is called upon to exact retribution, which threatens to reignite a violent gang war with the Serbians.

Johnny Novak — the (relative) pacifist of the family — must wrestle with his reluctance to murder another man, and slide deeper into the murky underworld fiefdom of his father (thus permanently fragmenting his relationship with his wife Amy and their ten-year-old son) as well as identifying Ivan’s killer. Because if it wasn’t the Serbians, who pulled the trigger, and why?

Alternating between Johnny and Amy’s narration, “The Second Son” probes the toxic masculinity rooted in the Novak family, as Amy demands her husband free himself and their son from the demands (and expectation) of bloodshed and vengeance, and the sheer brutality that coruscates in each of them, that has touched even Amy in the cruellest way. For all his talk of the importance of family, Milan’s is awash in secrets and lies, which come to the fore as the story builds to its climax.

“The Second Son” is quick-plotted union of gangland thriller and domestic suspense set in Sydney’s western suburbs. Amy’s descent into a churning vortex of savagery and mayhem, and her determination to escape it, makes for captivating reading, while Johnny’s struggle to find equilibrium between the conflicting desires of his family hits all the requisite emotional touchstones. Peck keeps the plot boiling with an epic drug heist, a kidnapping, and action aplenty. The relentless velocity will guarantee her plenty of fans, who’ll eagerly await the Novak’s return in the planned sequel.

ISBN: 9781922330437
Format: Paperback
Pages: 464
Imprint: The Text Publishing Company
Publisher: Text Publishing
Publish Date: 2-Feb-2021
Country of Publication: Australia

The Top 10 Crime Novels of 2020

Say what you will about 2020, but it’s been packed with some phenomenal crime fiction and thrillers, and it was so difficult culling my list of favourites to a measly ten. In any other year, Peter Swanson’s “Rules For Perfect Murder” would feature; so too the new Rankin (“A Song for the Dark Times”), at least one of Connelly’s (“The Law of Innocence” and “Fair Warning”), and Silva’s “The Order.” But when I sat back and reflected on my year of reading, these were the ones that resonated.

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Review: Missionaries by Phil Klay

“Men are weak. Don’t ask if they are good or bad. We’re all sinful. Ask if they’re better or worse than the times they lived in.”

Phil Klay follows up his sensational short story collection “Redeployment” with an ambitious decades-spanning excavation of war and violence centred around America’s prolonged asymmetric warfare in Colombia.

Through the eyes of an expansive cast — burned-out war reporter Lisette Marigny, Marine medic Major Mason Baumer, cartel foot solider Abel, Colombian military officer Juan Pablo, and Chilean mercenary Diego — Klay unspools his players’ backstories, full of trauma and the scars of war, in the early sections of “Missionaries.” These first-person narrated passages act as psychological portraits, and are shuffled brilliantly to establish a sense of momentum; sheer page-turnability glittered with acute observations about humankind’s addiction to warfare.

Later in “Missionaries,” for its final act, Klay shifts to a third-person perspective, where each of his characters converge spectacularly, if not somewhat convolutedly, and not altogether seamlessly. Klay’s ability to write about war — the violence, the chaos, the ambiguities — is unequalled. He’s been there, done it, lived it, and it shows in the smallest details. But where “Redeployment” read like short-burst dispatches from Iraq, and Klay’s authorship was ethereal, here you can feel a slight heavy-handedness when his characters intersect for the finale. It feels like fiction.

Which is the trouble, perhaps, writing realistically about war, where the only things guaranteed, regardless of our justifications for it, are bloodshed, mayhem and death. Klay has no qualms detailing the true costs of it; I’m just not sure whether that always makes for a great novel. But if anyone’s going to prove me wrong, it’s Klay.

ISBN: 9781838852320
ISBN-10: 1838852328
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 416
Published: 17th November 2020
Publisher: A&U Canongate

Review: Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

“Leave the World Behind” is a psycho-horror more interested in maintaining its constant aura of unease (periodically ratcheted to outright terror), exploring the degrading psyche of its characters, and skewering class and race in America, than it is providing answers. Rumaan Alam channels Stephen King with his premise, but in its unravelling he attempts something more substantive, which for me, proved rather more unsatisfying; a novel two-thirds genius, just lacking the adroit denouement that would’ve rendered it one of the year’s best.

“Leave the World Behind” opens with white, exceedingly middle-class Amanda and Clay, and their children Archie and Rose, driving from Brooklyn to a luxury homestead in remote Long Island for their Summer vacation. It’s picturesque and perfect, the escape from the city they wanted. Until night falls, and there’s a knock-knock-knock at the door.

Turns out it’s the owners of the home, a prosperous Black couple, George and Ruth, with news from New York: the city has been plunged into a blackout, which we quickly learn is the prelude to something far grander and apocalyptic, but the precise details of which are never quite determined. The families merge into one unit, sheltering in place while the world around them seemingly crumbles, witnessing inexplicable happenings, like hundreds of deer materialising on the lawn, and an ominous thunder-like crackle in the sky above, of unknown origin. It’s against this extremis that Alam examines inequality, racism, and fear. What would we do at the beginning of Armageddon? Quite possible nothing. Terror stifles our heroic instincts. We seek to protect what we have. Our world shrinks.

I loved so much of “Leave the World Behind.” It’s out-and-out horror, with deep and disturbing subtexts and rich characterisations found only in the best of the genre. But its ambiguous ending haunted me for all the wrong reasons. I wanted a firmer resolution. Even so, this is definitely one to consider for your Summer beach bag.

ISBN: 9781526633095
ISBN-10: 1526633094
Audience: BAU
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 320
Published: 20th October 2020
Publisher: Bloomsbury