Review: The Covered Wife by Lisa Emanuel

In “The Covered Wife” Lisa Emanuel explores the harm we can do — to ourselves, and to others — in our desire for belonging and acceptance.

It follows Sarah, an ambitious twenty-nine-year-old mid-level lawyer at a top-tier firm in Sydney. She is starting to feel listless, like she’s merely treading water. She has become the team workhorse, the administrator, whose work is essential but so often goes unnoticed. She’s getting tired of it.

Sarah is Jewish, but religion is not a defining factor of her existence; more of an addendum, maybe. Which is more than you can say for her romantic life — a total non-starter; somewhat pulverised by a career that demands almost every waking hour. But also, she simply hasn’t found that person who might warrant overriding, or reducing, her professional commitments. That is, until she meets Daniel.

Sarah falls for Daniel — hard. To the extent she obliges him a visit to the progressive Bondi beachside synagogue he attends every weekend, led by the devilishly charismatic Rabbi Menachem Lev and his wife Chani. As Sarah and Daniel commence married life together, she is drawn into their fold, consequently rewriting the fabric of her life. But as time passes, the sense of community and heightened level of spiritual awareness gives way to something darker; something oppressive, maybe even dangerous. Is it too late for Sarah to escape? And even if she can, having sacrificed everything to establish herself as part of this community, what’s left for her beyond it?

Emanuel’s debut takes a paint-by-numbers conceit and fleshes it out into an intelligent, complex, challenging and utterly compelling novel, flavoured with local colour. It’s an examination of the boundaries of love and loyalty, and the wrong turns made in the quest for human connection, which plumbs the emotional core of its protagonist with the adroitness of a veteran.

ISBN: 9780648748915
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 364
Available: 1st June 2021

Review: Not Dark Yet by Peter Robinson

There’s something decidedly unsexy about reviewing serial detective fiction.

Each instalment is moulded into an archetypal shape, and designed to incrementally shift forward the lives of its characters. I love the familiarity of these tales; the recognisable framework of their narratives; their recognisable protagonists. But it means I’m so often relying on tired clichés to describe my feelings because — by design — they’re hitting the same notes time and time again. Virtuosically in many cases, without the slightest warble; but the same notes nonetheless.

Which is the case with “Not Dark Yet,” the 27th Alan Banks novel, another stellar entry in Peter Robinson’s long-running series, who is easily one of the most reliable practitioners of crime fiction, and who has been playing a damn fine tune from the same piano for more than 30 years. Here, a seemingly open-and-shut homicide case turns into something far more convoluted — and deadly, with the Albanian Mafia painting a target on Banks’s back.

When DCI Banks and his team — DI Annie Cabbot and DC Gerry Masterson — start rooting through the home of a murdered property developer in Eastvale, they uncover a cache of spy-cam videos on which they find footage of an unidentified young woman being raped. Banks takes on the murder investigation while his partners try to identify the female victim, and Robinson handles these parallel cases with trademark dexterity.

Bank’s inquiries send him on a collision course with Zelda, a sex trade survivor who has found made a new life for herself in Yorkshire with one of the Detective Chief Inspector’s closest friends. Abducted from an orphanage in Moldova when she was a teenager, she’s been assisting the National Crime Agency to demolish sex trafficking rings; but a series of murders with ties to her childhood abusers puts her firmly in the spotlight as a suspect, and Banks must wrangle with his romantic feelings for her, as well as his own interpretation of justice.

The plot might be gnarled, knotted and twisty, but the storytelling is slick and seamless. Peter Robinson is — still! — one of the best crime writers in the business.

ISBN: 9781529343120
ISBN-10: 1529343127
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 352
Published: 18th March 2021
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Review: Body Of Evidence by Patricia Cornwell

A writers’ toolbox is vast, which makes the ending of Patricia Cornwell’s “Body of Evidence” all the more vexing, as it essentially replicates the climax of her debut. I won’t go into details obviously — this is a safe, spoiler-free zone — but I was galled by the culmination of this otherwise superb mystery, mystified at how Cornwell didn’t recognise she was aping her own work. It’s the only false note in her second Kay Scarpetta novel. 

When successful historical romance writer Beryl Madison is barbarously slashed to death in her Richmond home after returning home from Key West, Chief Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta joins the police investigation led by Detective Pete Marino. A couple factors of the case immediately pique Scarpetta: the fact Madison evidently welcomed her killer into her home; the subsequential murder of her mentor, reclusive writer Cary Harper; and then suicide of his sister. Not to mention the looming shadow of an unscrupulous lawyer who is determined to obliterate Beryl’s final manuscript from existence; and the re-emergence of Kay’s former beau.

Putting aside its ending, Cornwell’s plotting is seamless, and the burgeoning claustrophobia of Scarpetta’s terror as Beryl’s killer closes in is utterly heart-pounding. The mystery unravels through forensic discoveries, exhaustive analysis of paper records, and various interviews with people of interest. The investigation builds steadily, not through melodramatic discoveries or explosive confrontations, but through dogged fact finding. Its crescendo is effective, sure; it works, functionally, for the story. But we just saw this play out; for me, less than a month ago, when I embarked on this mission to re-read the Scarpetta novels. It was a sour note to end on in a novel I otherwise wholeheartedly recommend.

Review: Dark Sky by C.J. Box

“Dark Sky” is another stellar C.J. Box thriller, his long-time hero Joe Pickett outgunned, outmanned, and adrift alongside a terrified Silicon Valley multibillionaire in the rough terrain of the Bighorn Mountains as temperatures plummet. Of course, the Wyoming game warden has demonstrated a propensity for overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds in his 20 previous adventures — but that doesn’t stop his 21st from being another page-turning success.

In “Dark Sky” Joe is tasked with guiding Zuckerberg-clone Steve Price, CEO of social media company Aloft, on an elk hunting trip. Price, who logs every moment of his life online, wants a genuine no-holds-barred experience, and the governor wants to ensure Price gets his wish; his hope is that Price will be so enamoured with the landscape, he’ll build Aloft’s enormous server farm in the county, creating jobs, and furthering the governor’s political career.

Things go to hell very quickly when Earl Thomas and his sons arrive on the scene, seeking vengeance on Price for the death of Earl’s daughter, who committed suicide after being trolled and bullied on Price’s social media platform. Their thirst for revenge is perhaps a tad flimsy, and it allows Box to offer social commentary on the dangers of our digital lives — but just go with it. Ultimately what matters here is that they’re the bad guys, they armed to the teeth, eminently capable of murder, and Joe Pickett is the only thing standing between Steve Price and certain death.

A subplot involving series-favourite Nate Romanowski, ex-special forces turned falconer, and his protégé, Joe’s eldest daughter Sheridan, is really more of a tease for Box’s 22nd Pickett novel. Someone is stealing valuable birds of prey, a very bad dude indeed, we discover; but just as this plot builds up a head of steam, it’s quickly snuffed out when Nate is dragged into Joe’s situation.

“Dark Sky” has all the elements I love most about this series, utilising the unforgiving landscape to great effect. Box’s novels always work best when the Wyoming environs play a key role. And every time I finish one, I can’t wait for the next. Is there a more consistent writer of high-quality crime fiction than C.J. Box?

ISBN: 9781788549325
ISBN 10: 1788549325
Imprint: Head of Zeus GB
On Sale: 04/03/2021
Pages: 368
List Price: 32.99 AUD

Review: Nancy Business by R.W.R. McDonald

Like its predecessor, R.W.R. McDonald’s “Nancy Business” is a masterclass in tonal balance: it’s one part mystery, another part family drama, and these two elements are glazed in a riotous celebration of all things camp and queer. In one scene you’ll be chuckling uproariously at the banter between Uncle Pike and Devon; the next chilled as an explosion rocks the main street of Riverstone; and periodically have your heart warmed by the interplay between young Tippy and her family, who are still reeling from the death of her father one year later.

I presumed — wrongly, it turns out — that following the events of “The Nancys” the investigative trio would reunite in Sydney; bigger city, bigger stakes, I figured. Actually, McDonald demonstrates just how essential his fictional small New Zealand town of Riverstone is as a sandbox for his larger-than-life cast and their eclectic personalities.  Riverestone is a Midsomer-esque municipality ripe with secrets and ne’er-do-wells, one of whom has set off an explosion on the main street, killing three people and destroying the town hall — too close for comfort to where Tippy’s mother works.

It’s an open-and-shut case for the local constabulary, but twelve-year-old Tippy, her Uncle Pike, and his partner Devon aren’t so sure; and they can’t shake the feeling the threat of a second bomber targeting the Riverstone Bridge is real. And so these unconventional detectives start digging, in secret, away from the prying eyes of her mother, while tensions between Pike and Devon fester, and cracks in a relationship Tippy once thought indestructible begin to form. Solving this mystery, she thinks, won’t just save lives — it might save their relationship.

“Nancy Business” is more of the same, certainly — but it’s also a tauter, pacier, funnier and more heartfelt tale, which demonstrates McDonald’s development as a storyteller. It’s a wonderfully entertaining comic caper with genuine emotional stakes that’ll having you ripping through its pages to determine the identity of the perp, and to see how things wind up for Pike and Devon. Lots of writers can create byzantine plots; few are able to create characters we care about so much.

ISBN: 9781760878870
ISBN-10: 1760878871
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 360
Available: 1st June 2021
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Review: Relentless by Mark Greaney

Mark Greaney’s 10th Gray Man novel reads like an R18+ “Mission: Impossible” blockbuster, a pedal-to-the-metal action thriller that doesn’t let up from its opening, when CIA Poisoned Apple operative Zack Hightower is nabbed by goons from a Venezuelan intelligence service in a Caracas marketplace when he’s tracking a presumed dead (but actually treasonous) former NSA computer scientist. 

When CIA deputy director for operations Matthew Hanley learns of Hightower’s failed mission he assigns fellow Poisoned Apple agent Court Gentry — the assassin formerly known as The Gray Man — to finish the job; nevermind the fact he’s still recovering from injuries suffered during a previous operation. But that’s the thing about action heroes: no matter how racked they are by pain and exhaustion, they always find a way — although Court’s rogues gallery has rarely been so substantial or lethal as they are in “Relentless.”

Bullets fly as Court faces off against American mercenaries working for the UAE, an unscrupulous international spy agency, and Russian agents hunting Zoya Zakharova, the love of Court’s life, and — you guessed it — also a Poisoned Apple asset. By now Greaney’s characters have enough flesh and blood to be convincing rather than mere gun-totting goons, and although he has a Clancy-esque eye for detail, narrative momentum never gets bogged down in the nitty-gritty particulars of the weaponry and gadgetry. 

Greaney unabashedly delivers what fans of action-lit desire. Readers who desire the subtlety and subtext of John le Carré may cringe at the undulated carnage on these pages, but those who’ve been with The Gray Man since day dot will delight in it. This is grade-A action pulp, and I can’t wait for the next one.

ISBN: 9780751578454
ISBN-10: 0751578452
Series: Gray Man
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 528
Published: 23rd February 2021
Publisher: Little Brown

Review: Friends & Dark Shapes by Kavita Bedford

Through a series of captivating, interconnected vignettes, Kavita Bedford elliptically explores the life of a “half-Indian, half-Anglo” woman in her late-twenties, and her housemates, who share a place in rapidly-gentrifying Redfern; and the dynamic, diverse, multicultural and ever-changing city of Sydney.

Spanning one year, and broken into four parts delineated as seasons, “Friends and Dark Shapes” is about negotiating the shifting landscape of adulthood and the city she lives in. Our narrator is still processing the death of her father, a sense of loss that permeates, and barely understood by her friends, who’ve yet to experience the same heartbreak. The novel is essentially a series of conversations, between her and her housemates, and the strangers she meets for her work as a journalist in the various suburbs that comprise Sydney’s eclectic geography.

Bedford’s prose is scintillating. My copy of “Friends and Dark Shapes” is dogeared at various intervals (I’m a heathen, I know) to highlight passages relating to a time of life I’ve only just departed, and evocative descriptions of the metropolis I also call home. The glue holding these observations and conversations together — the narrative, her story — is a little too ethereal for my tastes, but this isn’t so much a flaw as it is an authorial choice. Really, I can’t think of another novel that has so wonderfully encapsulated this city and the Millennial experience of living in it. 

ISBN: 9781922330475
ISBN-10: 1922330477
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 256
Published: 2nd March 2021
Publisher: The Text Publishing Company

Review: The Frenchman by Jack Beaumont

Jack Beaumont is the nom de plume for a former French fighter pilot turned spy for the French foreign secret service, the DGSE, who has now turned his hand to writing espionage fiction — and this is his first.

“The Frenchman” is moulded like a le Carré novel. Forget your super-agents like Court Gentry and Ethan Smoak, who go into every situation guns blazing (and whose violent escapades I am addicted to) — for Alec de Payns it’s all about long, detailed mission prep: staking out locations, trailing suspects, ruminating about possible scenarios. The tradecraft of espionage is all about nailing the mundane details, Alec has been trained to kill, but if gunplay’s involved, it’s a sign things have gone to shit. And in “The Frenchman” things very much have gone to shit.

Dealing with the fallout of a bad operation in Palermo and the possibility of a mole inside the secretive Y Division of the DGSE, Alec is tasked to investigate a secret biological weapons facility in Pakistan. It’s not a one-man infiltration job — you’d have to call Ethan Hunt for that — but an assignment for a small team, whose mission is essentially to sit, and wait, and look. It soon becomes apparent the facility is manufacturing a weaponised bacteria capable of killing millions — and Paris is their target. These are some very powerful, very well connected terrorists, whose reach quite possibly extends into the DGSE itself — painting a target on the backs of Alec’s wife, Romy, and their two children.

Beaumont’s steady escalation of the risks Alec faces, and the exceedingly realistic ways he tackles them, make “The Frenchman” an exemplary addition to the genre. Most impressively, for a guy who has been there and done it, he never burdens the reader with superfluous info dumps; there’s no heavy detailing of weaponry or gadgets. And he cleverly works in the familiar “family in peril” trope without divesting Romy’s agency, or casting her as a damsel in distress.

The writing is smooth, the plotting precise. This is good, le Carré -esque entertainment.

Category: Fiction
ISBN: 9781760529383
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Pub Date: January 2021
Page Extent:400
Format: Paperback – C format

Review: Still by Matt Nable

In Matt Nable’s absorbing, if not slightly unevenly paced crime novel “Still,” Senior Constable Ned Potter discovers the body of an Aboriginal man face down in the shallow edge of a swamp.

The man has been viciously beaten and shot twice — and nobody seems to care. Not Potter’s colleagues in the small-town constabulary, nor its mayor, or its citizenry. This is early-sixties Darwin, and the town — like the country — is mired in prejudice. Racism doesn’t simmer under the surface; it’s ablaze. And Potter’s not convinced he has the courage to make a stand. If anything, he’s feeling the pressure to acquiesce to the demands of the corrupt forces in charge.

Charlotte Clark is increasingly discontent with her lot in life. At 23, she is married to one of its ne’er do well’s, destined to remain shackled to a man and town she has lost all affection for, with dreams of what might await beyond the borders of the Territory. A chance meeting with a stranger offers an opportunity to escape the life she has; but not necessarily a life society will understand or accept.

Nable is a clean storyteller whose prose is unembroidered with philosophical asides. He has a filmic approach, perhaps a tip of the cap to his acting career and a lifetime reading scripts. “Still” bounces from scene to scene, cutting between a clutch of well-drawn characters, but principally Ned and Charlotte. It’s not quite a mystery like “The Dry” or “Scrublands,” as the antagonists are exposed in the omniscient third person narration early on; it’s more an exploration of morality and corruption, its tension derived from the readers’ desire to see the bad guys brought to justice. The line between cop and criminal has never been so opaque.

The first half of “Still” is superb, Nable ably sketching his characters, layering his plot, and pockmarking his text with evocative descriptions of the disparate landscape, equal parts lush and rough. Its final act wobbles faintly under the weight of all that’s built before it, as the narrative jumps weeks, then months ahead in time, offering some interesting revelations, but galloping forward with such abandon, the narrative loses some of its earlier elasticity. But Nable sure knows how to keep the pages turning, and “Still” is a welcome and exciting addition to Outback Noir.

ISBN: 9780733644740
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 336
Available: 26th May 2021
Publisher: Hachette Australia

Review: The Lonely Silver Rain by John D. MacDonald

When mega-rich Billy Ingraham hires Florida-based Travis McGee to find his stolen million-dollar yacht, the self-described “salvage consultant” finds it with relative ease — alongside the slaughtered bodies of the thieves, one of whom happens to be the daughter of a Peruvian diplomat. Further trouble rapidly burgeons in the form of some seriously lethal drug traffickers, and the elaborately staged murder of Ingraham.

Any gusto to this twenty-second (and final) Travis McGee mystery is completely undercut by the protagonist’s mellowed thoughts on mortality. The plot hits all the necessary beats, the kind of thing MacDonald could write in his sleep, and the dialogue is sharp, with a constant shadow of menace looming over proceedings — but the whole thing is mired in McGee’s crestfallen thoughts.

I’m sure if I was more familiar with the character like I am with, say, Harry Bosch or John Rebus — I’ve read half a dozen books in the McGee series, in whatever random I discover them secondhand — I would’ve found his internal struggles interesting, a fascinating texturing of a decades-old character as he gradually comes to terms with his place in the world, and discovers a new reason to persist. And perhaps “The Lonely Silver Rain” deserves to be returned to, one day, when I’ve read a few more. It’s one of those books that isn’t substandard in any tangible way, just a smidgen unsatisfactory without deep background. I can see why MacDonald’s legion of aficionados admire it — one day I hope to as well.

Publisher : Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
Publication Date: 1 August 1985
Hardcover : 232 pages
ISBN-13 : 978-0340378496