Review: The Housemate by Sarah Bailey

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

There is something immensely satisfying about following a writer for several years, experiencing the consistent honing of their craft, and reading the brilliant culmination of their evolution as a storyteller; which is the case with “The Housemate,” the best crime novel Sarah Bailey has produced, and one of my favourites of the year. 

It opens with rookie Melbourne newspaper reporter Olive Groves at the scene of a murder in St Kilda. She doesn’t know it, but this case — dubbed the housemate homicide — will befuddle and enamour the police, and the public, for almost a decade. Of the house’s three cohabitants, one is dead, one is missing, and the other is accused of the murder. 

Almost ten years later, the corpse of the missing housemate is found on a remote property, and Olive — now an established reporter in a dying profession — is assigned the story, alongside Cooper Ng, a greenhorn reporter, who represents the changing face of the news industry as a podcaster.

“The Housemate” is very much a procedural, just without a detective at its centre. The labyrinthine plot builds slickly, and Bailey wrings suspense out of every possible aspect of Olive’s obsessive hunt for the truth. The facts she and Cooper uncover add up, but make no sense until the key is supplied in a flurry of revelations at the novel’s climax. 

With a mystery like this, I want to ride the plot twists like a passenger on a roller-coaster. I know there will be sharp curves and abrupt changes of speed and direction. But I also know I’m strapped in. However out of control I feel, my experience is being managed. “The Housemate” is pockmarked with red-herrings. It twists, and it turns, but there’s an assuredness to Bailey’s storytelling that establishes trust. I didn’t know where we were headed, but I had faith she would get me there, and that the ending would satisfy and surprise.

Reader, it does.

ISBN: 9781760529338
ISBN-10: 1760529338
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 464
Available: 31st August 2021
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Review: Who Gets To Be Smart by Bri Lee

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

It was my first week as a bookseller and I was shrink-wrapping DVDs when one of my colleagues quipped, “Your parents’ private school money at work, huh? Did they get what they paid for?”

It was a joke, a bit of careless banter, and I laughed along. But those words penetrated, and they’ve ricocheted around my brain ever since. Whatever my achievements as a bookseller, however you gauge my ‘success,’ a chunk of my brain wrestles with the fact my parents spent thousands of dollars on my education, and I turned to a career in retail. 

Did I fail them? Did I fail myself? Did I have the potential for more? And what does ‘more’ even mean, when I derive such immense satisfaction (and an award!) from bookselling?  

It’s hard, sometimes, not to feel a degree of intellectual inadequacy around old classmates during sporadic catch-ups. The lizard part of my brain attaches intelligence to identity, which is itself connected to one’s vocation, and the size of their paycheck. This thinking is flawed, but it pervades. It’s also loathsomely entitled.  And besides, whose “omnipresent ledger of legitimacy” am I comparing myself to?

So — it’s fair to say “Who Gets To Be Smart” got me thinking. 

I’m a huge admirer of Bri Lee’s writing, and her activism. I find her work thought-provoking and confronting. She forces me to examine the world around me, and my place in it. It’s often discomforting. 

In “Who Gets To Be Smart” Lee eloquently examines the inequities and systemic deficiencies ingrained in Western education systems, and meditates on the different ways to be smart. She scrutinizes concepts I was previously unfamiliar with, including kyriarchy, and concludes that ‘our most moneyed and powerful educational institutions — from primary through to tertiary — can only maintain their power by practising exclusion and discrimination.’

I imagine some scholars might desire an even deeper excavation of privilege, knowledge and power. But I appreciated the book’s accessibility and its relative brevity. Lee refers to a smorgasbord of existing sources and research, but things never get too textbook. In fact, it resonates because of its incisiveness; it’s a clear-eyed assessment of how things are, which will prompt further discussion, and hopefully — eventually — change.

ISBN: 9781760879808
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 304
Published: 1st June 2021
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Review: Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This is a story about family and celebrity, and how life can assign people roles they can’t realise, or that they can realise only by sacrificing their personal desires and aspirations. 

Set primarily on a hot summer’s night in Malibu, 1983, at Nina Riva’s annual end-of-summer party, “Malibu Rising” explores the tumultuous lives of the elder Riva child and her siblings: pro surfer Jay; surfer photographer Hud; and the youngest, Kit, who hopes to follow Jay’s path. 

Their father is Mick Riva, a famous singer, who fell in love with June in the 1950s, but could never attune himself to the life of a family man. He was lured away, time and time again, returning incrementally, until he disappeared for good. June was a good mother, but unable to cope with the heartbreak, and the cold, hard reality of her life. She turned to alcohol to dull the pain, and it ended up taking everything. 

After her death, Nina assumed the role of single parent and sole breadwinner. She became a surf model, selling her body to ensure the future of her family, loathing every moment of it. On the night of the party in 1983, her own relationship is breaking down, and the bonds between the siblings will be tested like never before; secrets are exposed, and long-bubbling resentments rise to the surface. 

Events transpire against Taylor Jenkins Reid’s foreshadowing of doom from her opening lines — ‘Malibu catches fire. It is simply what Malibu does from time to time.’ — and her handling of multiple characters and timelines is seamless. She is a consummate storyteller. 

Yes, the story machinery grinding its gears beneath the melodrama and celebrity guest stars is fairly ancient and conventional, but “Malibu Rising” is ultimately a classic family saga expounded pitch-perfectly and compulsively. The pleasures derived aren’t transcendental, but they’re genuine. And the novel does so much well for so long, it’s pat conclusion is entirely forgivable.

You know what: the Riva’s deserve it. 

ISBN: 9781786331533
Format: Paperback
Pages: 384
Published: 1st June 2021

Review: Follow Her Home by Steph Cha

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Steph Cha’s “Your House Will Pay” [2020] was an incredibly ambitious crime novel that confronted the legacy of the 1992 Los Angeles riots as it probed the residual pain, rage and grief felt by two families almost 30 years after a young black girl was shot to death by a Korean woman, who mistakenly believed the girl was stealing from her convenience store.

“Follow Her Home” is Cha’s first novel. Its scope is vastly different. It is a more contained, personal story, that still manages to bring LA to life through the eyes of Juniper Song: a twenty-something, Raymond Chandler-obsessed, Korean-American, who finds herself entangled in the kind of knotted caper Philip Marlowe would’ve struggled to untangle.

It starts with a simple favour. 

Luke Cook, Juniper’s longtime friend since high school, is convinced his father is sleeping with a young Korean girl who works for his law firm. Luke wants Juniper to find out for sure. Which is a weird request, sure; but it gives her a chance to play out her Marlowe sleuthing fantasy. Even though last time she dug into a similar affair involving her young sister’s seduction by her teacher, it resulted in Iris’s suicide. 

The night ends with Juniper being clubbed unconscious, and awakening to find a corpse in the trunk of her car. From there, the case unsnarls into a dangerous web of unscrupulous characters, murder and betrayal; everything you’d expect from a private eye novel, but prismed through the perspective of an atypical gumshoe. 

I could’ve done without the overt Chandler worshipping, which reaches saturation point by the halfway mark. The opening homage, and a couple lines here and there, would’ve been enough for me to get the gist: Marlowe is Juniper’s inspiration; she found solace in Chandler’s novels during a tumultuous period in her life. I get it. But this unsubtlety aside, “Follow Her Home” is brilliantly compelling and deeply atmospheric — a wonderful blend of classic hardboiled tropes married to contemporary ideals. Next, please.  

ISBN: 9780571360444
Publisher: Faber
Imprint: Faber Fiction
Pub Date:February 2021
Page Extent:288

Review: A Man Named Doll by Jonathan Ames

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’m a fan of a style of crime novel that was dead, or dying, before I was born. 

Hardboiled detective fiction, exemplified by Chander, Hammett and Spillane has been replaced in popularity by psychological thrillers, unreliable narrators, and small towns with dark secrets. Lehane and Pelecanos are two modern ambassadors for the form, but with their attentions seemingly turned wholeheartedly to TV, I’m desperate for someone to carry the torch. 

Enter: Jonathan Ames.

I adored Ames’s snack-size, violent masterpiece “You Were Never Really Here.” Its simple conceit belied its stylish execution, a John Wick-esque sledgehammer to the face kind of thriller. Not for everyone, but definitely for me.  

“A Man Named Doll” is an easier book to recommend, because reduced to its finest form, it’s a straightforward mystery told through the eyes of Happy Doll, a dysfunctional ex-LAPD cop who works security at Thai Miracle Spa in a strip mall just off the Hollywood Freeway. The novel opens with a pal, Lou Shelton, asking Doll for a favour — a big one. Doll’s kidney, specifically; his are failing, and he’s running out of time. By the end of the day, Lou is dead, Doll has killed a man, and the police want him for questioning.

Doll is a mostly archetypal gumshoe transposed to present-day LA. He blunders his way into trouble (and out of it, though not without suffering). Grit and gumption are in short supply; Doll’s ineptitude is mugged shamelessly for laughs. My tastes skew more deadpan, but I can see Robert Downey Jr. starring in an adaptation, and I imagine much of the comedy will translate better to the screen.

This is a superb series opener. If the names Marlowe, Hammer, Spade, Archer and Scudder fill you with warm nostalgia, “A Man Named Doll” is for you. It’s not hardboiled detective fiction masquerading as anything. It owns what it is, wholeheartedly and delightfully. 

ISBN: 9781782276999
ISBN-10: 1782276998
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 224
Published: 29th April 2021
Publisher: Faber Factory

Review: Bullet Train by Kotaro Isaka

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Kotaro Isaka’s “Bullet Train” gathers together an eclectic mix of underworld assassins on board the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Morioka, their fates entwined by the powerful crime lord Minegishi, for reasons that come to light during their 240–320 km/h journey.

The action flits persistently between the perspectives of the various contract killers on board. I won’t mention them all, because every page offers a potential landmine revelation, but here’s a taster:

There’s Nanao, the unluckiest assassin in the world, who is there to steal a suitcase full of cash. There are the two fruits — the calm, scholarly Tangerine, and his Thomas the Tank Engine-obsessed partner, Lemon — who are tasked with safeguarding both Minegishi’s son, and the suitcase. Kimura is in a nearby carriage, an ex-alcoholic (and ex-assassin) and single parent who wants revenge on the teenager who pushed his boy off a rooftop. But ‘The Prince’ isn’t going to go down without a fight. His outwardly youthful innocence masks his wicked cunning. The kid is actually the most psychopathic of the lot. 

In less assured hands the reader might not be able to see the forest through the trees, but Isaka (via his translator Sam Malissa) is remarkably adept at letting each character have a moment to make a lasting impression. And while it would be an exaggeration to suggest we form any sort of emotional connection with the cast — they are most assuredly bad people — they’re delineated beyond what you might expect, thanks to regular flashbacks and philosophical asides; not to mention countless scenes involving a character holding a gun to the head of another and gabbing.

“Bullet Train” is coated with a thick sheen of surreality, its most serious moments perforated with a whimsy that never quite turns into laugh-out-loud, but renders the violence more cartoonish than gratuitous. It’s ripe for film adaptation, a kind of “Murder on the Orient Express” directed by Tarantino.

Published: 16 March 2021
ISBN: 9781787302594
Imprint: Harvill Secker
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 432
RRP: $32.99

Review: Cruel and Unusual by Patricia Cornwell

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“… he thanked God for a mercy I saw no evidence of and claimed promises too late for God to keep.”

Here we go. The fourth book in the Kay Scarpetta series, and I feel like Patricia Cornwell is really hitting her stride. This is everything I want from my crime fiction: a super compelling hook fleshed out in a serpentine plot, its now firmly-established characters enmeshed in a wider conspiracy.  

Continue reading

Review: The Girl Remains by Katherine Firkin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Following on from her debut “Sticks and Stones,” Katherine Firkin reunites readers with Victorian Police Detective Emmett Corban as he reopens a twenty-two-year-old cold case when human bones are discovered on an isolated beach in the coastal town of Blairgowrie on the Mornington Peninsula.

On the night of 22 September, 1998, three teenage girls — Gypsy, Scarlett and Cecilia — set off into the darkness, weaving their way through shrubbery, following a trail towards Blairgowrie’s notorious Koonya Ocean Beach: ‘a magnificent stretch of coastline, punctuated by towering sandstone rocks and crashing waves.’ Only two of the girls — Gypsy and Scarlett — returned. And for more than twenty years, the disappearance of Cecilia May has baffled detectives. It remains a mystery, waiting to be solved. 

Emmett Corban, his new partner Lanh Nguyen, and a cohort of investigators, are tasked with digging into now decades-old trauma and secrets. In doing so, they unravel a wickedly complex tapestry, which includes a registered sex offender who confessed to the murder despite having a rock-solid alibi; Gypsy and Scarlett’s sketchy recollections of what precisely happened that night; and a visitor to Blairgowrie who is determined to exact her own brand of justice.

“The Girl Remains” is an earnestly crafted police procedural. Firkin isn’t trying to put some magical spin on the conventional elements of the detective genre, which makes it catnip for armchair sleuths like myself. Her step-by-step description of procedural details, from reviewing old case files to reinterviewing suspects and witnesses, totally immerse readers in the investigation. And the sprinkling of personal dramas — including Emmett’s news-photographer wife, Cindy, gatecrashing the investigation — adds further spice. The purity of its unfurling, even as it criss-crosses between its expansive cast, makes it a pleasure to read.

Published: 4 May 2021
ISBN: 
9781761042621
Imprint: Bantam Australia
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 368
RRP: $32.99

Review: Every Vow You Break by Peter Swanson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is an audacious, twist-filled thriller whose enjoyment hinges on whether you’re able to buy into its central conceit, which morphs outlandishly from its opening premise, when Abigail Baskin enters her marriage to ridiculously wealthy Bruce Lamb carrying a secret.

During her bachelorette party weekend a few weeks before her wedding, Abigail slept with a stranger named Scottie. Although she’s wracked by guilt, she decides not to mention her one night stand to Bruce: the ramifications would be severe given his (ominous) stance on fidelity. So she’ll live with the secret, and it will be hers alone. Or so she hopes. Soon Scottie emails Abigail suggesting they share a deep connection. They’re soulmates. They should be together.

Abigail ignores him.

She marries Bruce, and towards the end of their wedding night, she thinks she spots Scottie. Again, she considers owning up to Bruce. Their honeymoon to a secluded Maine island serves as the perfect distraction. Abigail can deliberate, in peace, in these tranquil surroundings.

But Scottie’s there too. And another guest, who shares Abigail’s plight: a secret from her husband. What happens next is bloody and violent, and will stretch some reader’s credulity to the limit; maybe beyond. There’s no question that Peter Swanson has crafted a breakneck thriller. And it goes places I didn’t expect it to, which is preferential to another assembly-line thriller. Nothing about the opening of “Every Vow You Break” telegraphs its wild climax, which sees Abigail taking on a virulent manifestation of powerful men committed to patriarchy. Ultimately implausible, but also unputdownable. 

ISBN: 9780571358502
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 320
Published: 30th March 2021
Publisher: Faber

Review: Repentance by Eloísa Díaz

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In my experience, readers who besmirch crime fiction do so because of the supposed ‘limitations of the form.’ Crime novels have no ‘literary merit’ (a dubious concept) because they are merely ‘entertainments’ ― thanks, Graham Greene.

But here is a novel I would happily recommend to any reticent crime reader, whose mystery is vital to its plot, but whose solving is secondary to the exploration of its central character, and the city of Buenos Aires. It’s entertaining, sure: but it’s also got plenty to say about greed, corruption, guilt and redemption.

I wonder where it would fit on Greene’s spectrum of ‘entertainments’ and ‘novels?’

Eloísa Díaz’s “Repentance” vividly depicts the brutality, uncertainty and fragility of life in Buenos Aires during two tumultuous periods in Argentina’s history. In 1981, the Dirty War was at its peak. By its end, 30,000 people would be ‘disappeared’ by the state as the country’s military dictatorship turned against its own people.

Among them: the brother of Policía Federal inspector Joaquín Alzada.

Twenty years later, as thousands of protestors start revolting against the government, an unidentified corpse is discovered in a skip behind the city morgue. Then a woman from one of the city’s wealthiest families goes missing, and the only clue to her disappearance is a number plate linked to a high-ranking government official. Alzada is ruled off the case. She hasn’t been missing long enough to warrant an investigation. But Alazada can’t leave it alone. He decides to present the corpse from the morgue as the missing woman’s… and open a murder file.

This gritty, absorbing novel is served well by Díaz’s concise prose. I could’ve done without the overuse of italics to demarcate Alazada’s inner monologue, but it’s the one flaw in a novel I rushed to finish, only to have it linger in my thoughts long after I was done. It’s an absolutely enthralling portrait of the darkest days of Argentine suppression and sedition, and one man trying to make sense of it.

ISBN: 9781474613842
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 304
Imprint: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Publisher: Orion
Publish Date: 4-Feb-2021
Country of Publication: United Kingdom