“First Person Singular” is an enjoyable short story collection by Haruki Murakami, with whom I’ve had such fond experiences through his fiction. But the further I delved into the eight stories on offer here, the more I realised that my nostalgia for the past was fulfilling me more than the book in my hands. Which isn’t to say any of these tales, or the quality of their writing, is substandard — Murakami hasn’t suddenly devolved into a hack producing work for a spare dime — but there’s a definite sense he coasted through their creation.
A crowd-pleasing sense of familiarity is often enough for readers to coast through a novel, or short stories, on a sea of goodwill. But my barometer for any collection is my capacity to recollect specific stories (or at least moments from them) in the days after I’ve finished. There’s just not enough bite to “First Person Singular” for it to resonate.
The stories gently probe themes of youth, love and memory, and provide tender meditations on music, childhood and (in one of my favourite tales) baseball. Many of the stories are tinged with Murakami’s trademark surreality — talking monkey, anyone? — but they’re all framed through a homogeneous first person narrator, so they’ve blurred indistinguishably in my mind.
But even Murakami writing with his transmission lodged firmly in first gear provides indelibly graceful prose, and very occasionally, the glint of ingenuity. It’s a shame none of the stories sustained that magic for quite long enough. They’re all eminently readable, but their spark never ignites a flame.
Published: 6 April 2021
Imprint: Harvill Secker
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.
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: 12/01/2021
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.
Number Of Pages: 368
Available: 27th January 2021
Publisher: Hachette Australia
David Mitchell’s “Utopia Avenue” is a rags-to-riches rock ‘n’ roll story that begins in London, 1967, and ends in tragedy in San Francisco a little more than a year later. It examines the lives of the quartet that make up Utopia Avenue — troubled guitarist Jasper de Zoet, bassist Dean Moss, keyboardist and singer Elf Holloway, and drummer Peter ‘Griff’ Griffin — as it charts the development of their three albums, and their burgeoning success and fame.
“Utopia Avenue” is a crowd-pleaser. It is zesty entertainment, despite its overwhelming familiarity, the destination of its arc visible from its opening pages (and its blurb). This is the story of a band that made it big, embellished with connections to Mitchell’s earlier work, which will add delicious texture for some readers, and befuddle others. It’s all part of the ‘Mitchell Experience.’ But his name has clout. It is laden with expectation. I expect Mitchell to enliven. I expect him to subvert. And he doesn’t here to the extent I wanted him to.
“Utopia Avenue” ticks all the boxes of the archetypal ‘rise to the top’ tale of a rock band, replete with ego clashes, confrontations over creative differences, drug problems, a host of parasitic record-label personalities, and a flood of cameos by stars of the period (including Bowie, Jagger and Zappa). It is saturated in 1960s counterculture, and the racism and sexism of the time. And it’s depicted vividly and lovingly. Overstuffed at times, sure; but written so assuredly and with such verve, sprinkled with a slight dusting of the fantastical, you’ll forgive its similitude. What it lacks in sparkling ingenuity it more than makes up for in spellbinding storytelling.
Number Of Pages: 576
Published: 14th July 2020
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Country of Publication: GB
“The Hunted” is an absolutely merciless thriller set in the Australian outback. It’s violent and scary and relentless, and so filmic in its unfolding, it’s easy to see why Hollywood is already scrapping it for parts. It is a novel of pure action; a shotgun blast of mayhem; bullets, blood and explosions organised around the barest bones of plot and character — because such elements would only impede its relentless velocity.
Gabriel Bergmoser has supercharged the survival thriller. “The Hunted” is one of the most aggressive novels I’ve ever read. Imagine “Mad Max” meshed with “Wake in Fright” written by Matthew Reilly, which should tell you: don’t get too attached to its characters.
It observes the time-honoured tradition of the genre: it begins with a large cast and dooms them, in this instance, at the hands of a seriously depraved rural community of hunters. We fear for each of them, because the novel does not have a settled protagonist, so everyone is expendable. Narratively this is a risk, which works for the most part, but a part of me does wonder how “The Hunted” would’ve played out with an archetypal ‘hero’ to root for, because there isn’t a lot of room here for personality development. I never assumed anybody was safe: but I never really cared who lived or died. A ‘white knight’ to pull focus from these lightly-sketched characters might’ve actually enhanced them.
In survival thrillers like this, it’s more often not the slashing we enjoy, but the build-up towards it; the impending menace, the imminent threat, the lighting of the fuse and its burn; the generation of fear rather than its final manifestation. But “The Hunted” is all about the manic exhilaration of the third act, when the shit hits the fan, and it’s pedal to the metal visceral action. It hits hard and fast, a constant barrage of audacious violence that doesn’t exhaust, because this is not a book that outstays its welcome. It is as lean as it is mean, and it’ll leave you drunk on adrenaline, and meditating on the pointlessness of violence and the savagery of men.
Imprint: HarperCollins – AU
On Sale: 31/07/2020
List Price: 29.99 AUD
“The Morbids” by Ewa Ramsey is about a self-punishing, traumatised, anxiety-ridden young woman who slowly comes back to life through the power of love, friendship and kindness. On the surface, this would all appear to be another take on a familiar formula: it’s elevated beyond the sum of its parts thanks to Ramsey’s ability to create perfectly-drawn characters who haunt your heart, and its exploration of the heaviest of themes — personal tragedy, crushing guilt, and loneliness — with a dry wit that keeps it buoyant.
The titular ‘Morbids’ are a support group for people living with death-related anxiety. Caitlin attends meetings every Tuesday as a result of a fatal car accident two years ago, when she walked away unscathed, but laden with an irrational sense of culpability; a brutal form of survivor’s guilt that effectively eviscerated the life she knew, which had her climbing the corporate ladder and planning international vacations with her best friend Lina.
Now Caitlin is a borderline alcoholic, works the bar at Sawyer’s, and has isolated herself from Lina; not maliciously, but unconsciously; a manifestation of her trauma. When Lina announces her upcoming nuptials in Bali, and a handsome doctor named Tom enters her life, Caitlin is forced to confront her anxieties, possibly rooted in events preceding the car crash…
“The Morbids” is quietly devastating but ultimately heartening and life-affirming. It’s an intimate and moving account of the myriad ways in which kindness can change the notes and beats of our existence. Ramsey is a new voice in Australian fiction to celebrate.
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Pub Date: September 2020
Page Extent: 368
Stephen King’s masterful psychodrama “Lisey’s Story” sustains a throb of dread throughout its chunk, dollops of the weird, surreal and nightmarish served throughout to form a potent concoction; one of King’s most introspective and haunting tomes.
Two years after the death of her husband, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Scott Landon, Lisey begins clearing his workspace, cluttered with detritus only writers accumulate. It’s not the peaceful, purgative process she might hope it to be: academic vultures are desperate for access to Scott’s archive of unpublished works — to pick over his corpse — and one named Joseph Woodbody has gone so far as to hire a crazed killer to scare her into donating them to the University of Pittsburgh.
But what nobody understands — nobody but Lisey — is how Scott conjured his idea. Or rather, where. Scott had a supernatural ability to visit another world, where his imagination could run riot, and the darkness and light of his subconscious manifested extraordinary beauty and inconceivable horror. It is a place called Boo’Ya Moon, and to confront her own demons, and the ghosts of Scott’s past, it’s a place Lisey must also venture.
“Lisey’s Story” is an unflinching examination of the darkest recesses of the human mind. It is King at his finest: an epic tale, quietly told, about marriage, family, loss and creativity; about the glimmer of happiness at the end of a long road of suffering.
Number Of Pages: 704
Published: 13th September 2011
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
“Long Range” — the twentieth Joe Pickett novel — is a companionable entry in the series that sees the Wyoming game warden’s irrepressible ally Nate Romanowski — baddest of ex-military badasses — the primary suspect in the attempted assassination of Twelve Sleep County Judge Hewitt. As if that wasn’t bad enough, a Sinaloan drug cartel hitman named Orlando Panfile has arrived in Wyoming to avenge the deaths of the four assassins Nate dispatched in “Wolf Pack” (2019). Incarcerated by local authorities, Nate is helpless as the killer closes in on his wife and newborn.
This is standard fare for C.J. Box and his longtime hero Joe Pickett. But it would be crass to lament that we have seen and read it all before. I love Box’s strong cast, the tendrils of continuity that exist between his books, and his evocative descriptions of the Wyoming landscape. His novels are distinct for it. Certainly, in many respects, “Long Range” is made out of pieces of Joe’s previous adventures, not much of it new, but rest assured, each element is polished to a gloss, and the pages fly.
The trouble is, it’s hard to sustain suspense when we know, deep down, none of our heroes are going to be permanently damaged. Bruised and battered, sure — but nothing more than that. So by centring the drama around their mortality, which we know is never truly in question, rather than the complexity of its mystery, the book actually becomes less dramatic. Entertaining, for sure; and fans will love their annual visit to Twelve Sleep County, and checking in on Joe, Marybeth, and their daughters. This book may not be as knuckle-biting as Box’s best, but his taut, clean writing ensures his latest is never anything less than gripping.
Imprint: Head of Zeus – GB
On Sale: 09/03/2020
RRP: 32.99 AUD
Megha Majumdar’s debut explodes with narrative force. It begs comparison to Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance in terms of its scale and thematic scope — but tackles its subject matter far more succinctly. Seth and Mistry wrote sweeping epics that submerged readers in the lives of its characters; luxuriated (successfully) for hundreds of pages in their portraits of India. A Burning is a staccato-paced, whiplash of a novel. Its three interwoven stories crisscross throughout its lean page count, contributing to a fast-paced examination of contemporary India; its systemic corruption, and its gaping class and religious divisions.
On the night of a devastating terrorist attack in Kolkata, a poor, young Muslim girl named Jivan posts on Facebook: “If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?” The next day she is arrested as a terrorist collaborator. The alibi of a trans woman (or “hijra”) named Lovely could set Jivan free — but might also cost the aspiring Bollywood actress the fame and glory she desires, but has always seems so out of reach. Jivan’s former gym teacher has no compunction falsifying his own testimony to indict Jivan; he’s desperate to ascend the political ladder, and willingly commits countless morally-questionable acts to cement his status in the populist Jana Kalyan Party.
If these three stories were disentangled and laid out separately, the characters in A Burning might feel constructed purely for Majumdar to make a point about the injustices of being an outcast in India, rather than flesh and blood, and textured; a novel about politics rather than a novel about people. It is the architecture of Majumdar’s narrative that makes the novel work. By forsaking breadth, many of its scenes feel like vignettes; pencil sketches rather than inked portraits. Much of its pace is manufactured through expository, dialogue-heavy sections. But its form perfectly fits its content. It is intense, direct, and daring: a gleaming spotlight illuminating an unjust reality, building to a wrenching, inevitable conclusion that crushes like a bulldozer. Few novels have probed the sickness inherent in India’s inequality more evocatively than this.
Number Of Pages: 304
Available: 8th July 2020
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Veteran journalist Jack McEvoy — hero of The Poet and The Scarecrow — has burned all his bridges and been relegated to reporting on consumer issues for a nonprofit investigative news organisation called Fair Warning. It’s good, honest work in a world where traditional newsrooms have been hollowed out and replaced by click-bait websites, and the president is openly hostile towards the media — but it’s not the kind of work that gets Jack’s blood pumping. Death is his beat; it’s the oft-repeated mantra of the series. So when a woman he had a one-night stand with is brutally murdered, and Jack becomes a suspect, he finds himself suckered into the murder beat once more, hunting a sadistic killer .
Shrikes — also known as butcherbirds — are carnivorous passerine birds famous for impaling their prey on twigs and barbed wire, and for their killing methodology: Shrikes grasp their victims by the neck with their beaks, squeeze the spinal cord to induce paralysis, then shake vigorously until their quarry’s neck snaps. It’s how the latest serial killer stalking Los Angeles got his name: his female victims have all been discovered with their necks broken in very specific fashion.
In searching for a connection between the victim — how and why did the Shrike pinpoint these women as targets? — Jack former FBI agent Rachael Walling (a series regular in this series, and the wider “Bosch” universe) uncover the corruption ripe in the DNA testing business. There are very few regulations regarding who genealogy and DNA companies can sell your DNA to while making a profit. And the repercussions are unfathomable. Not now, perhaps; but what about the future, when usernames and passwords become defunct, and DNA becomes our exclusive identifier, and you’ve given yours away?
What separates Connelly from the competition is his interest in the blockbuster moments as much as the cartilage that binds them. He delivers authenticity as well as suspense. Fair Warning is a methodical procedural, pockmarked with insights about the changing shape of journalism and warnings about the current state, and future, of genetic testing. And its denouement hints there’s more to come from Jack. Hopefully we’re not waiting another ten years for the next instalment. Or maybe we can have the Bosch / Ballard / McEvoy / Haller crossover dreams are made of.
Format: Paperback / softback
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Publish Date: 26-May-2020
Country of Publication: Australia