Fifty-Fifty | Steve Cavanagh | Hachette Australia | 25 February 2020 | RRP $33.00 | 9781409185857
Fifty-Fifty is vintage Steve Cavanagh: the setup is scintillating, his trademark twists are generously piled on, and the payoff is suitably pulse-pounding.
On the night of their father’s brutal death, two sisters — Sofia and Alexandra Avellino — dial 911 and blame each other for the murder. The women are trialled at the same time, in front of one jury. One of them has been framed; the other is a murderer. Unless they were both involved? Lawyers Eddie Flynn (The Defence, The Plea, etc) and Kate Brooks steadfastly believe their clients are innocent. As they clash in the courtroom, it begins to dawn on them; one, or both of them, are being played by a killer.
Cavanagh expertly manipulates the reader through his labyrinth plot, daring us, and his protagonists, to assume the innocence and guilt of both sisters at various stages, before unveiling a piece of evidence or witness that undermines any presupposed theory. Cavanagh writes blockbuster Grisham-esque thrillers: his plots are sensational, the pacing is pure Hollywood, but they’re grounded by embattled characters readers can’t help but root for. Fifty-Fifty is spectacular entertainment, easily read as a standalone, but also an important milestone in the Eddie Flynn canon.
The Gypsy Goddess | Meena Kandasamy | Atlantic Books | April 2015 | RRP $23.00 | 9781782391807
“Because I have taken pleasure in the aggressive act of clobbering you with metafiction devices, I can hear some of you go: what happened to the rules of a novel?
They are hanging on my clothesline over there.”
This novel about the 1968 massacre of 44 Dalit agricultural labourers in Kilvenmani village, in the Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu, South India, and the struggle of an author to tell the story, is mesmerising and frustrating in equal measure. It features some of the most exquisite, lurid passages I’ve read in years, but its fractured format negated its overall impact. I was left more frustrated than charmed; annoyed by the constant shifts in perspectives and voices — from breathless single-sentences, to second-person narrations, to communist pamphlets — that never quite gelled cohesively. Meena Kandasamy deserves credit for playing with the form, and I’m keen to read more of her work, because some of the prose truly sings, but ultimately, I would’ve preferred a straightforward retelling of these horrific events. Or maybe I’m just a simpleton.
This year I managed to read 147 books, which is 19 less than in 2018, which is a lot, but then, 2019 has been a much better year for me personally, so it’s hard to complain. I’ve already posted about my favourite books of the year, but as I’ve been doing since 2016, this year I tracked my reading by a variety of categories, the results of which are below.
This year I reached as close to gender parity as I ever have before, and I hope to continue closing the gap. In fact, I’d love an even split in 2020. I read far less crime than last year, but it’s still the genre I read most. And my reading continues to be dominated by American authors; I’d love to read more nationalities, and that’ll be another mission next year. Interestingly and unintentionally I listened to far fewer audio books. And despite the avalanche of proofs several publishers supply me, I actually buy most of the books I read.
Kokomo | Victoria Hannan | Hachette Australia | August 2020 | RRP $30.00 | 9780733643323
“Mina wondered what other secrets lay between these people, wondered if maybe every family was built on an intricate web of lies, or at least things people chose not to tell each other. She’d learned that not every truth deserves air: some truths were better smothered, extinguished before they could take hold and burn everything to the ground.”
Victoria Hannan’s seriously impressive debut Kokomo charts the complex, resilient relationship of a mother and daughter, and the toxicity of decades-long secrets finally surfacing. It’s a sharply-observed portrait of devastating loneliness and human fallibility, and what it means to belong.
When Mina’s agoraphobic mother leaves her house for the first time in more than a decade, she rushes from her life in London to be by Elaine’s side in Melbourne. On the one hand, it’s to commemorate her mother’s decision to unshackle herself from the house; on the other, it’s to untangle the mystery of why Elaine has chosen this moment to return to the world. But Elaine is reticent to explain, or delve into the agony of the past; and Mina’s homecoming engenders emotional fallout of her own with people she thought she’d left behind long ago.
Smart and sensitive, punctuated with moments of real humour, Hannan has crafted a novel in the mould of Anne Tyler’s finest work. Like Tyler, Hannan trades expertly in the themes of the struggle for identity, the lack of meaningful communication between loved ones, and individual isolation; and although it positively glows with poignancy, it’s somehow free of gross sentimentality. This is first rate fiction from a writer to watch.
Number Of Pages: 320
Available: 28th July 2020
An investigative journalist haunted by her past scrutinises the exorbitant number of injuries and deaths of Grange Industry personnel at the Port of Melbourne in Karina Kilmore’s debut crime novel. But despite some compelling subject matter — big business clashing with the unions, the changing face of journalism, the government’s infringement on the public’s right to know — Where The Truth Lies is a low octane mystery laced with interesting elements that never quite mesh into an intoxicating page-turner, and frequently upends its own dramatic potential.
Take its main character, Chrissie O’Brian, a pill-popping, alcoholic journalist with The Argus, who is desperate to prove herself in the patriarchal newsroom, and desperate to escape her tragic past, for which she has assumed all blame. It would make sense (to me, at least; but who am I?) to prolong the the revelation of why she left New Zealand for Melbourne; build tension, make the reader question the veracity of O’Brian; yes, we want her to uncover the truth behind the deaths at Port of Melbourne, but what is she guilty of? Instead the events from her past are described in a simple flashback, stifling its gravitas.
Kilmore provides column-inches of background expertise on the harsh reality of the newspaper business and the Australian media landscape — she has 25 years of experience under her belt, so she has walked the walk — and the novel ticks along nicely during these moments; in fact, I’d love to sit in these scenes for longer, have the focus on breaking a story, pushing it through internal bureaucracy and dealing with government heavy-handedness. But these insights can’t buoy a plot that never really shifts out of neutral. My hope is that with the introduction of her lead out of the way, Kilmore’s sophomore novel leans into the aspects that sparkled here.
Pub: Simon & Schuster Australia
Announcing the arrival of an exceptional new voice, Such A Fun Age is a wry, sharp novel that brilliantly intertwines ruminations on race, romance, motherhood and class, in a novel that’s equal parts heart-wrenching and heart-warming, and never anything less than mesmeric. With her unflinching portrayal of life as a young black woman in America today, Kiley Reid has crafted an important book that sparks empathy and outrage, illuminating both its characters and larger social issues.
Definitely one to watch for in 2020.
Number Of Pages: 240
Available: 7th January 2020
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Lately Stephen King has seemed determined to thrill rather than chill, forsaking the spine-tingling spookiness of his seminal (and my favourite) books — hello, Pet Sematary; hi, It; good to see ya, Cujo! — in favour of telling exhilarating, completely absorbing, rollicking reads, replete with the kind of dazzling pyrotechnics and fantastic characters only he could conjure. The Institute is exactly that: a masterclass of entertainment, in which paranormally blessed kids are conscripted into a secret government lab in Maine (naturally) and forced to endure horrific tortures.
The book opens with Jack Reacher-like wanderer Tim Jamieson — ex-(decorated) cop — taking a job in the small South Carolina town of DuPray. King lays all his cards on the table: this guy is going to be a hero. We’re rooting for this guy. The question King dangles is, what force is he up against? We don’t get an immediate answer. Instead, smash-cut to Minneapolis, where the super-intelligent Luke Ellis is kidnapped from his own home while his parents are murdered, and transported to the facility known as ‘the Institute,’ run by the evil Mrs Sigsby. After the first hundred pages, readers know Luke and Ellis’s paths will cross: but when, and how? And what will the ramifications be?
Cancel all your plans and settle in for the ride. This is escapism at its purest and finest.
Format: Paperback / softback
Imprint: Hodder & Stoughton
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publish Date: 10-Sep-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom