Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel is more than a dazzling and seductive alternate history about a world in which Hillary Rodham decided not to marry Bill Clinton to maintain her independence. It’s a searing commentary on the unjust compromises and aspersions faced by female politicians compared to their male counterparts, and how much harder it is for women to make their way in politics, or any facet of public life; any walk of life, in fact.
Hillary is merely the vehicle Sittenfeld uses to showcase this inequality; but saturating her fiction in the texture of Hillary’s reality, with one major twist, adds a brilliant vitality to the work, and a layer of verisimilitude that using a totally fabricated character would not have allowed. This narrative decision is utterly seductive, and Sittenfeld clearly had great fun contemplating the seismic ramifications that one different decision might’ve produced. Where is Donald Trump in this new world? Barrack Obama? Indeed, what actually happened to Bill Clinton; did he achieve his political ambitions without Hillary as his first lady? Sittenfeld answers all of these questions, and more. I was addicted to learning more, and incredibly impressed by her ability to humanise Hillary, and turn her into a sympathetic character rather than a caricature. I’ve no doubt it’ll be one of my favourite books of the year.
Number Of Pages: 400
Available: 19th May 2020
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
The New Girl — the nineteenth Gabriel Allon thriller by genre stalwart (and personal favourite) Daniel Silva — is a gripping, fast-moving and intelligent spy novel that negotiates the geopolitical fautlines of the Middle East, as the head of Israeli intelligence is compelled to aid the heir to the Saudi throne to negotiate the release of his kidnapped daughter.
If Michael Connelly is the grandmaster of the police procedural, Daniel Silva might just be the grandmaster of the spy procedural. In The New Girl he immerses readers deep in the ocean of his long-developed continuity. Silva’s novels, which once focused on the micro — tightly focused on the escapades of his former art restorer turned assassin protagonist — now have a macro approach, encompassing a broad range of characters who’ve been introduced in previous adventures, as they engage in cloak and dagger schemes. The pacing is deliberate, the action packs a punch, and everything feels rooted in the real world. Silva delivers, as always. The world of geopolitics has never been more fascinating or pulse-pounding.
On Sale: 22/07/2019
I’ve whined before about a distinct absence of “metropolitan cops” in this new age of Australian crime fiction. Los Angeles has Bosch. Edinburgh has Rebus. Quebec has Gamache. Galway has Reilly. New Orleans has Robicheaux. Once upon a time, Sydney had Cliff Hardy and Scobie Malone. Melbourne had Jack Irish. But the notion of the quintessential city detective seems to have faded. Australian crime fiction has turned its focus to our harsh landscape. Geography has become king. And used to great effect. But where are the stories that flip the coin, and tackle our big cities? Here’s one — Katherine Firkin’s debut, Sticks and Stones.
What begins as a routine investigation into the disappearance of a beloved mother quickly turns into the hunt for a merciless serial killer lead by Melbourne Detective Emmett Corban, head of the Missing Persons Unit. Corban’s unencumbered by the tropes of many series leads. He’s as clean-cut as they come, a dedicated husband and father, and a staunchly focused investigator, almost glowing with integrity. Presumably some kind of tragedy awaits him in future instalments. Cops in crime fiction never remain blindingly righteous for long. He’s kind of a blank canvas, at this point, this being his premiere, which works, because it means the pacy plot is the engine of the novel. And it certainly thrums.
Structurally Sticks and Stones reminds me of Harlan Coben and Cara Hunter; short, taut chapters, regular changes of perspective and flashbacks maintain its acceleration. It’s chockfull of thrills rather than chills. When there’s violence on the page it’s fleeting rather than gratuitous or stomach churning. Firkin’s objective seems to be to speed up the readers’ page-turn, make the experience as breathless and twisty as possible, rather than terrify and unnerve. She succeeds. Firkin knows her craft. A fine start for an exciting new series.
Published: 2 June 2020
Imprint: Bantam Australia
Format: Trade Paperback
This team-up between two of thriller-lit’s most enduring creations — Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and Karin Slaughter’s Will Trent — is exactly what you’d expect it to be; nothing more, nothing less. Our heroes meet, inside Fort Knox, and become instant foes, before quickly forming a partnership that enables them to take on some bad dudes, and uncover a criminal ring operating inside the famous United States Army post. It’s bread and butter stuff from Child and Slaughter; a fun short-story-length aside, with an interesting connection to Reacher’s debut adventure, Killing Floor, with some amusing banter between the two leads, but ultimately, it reads more like a trailer for a full-size adventure we’re never actually going to see in print.
On Sale: 09/05/2019
At 1,500 pages, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is the longest book I’ve ever read, and possibly the longest book I ever want to read. I consumed it — or it consumed me — over two weeks of vacation. I ingested 300-page chunks on multiple plane journeys and bus rides, and piecemeal between festivities at a frenzied Indian wedding. It was never anything less than utterly compelling and all-consuming, but it truly sung during those uninterrupted hours of ceaseless reading; when the plot points, characters, and their innumerable strands of connective tissue truly came to the fore, alongside the luminous immensity of its scale and scope.
Seth luxuriates in this tale of Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s attempt to find her daughter, Lata, a suitable boy to marry, which is the overriding centrepiece of a novel that strives (and succeeds) to be much more than a love story. Set primarily in Brahmpur, A Suitable Boy spotlights four well-off families — particularly their younger members — in the tumultuous time of newly independent India, which is striving to find its identity in a post-English world. The novel marries familial and political drama, flavoured with plenty of local colour, and despite its enormity, never feels overstuffed. It’s a literary colossus, a brilliant book, that didn’t quite hit the same high notes for me as Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, but is nonetheless a novel I’ll remember reading for the rest of my life.
Number Of Pages: 1504
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Country of Publication: GB
In this new novel by Dept. of Speculation author Jenny Offill, librarian Lizzie Benson weathers the tumultuous storm of our present day in a series of sharp, lyrical, sometimes poignant, more often amusing, vignettes.
Lizzie’s concerns oscillate between the minute and the mundane, and the apocalyptic. The book’s humour stems from their universality, and our brain’s ability to compartmentalise various doomsday scenarios alongside the trials and tribulations of every day, and find both subsets equally catastrophic depending on our mood and mindset.
Offill’s style is deceptively simple, but almost impossible to replicate. Her deadpan observations uncannily expose the hurts and joys of living. She is one of the great contemporary chroniclers of the human condition.
Imprint: Granta Books
Publisher: Granta Books
Publish Date: 13-Feb-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom
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