Review: A Line to Kill by Anthony Horowitz

As far as I’m concerned, there is no better writer of murder mysteries than Anthony Horowitz right now. He is in the form of his life, and the third novel in his Daniel Hawthorne series further ratifies that belief. “A Line to Kill” is an exceptional whodunnit, meticulously plotted, laden with red herrings and disguises, and populated with an eclectic cast of suspects and victims. It’s everything the armchair sleuth could possibly want. 

Once again narrated by a fictionalised Horowitz (who writes about Hawthorne’s murder investigations), “A Line to Kill” is set at a literary festival on the English island of Alderney. Horowitz and Hawthorne are just one of the festival’s highlights: other guests include a blind psychic, a French performance poet, a war historian, and a chef who specialises in (exceedingly) unhealthy meals. 

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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: Dead Letters by Michael Brissenden

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.

ISBN: 9780733637445
ISBN-10: 0733637442
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 368
Available: 27th January 2021
Publisher: Hachette Australia

Review: Daddy by Emma Cline

I’ve been meaning to read Emma Cline’s debut “The Girls” for the longest time, but haven’t, for no other reason than the timing has never been right. I’d be midway through another book, see it on the shelf and think, “Oh yes, that’s exactly what I feel like reading,” only to start something else, which is the sad fate of so many books: the “one day’s.” Cline’s short story collection “Daddy” offered me an introduction to her writing, which piqued me enough to maintain my interest in one day reading “The Girls,” but not enough to move the needle into “Oh my God, I need it now.”

The stories here are populated with gross, self-entitled, narcissistic (mostly older) men, oozing toxic masculinity, oftentimes in its subtlest (but no less noxious) form, sometimes outright barbaric. These men are messed up. Some of them know it, and assumed they’d always get away with their behaviours; others demonstrate perniciousness through their attitudes, fuelled by personal failures and disappointments.

The best stories are the most understated, like my favourites, “Los Angeles,” about a young woman who works at a clothing store, takes acting classes, and makes extra cash through a rather disturbing side hustle (which you just know will have serious ramifications) and “What Can You Do With a General,” which follows a father trying to reconnect with his adult children during the holidays, barely able to disguise his contempt.

I devoured the first four stories in “Daddy”, then trudged (not unhappily) through the rest. I’ve been marinating over why. There’s certainly no technical fault with these latter tales. I think it’s the uniformity of Cline’s themes, and the speed at which I read the collection. Maybe if I’d read “Daddy” over a week, rather than binged it, I mightn’t have felt so claustrophobic.

ISBN: 9781784743727
ISBN-10: 1784743720
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 272
Published: 1st September 2020
Publisher: RANDOM HOUSE UK

Outlawed by Anna North

“I wanted the town the Kid imagined to exist… I imagined treating a barren woman at the surgery in Pagosa Springs and telling her I knew of a place she could go and live without fear.”

In Anna North’s subversive, feminist western, eighteen-year-old newlywed Ada, daughter of the town’s chief midwife, worries she’ll be accused of witchcraft following several unsuccessful attempts at conceiving a child. The year is 1894, the world is a hard place, and such allegations have lethal consequences.

When her friend miscarries, she accuses Ada of jealously casting a spell, turning the townsfolk against Ada, and forcing her on the run. At first she turns to a nunnery, then to the infamous Hole in the Wall gang and its enigmatic leader, the Kid. No gender pronouns are assigned to the Kid; the Kid, as Elzy, one of the gang members underlines, is simply the Kid.

The Kid envisions a town where “nonconforming” people can exist in harmony; where people are valued because of who they are rather than on the form of their genitals, and are uncategorised by centuries-old obsolete structures. A community, in the truest sense, where the Kid’s female and nonbinary outlaws can live in peace. With her medical background, Ada becomes the gang’s doctor, and joins them in tense, action-packed adventures and holdups, which build in intensity and stakes as the novel rushes to its conclusion.

The roughness and ruthless of North’s world is contrasted by her insightful, evocative and sensitive prose. This is taut, trim storytelling at its best: a reworking of classic Western archetypes, begging for a cinematic adaptation.

ISBN: 9781474615358
ISBN-10: 147461535X
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 256
Available: 5th January 2021
Publisher: Orion

Review: Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

9781444799439David 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.

ISBN: 9781444799439
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 576
Published: 14th July 2020
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Country of Publication: GB

Review: The Hunted by Gabriel Bergmoser

x293“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.

ISBN: 9781460758540
Imprint: HarperCollins – AU
On Sale: 31/07/2020
Pages: 288
List Price: 29.99 AUD

Review: Broken by Don Winslow

x293Few writers — let alone crime writers — write with as much style and substance as Don Winslow. In “Broken,” a collection of six novellas, he acknowledges Raymond Chandler, Steve McQueen and Elmore Leonard, which should give newcomers to his work some idea of his stylistic leanings; but the scope of his work — even in this shorter format — is positively Dickensian. Brusque, punchy sentences and dialogue David Mamet would be proud of bely thematic weight.

There are three personal standouts in this brilliant collection, though your verdict might vary depending on your particular predilection; some of which feature characters from Winslow’s earlier work. “Crime 101” stars a jewel thief named Davis who targets jewellery shops on the Pacific Coast Highway 101, which hugs the ocean south-north in California. He’s got Detective Lou Lubesnick on his tail, and he’s like a dog with a bone. “The San Diego Zoo” opens with an escaped chimp armed with a revolver causing havoc. Well-intentioned police officer Chris Shea intervenes, and ends up the laughing stock of the department, and a YouTube sensation, hindering his chances of earning a spot on the robbery desk with Lubesnick.

The most powerful and timely story — maybe my favourite — is “The Last Ride,” in which a Border Patrol agent breaks protocol and attempts to return a Salvadoran girl to her mother. The story coruscates with the fear and desperation of both the agent and the traumatised six-year-old girl he wants to help; but as the title suggests, all does not bode well.

The three other tales — “Broken,” “Sunset,” and “Paradise” — are pacy stories that crackle with energy and excitement: a New Orleans cop goes on a rampage to avenge his murdered brother; a bail bondsman hunts for a heroin-addicted former surfing legend; and O, Ben and Chon hope to expand their weed-growing business from California to Hawaii but encounter deadly opposition.

Each of these stories could be expanded into a blockbuster novel: they are atmospheric, suspenseful and propelled by deep wrenching human emotion. And they are proof Don Winslow is one of the world’s best crime writers.

ISBN: 9781460758786
Imprint: HarperCollins – AU
On Sale: 06/04/2020
Pages: 352
List Price: 32.99 AUD

Review: The Morbids by Ewa Ramsey

9781760877538“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.

ISBN: 9781760877538
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Pub Date: September 2020
Page Extent: 368

Review: Rules For Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

9780571342358The only thing wrong with Peter Swanson’s “Rules for Perfect Murders” (published in America as “Eight Perfect Murders) is that it spoils — by necessity — the plots of eight classic crime novels. But if you’re okay with that, or better yet, have already read them, and you’re a crime fiction connoisseur, Swanson’s latest is tremendous fun: a twist-filled, pacey psychological thriller, and a love letter to the golden age of crime fiction.

Deception and duplicity course through these pages like a river. Nothing is what it seems, and everybody has a secret. Malcolm Kershaw is the co-owner of the Old Devil’s Bookstore in Boston, which specialises in mysteries and thrillers. It’s a routine day until FBI agent Gwen Mulvey arrives at the door with questions for Malcolm about a blog post he wrote years ago titled ‘Eight Perfect Murders,’ which described the ingenious methods and strategies used by killers in eight classic crime novels. Mulvey believes a serial killer is re-creating those ‘perfect’ murders, and wants Malcolm’s analysis.

The murders in question stem from Agatha Christie’s “The A.B.C. Murders;” A.A. Milne’s “The Red House Mystery;” Patricia Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train;” James M. Cain’s “Double Indemnity;” Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History;” Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap;” Anthony Berkeley Cox’s “Malice Afterthought” and John D. MacDonald’s “The Drowner.” Swanson — through the lens of Malcolm — evocatively summarises the details of these murders. Spoilers abound, certainly; but I was more enticed than discouraged to read the four books on Malcolm’s list I haven’t yet imbibed.

“Rules” boasts a wildly charismatic and eclectic cast; authors, bookstore customers and colleagues, and dark web correspondents. They’re diverse and distinct, and though savvy readers might identify the killer before Swanson gets to the big reveal, there’s more to this story than the ‘whodunit.’ This is about unravelling the complex psyche of Malcolm; understanding how the tragedy of his past has affected his present. Honestly, “Rules” is one of the most purely entertaining mysteries of the year: a throwback to the mystery novels of yesteryear with a contemporary sheen, and a mystery I’d happily hand across to  any trepidatious crime reader.

ISBN: 9780571342365
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 288
Imprint: Faber & Faber
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Publish Date: 5-Mar-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom