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

Review: Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. by Joyce Carol Oates

x293When John ‘Whitey’ McLaren witnesses an act of police brutality against an Indian man mistaken as black, the former mayor of a nearby town attempts to intercede. Tased to the ground, he suffers a stroke and soon dies — ‘soon’ being a relative term, because “Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.” is Joyce Carol Oates at her most loquacious.

Whitey leaves behind his wife Jessalyn and their five grown-up children; white, privileged Americans who are grievously discombobulated by the abrupt disgorgement of their family’s lynchpin. But this is not the simple tale you might presume it at heart: that of a family experiencing the most primal of heartbreak and pain, and their redemptive path away from it. Instead, Oates steeps her cast in the most excruciating and toxic forms of grief, and lets the McLaren’s stew in it for the novel’s entirety, evocatively detailing its metamorphic effect, as their sadness contorts into outright despair and ferocious anger. The siblings transform; grotesquely in most cases, as if Whitey’s death has vanquished any semblance of decency. The children’s handling of their mother’s attempts to move on (and out) from Whitey’s shadow is unsettling; their focus on the estate rather than her happiness is demonstrative of their greed and selfishness, once hidden behind polished veneers, now stripped and laid bare.

“Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.” is an astonishing piece of storytelling; a domestic masterpiece textured by Oates’ willingness to probe the forbidden places of grief, and extract its intrinsic blackness. It is a work of intense, forensic observation; a microscopic examination of a family undone by a tragic loss against a portrait of modern America.

ISBN: 9780008381080
Imprint: 4th Estate – GB
On Sale: 16/06/2020
Pages: 928
List Price: 32.99 AUD

Review: True Story – A Novel by Kate Reed Petty

9781787478459Do we own our stories, or do they own us? And how do we claim ownership, reconcile our past and move forward, when our own recollections are defective? When our memories are based on the testimony of others?

Kate Reed Petty’s “True Story” is a propulsive and unconventional psychological mystery about the repercussions of a devastating high school rumour, and a meditation on trauma. Fifteen years ago, something happened to Alice Lovett while she was passed out in the backseat of a car. Two members of Nick Brothers’ Maryland High School lacrosse team drove Alice home after one of their ‘legendary’ parties, and at some point — according to subsequent gossip — sexually assaulted her. The precise details are hazy. Alice has no memory; which makes the vividness of the rumour — the gross, precise detail that spreads through the town; allegations that are denied by the boys — all the more unsettling. And its impact is long-lasting; eternal. Whatever happened on the backseat of that  car will shape the rest of her life.

“True Story” flits between Alice and Nick’s stories, and Petty employs a collage of mediums to tell their inextricably linked tales as Nick descends into alcoholism, and Alice is continuously drawn into toxic relationships; scripts, emails, chapters in first and third person, and in present and past tense. This bold mesh of narrative types is seamless, and makes for a compulsive reading experience — and a masterful way of blindsiding readers to the book’s ending, where everything takes on an intriguing new dimension.

An innovative and harrowing examination on the nature of truth and the power of finding your voice. Petty is a writer of immense talent, and definitely one to watch.

ISBN: 9781787478459
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 400
Imprint: riverrun
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Publish Date: 4-Aug-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Betty by Tiffany McDaniel

9781474617536“A girl comes of age against the knife… but the woman she becomes must decide if the blade will cut deep enough to rip her apart or if she will find the strength to leap with her arms out and dare herself to fly in a world that seems to break like glass around her.”

Inspired by generations of her own family, Tiffany McDaniel’s “Betty” is the story of Betty Carpenter’s agonising childhood. Born in a bathtub in 1954 — the sixth of eight siblings — to a white mother and a Cherokee father, Berry’s childhood is suffused with tragedy and heartbreak, pockmarked by the poverty, racism and violence imbedded within the DNA of Breathed, Ohio; degraded further by the corrosive secrets imbued within each Carpenter, which gradually corrupts their familial unity. This toxicity is more potent in certain members than it is others, which comes to the fore as the novel ratchets towards its climax. Some are broken; others merely damaged; but nobody is untouched.

Reading “Betty” reminded me of Roxane Gay’s “An Untamed State,” Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life,” and Sofie Laguna’s “The Choke.” It is viscerally confronting with its depictions of violence and abuse. It is not for the faint of heart. Certain scenes — which should be discovered during Betty’s narration rather than spoiled in a review — will be lodged in my memory forever, both for their unflinching depiction, and their heartbreaking consequences for our young protagonist.

The narrative thrums with evocative descriptions of the landscape, and marinates in Betty’s father’s stories about native Cherokee traditions. We witness how Betty’s endless exposure to brutality shapes her view of the world, and fear what it means for her future. We hope, and pray, that she finds agency through the power of words, even as she buries her scrawled recounts of the horrors she has witnessed deep in the dirt. McDaniel offers no reprieve. She pulls no punches. She tears into the noxiousness of patriarchy; the aftermath of abuse; the trauma of unrepentant racism. What does it take for a young girl to survive that?

“Betty” is an absolutely gut-wrenching coming-of-age story, graced by powerful and poetic prose.

ISBN: 9781474617536
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 464
Imprint: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 18-Aug-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Book Review: Lisey’s Story by Stephen King

9781444707892Stephen 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.

ISBN: 9781444707892
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 704
Published: 13th September 2011
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Review: If It Bleeds by Stephen King

9781529391541Stephen King is never more virtuosic than when he’s at his most concise. I love “The Stand”, and “Duma Key,” and “Under the Dome” — but it’s in the shorter form, where his ideas are honed knife-sharp, that his stories become incandescent.

“If It Bleeds” is a collection of four novellas that demonstrate King’s storytelling pliability. The titular novella — a sequel to “The Outsider” and the Mr. Mercedes trilogy — is the most straightforward and (dare I day) ‘generic’ of the bunch. Holly Gibney notices something peculiar about a reporter, Chet Ondowsky, reporting on an explosion at a middle school, and soon learns it’s no coincidence he’s first on the scene at incidents of mass casualties. “If It Bleeds” is a clever mashup of police procedural and pulse-pounding horror, and is entertaining as heck, but is definitely King writing at his ‘safest.’

My favourite story is the collection’s opener, “Mr Harrigan’s Phone,” about an iPhone possessed by a supernatural force hellbent on punishing wrongdoers. But of course, it’s about far more than that; it’s the humanity of the characters, and King’s examination of their willingness (or trepidation) to utilise the ‘ghost in the machine’ that makes it a standout, and one of King’s most haunting stories in recent times.

“Rat” is another classic that sees King mining familiar ground, but still digging up gold. Drew Larson is a struggling writer, cut off in the wintery backwoods by a cataclysmic storm, where he encounters a talking rat he is certain must be a consequence of a fever dream. But when the Rat asks what price Drew is willing to pay for personal success, and they agree terms, Drew’s life is unalterably changed. As unsettling as it is intriguing, as King — through Drew — contemplates creativity and the writing life.

“The Life of Chuck” is the strangest, most beguiling story of the quartet, transpiring in reverse chronological order as it unveils the biography of Chuck Krantz, beginning with the end of the world, as Chuck lays dying from a brain tumour, and ending with his childhood, where he learns ‘every year you life, that world inside your head will get bigger and brighter, more detailed and complex.’ It’s not esoteric, but it’s definitely King at his most nuanced, and effective.

A strong collection from King, which will sate his legion of fans, and likely inspire new ones. These stories showcase the breadth of King’s powers, and would be perfect for any reader keen to sample his work for the first time.

ISBN: 9781529391541
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 384
Imprint: Hodder & Stoughton
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publish Date: 21-Apr-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom