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

Review: The Bluffs by Kyle Perry

9781760895679In his debut novel “The Bluffs,” Kyle Perry demonstrates a remarkable ability to imbue the forbidding landscape of the mountains in Tasmania’s Great Western Tiers with potential otherworldly hostilities, infusing enough pulse-pounding, page-turning excitement — and refined police procedural mechanics — to keep you up way past bedtime. Blending the supernatural into crime novels is a tradition that goes back to Poe and Conan Doyle — and “The Bluffs” shows how evocative the combination can be.

When a group of teenage girls on a school excursion go missing in the remote wilderness of the collection of mountain bluffs that comprise the northern edge of the Central Highlands plateau in Tasmania, the citizens of Limestone Creek are immediately on edge. Three decades ago, another group of young girls disappeared in the bluffs, and the legend of  ‘the Hungry Man’ — ‘who likes little girls, with their pretty faces and pretty curls’ — still haunts the town.

Limestone Creek is laden with dark secrets and rife with corruption. Much like the people of Kiewarra in Jane Harper’s “The Dry,” and the citizens in Chris Hammer’s Riversend (“Scrublands”) and Port Silver (“Silver”), there are monstrous connections between the residents of Limestone Creek. It falls on former Sydney Detective Con Badenhorst — plagued by his own demons — to find the girls, and determine what happened, while prime suspect Jordan Murphy —  local drug dealer and father of one of the missing students — launches a rogue parallel investigation. Answers await both men on the bluffs.

With its hint of the uncanny, “The Bluffs” reminded me of Michael Koryta’s “Those Who Wish Me Dead” and his Mark Novak duology; crisp writing and steady suspense amplified by its setting. Kyle Perry shows that evil lurks not just in the hearts of humankind, but in the treacherous rugged terrain that surrounds us.

Published: 2 July 2020
ISBN: 9781760895679
Imprint: Michael Joseph
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 432
RRP: $32.99

Review: A Burning by Megha Majumdar

a-burning-9781471190278_lgMegha 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.

ISBN: 9781471190278
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 304
Available: 8th July 2020
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd

Review: Fair Warning by Michael Connelly

9781760877989Veteran 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.

ISBN: 9781760877989
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 416
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Publish Date: 26-May-2020
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Trouble Is What I do by Walter Mosley

9781474616522When 92-year-old Mississippi blues musician Phillip “Catfish” Worry approaches Leonid McGill with the simple task of hand-delivering a letter to a wealthy heiress revealing her black heritage, the private eye accepts, unknowingly becoming the eye of a storm involving her flagrantly racist and vindictive father, and a notorious assassin with Catfish firmly in his sights.

The Leonid McGill series — Trouble Is What I Do being its sixth instalment — embraces the hardboiled private detective genre invented by Hamnett, refined by Chandler and Macdonald, and emulated by countless others; but few as successfully as Walter Mosley. The story is deceptively simple, its eclectic cast, crisp, lean and spare prose the perfect vehicle to highlight the systemic racism still prevalent in society.

It’s slick, quick, bread-and-butter stuff from Mosley, whose mastery of the genre is still evident even when he’s not at his peak. The biggest problem with his latest is that it reads like something he could write in his sleep. An entertaining addition to the McGill canon, best enjoyed by those already familiar with the ex-boxer and underground fixer turned PI.

ISBN: 9781474616522
Format: Hardback
Pages: 176
Imprint: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 27-Feb-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Adversary by Ronnie Scott

9780143796640This is one of those books where not a lot happens — but, prospectively, a lot happens, or is about to, depending on how the reader extrapolates its ending. It doesn’t manifest in action on the page, nor in a significant obtaining of wisdom that would pigeonhole it as a conventional “coming-of-age” tale. It is a novel whose magnitude is measured in precise, smaller moments, in which its author microscopically examines the evolution of a close friendship between two gay men as a scorching Melbourne summer ignites.

The Adversary eschews a traditional narrative structure, and casts the reader into the mind of its unnamed protagonist, exposes us to the vicissitudes and complexities of his life — noteworthy for its ordinariness, unembellished by genre-trappings — lays out the jump-start cable necessary to revive him from his almost-paralytic physical and emotional indolence, then shunts the reader out again. It reads like a bridging novel; we are witnessing an essential interval in a young man’s life, unbeknownst to him, and not pockmarked by elaborate embellishment or genre-surreality, that is leading towards something undefined. It is brilliantly true to life and relatable.

Writing with the assurance and authority that belies his status as first-time novelist, Ronnie Scott reveals the contradictions of the human heart and the complexities of friendship, love and sexuality. Compulsively readable, and memorable for its lack of clear-cut finality. The story – the narrator’s life – continues beyond the page.

ISBN: 9780143796640
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 256
Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Publish Date: 15-Apr-2020
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Sisters by Daisy Johnson

9781787331778In Booker-shortlisted author Daisy Johnson’s unsettling second novel, two sisters — July and September — move across the country, with their mother, to a long-abandoned family home, where the deep bond they’ve always shared begins to contort into something noxious, something wicked, that reveals itself in its sharpest form when they meet a boy.

Sisters is a compelling and nuanced psychological drama you read feeling like there’s a fist in your stomach, squeezing your guts. There’s a great slathering of tension, that ratchets up adroitly, building to a climax that isn’t necessarily ferocious, but suitably haunting and disturbing. Johnson excavates maximum suspense from the most quotidian of human relationships, and the novel’s slight size does nothing to impede its richness; rather, it’s enhanced by its brevity, making it an all the more potent concoction.

Published: 2 July 2020
ISBN: 9781787331778
Imprint: Jonathan Cape
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 192
RRP: $29.99