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Monday, 18 September 2017

Review: Force of Nature by Jane Harper


Simon McDonald reviews the sequel to Jane Harper's The Dry.

Jane Harper knows precisely how to grab a reader, draw him or her into the story, then slowly tighten her grip until escape is impossible. The Dry was a stylish, compulsive whodunnit, centred around a small rural town, and the unearthing of dark secrets from its present and past. It was a superbly riveting demonstration of intelligent crime writing, and its successor, Force of Nature, provides further proof: Jane Harper knows all there is to know about detonating the gut-level shocks of a great thriller.

The premise of Force of Nature is deceptively simple: five women head off into the bush on a corporate retreat, and only four come out the other side. The well-being of the missing bush walker, Alice Russell, is of particular interest to Federal Police agents Aaron Falk and Carmen Cooper: she’s the whistle-blower in their latest case. Their honed cop instincts can’t believe it’s purely a coincidence that Russell has vanished on a trip organised by the corporation she is covertly helping to dismantle. So off they go, from Melbourne to the rugged terrain of the Giralang Ranges, determined to disentangle the mess of deceit, deception and suspicion formed between the remaining four women during their ill-fated hike.

There’s a distinct Liane Moriarty vibe to Force of Nature and the nature in which its plot uncoils, flitting between multiple perspectives, and the past and present; a little like Truly Madly Guilty, but with a sharper edge. Jane Harper’s brilliance in characterisation and evocative prose is on full display here, as she grants herself a large cast of characters to probe the psyche’s of, teasing the truth, dangling the explanation as to what actually happened to Alice Russell, then pulling away. You’ll switch between your own guess of her fate, and the perpetrator — if indeed there is one — every few pages.

Once you start Force of Nature you’ll read it straight through, quickly, compulsively, happy to be in the hands of a born storyteller. Its setting and characters are uniquely Australian, but not grindingly unsubtle, and its perfect melding of plot, personality and graceful prose are sure to shoot it up to the top of best-seller lists. In a crowded market, Jane Harper shines at the quality end. She knows her characters, her locale, and her plot. Force of Nature is masterfully paced, wonderfully rendered, and devastatingly entertaining.

Force of Nature is published Tuesday 26th September.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Review: The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

Simon McDonald reviews Katherine Rundell's tale of four children plunged into the Amazon forest.

In Katherine Rundell’s gem of a book, The Explorer, a crash-landing in the Amazon leaves four children stranded deep in the jungle, who must find within themselves the strength, courage, perseverance, and wisdom to survive.
Rundell immediately thrusts readers into the action. The opening chapter details the plane’s mid-flight stutter as it travels from England to Manaus; the sudden shift from normalcy to desperation as the plane plunges into the fauna below. Before readers can catch their breath, we’re introduced to your young survivors — Fred, a white English boy, Constantia, an English girl, and biracial Brazilian siblings Lila and 5-year-old Max — and their plight for survival. At first uneasy allies, they surge through their fear and their discomfort, searching for shelter and foraging for food, scraping by as best they can on their wits alone; until Fred stumbles across an old map, and they decide to follow it to the X. Boarding their handmade raft,  the children make the precarious journey down the river, until they rediscover a lost city, and among its ruins, a mysterious man they refer to only as ‘the Explorer,’ who has the knowledge, and the tools, to see them home safely. Which he will do, right? He’s the adult amongst children, thereby the leader, thereby responsible for their wellbeing. But something from the Explorer’s past has hardened him; and he might not be the saving angel the kids hoped he would be.
The Explorer is a spirited, timeless tale of  self-discovery masquerading as a rip-roaring adventure story. Young readers will delight in Rundell’s ability to bring to life the sounds and smells (and the dangers!) of the Amazon, and will be white-knuckled during the pulse-pounding moments of near-death that punctuate the narrative. But its the underlying message — that these kids, that all children — are stronger, braver, and more resilient than they give themselves credit for — that elevates the book above other titles on the shelves. It’s easy — well, relatively so — for an author to craft an action-packed story of survival; it’s far more difficult to write one with as much heart as Rundell’s story. The Explorer pulsates with emotional turmoil, adventure, and suspense.

Monday, 21 August 2017

The Best Crime Novels & Thrillers for Father's Day



Our crime reader Simon highlights the best crime novels and thrillers for Father's Day.


Read Simon's review
There've already been a number of fantastic crime and thriller releases this year, from Candice Fox's Crimson Lake, replete with the authors signature style, edge and humour, to Adrian McKinty's sophisticated, stylish and engrossing Police at the Station and They Don't Look Friendly, which rips along at a cracking pace (and packs more twists and turns than a street map of Belfast), to the psychological thriller Since We Fell, which underlines Dennis Lehane's status as a writer at the top of the genre’s food chain. 

Of the more recent releases, the most popular offering this Father's Day is likely to be the latest George Smily novel, A Legacy of Spies, by legendary espionage writer John Le Carré. But with new books by perennial favourites Michael Connelly, Michael Robotham, Daniel Silva and Don Winslow, as well as debut writer Mark Brandi, and Melbourne-based Emma Viskic, there's a crime novel or thriller out there for every dad this Father's Day.

FOR DADS WHO LOVE 
CLASSIC MYSTERIES

Read Simon's review
The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz
With its unorthodox protagonist, clever plotting, brilliantly imperfect characters, and escalating sense of urgency and intrigue, The Word is Murder is an instant crime classic that will keep you reading as fast as you can. Like the best mysteries, its plot can be summed up simply: a wealthy woman is found strangled in her home six hours after she has arranged her own funeral. Who killed her? And why? Enter: former police detective turned private investigator Daniel Hawthorne and his reluctant sidekick, Anthony Horowitz. Yes: as in, The Author Of The Very Same Book You Are Reading! It's one of the best and most compulsively readable mysteries of the year. Read Simon's full review



FOR DADS WHO LOVE
HOMELAND & 24


Read Simon's review
To Kill the President by Sam Bourne
In To Kill the President, a White House legal aide uncovers a plot to murder the recently-elected US President who, though never named, seems uncannily similar to the current man in office. But should Maggie Costello intervene? Many would argue the world would be better off without the volatile demagogue as Commander in Chief. Bourne’s prose sings, and fully-fleshed characters and a compelling moral-dilemma make the pages almost turn themselves. Literate, top-notch action laced with geopolitical commentary, this thriller is superbly entertaining. Read Simon's full review




FOR DADS WHO LOVE
SPY FICTION

A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carré
This is the first George Smiley novel in more than twenty-five years, so there's just a little bit of hype surrounding the release of A Legacy of Spies. It reunites the beloved cast that made John Le Carré's work so seminal. Peter Guillam, loyal colleague and disciple of George Smiley of the British Secret Service, is living out his old age on the south coast of Brittany when a letter from his old Service summons him to London. His Cold War past has come back to claim him. Intelligence operations that were once the toast of secret London, and involved Alec Leamas, Jim Prideaux, George Smiley and Guillam himself, are to be scrutinised by a generation with no memory of the Cold War and no patience with its justifications.


FOR DADS WHO LOVE
POLICE PROCEDURALS

The Late Show by Michael Connelly
Read Simon's review
Michael Connelly’s last Harry Bosch novel, The Wrong Side of Goodbye, was another in a long line of masterful police procedurals. Make no mistake: Connelly’s work is the standard to which all crime fiction should be held. It would be easy for the author, with his 30th book, to rest on his laurels: another Bosch novel; maybe another Lincoln Lawyer legal thriller. Instead, he’s gone and created a brilliant new protagonist, LAPD detective Renée Ballard, who has worked the night shift ever since her failed sexual harassment claim against Lt. Robert Olivas, her supervisor at the Robbery Homicide Division. And while there are plenty of similarities between Ballard and Bosch — a thirst for justice, and penchant for going rogue, to name just a couple — Renée’s no female carbon copy of the now-retired Harry. She’s fresh and distinct, inhabiting the same world of torment, fear and danger as Bosch, but providing a very different perspective.  Read Simon's full review

FOR DADS WHO LOVE
AUSSIE CRIME


Read Simon's review
And Fire Came Down by Emma Viskic
In 2015, Emma Viskic produced one of that year’s best crime novels. Resurrection Bay was a tour-de-force excursion into good, evil, and the labyrinth of human motivations. Even better, Viskic created a brilliant protagonist with the profoundly-deaf and irrepressibly obstinate Caleb Zelic, who returns as the lead in the fantastic noir thriller And Fire Came Down. Haunted by nightmares from the events of Resurrection Bay, his personal life a mess just as much as his professional one, Zelic is pulled back into the darkness when a young woman is killed in front of his eyes moments after pleading for his help in sign language. Determined to uncover her identity and discern the reason for her death, Caleb quickly discovers the trail leads straight back to his hometown. But Resurrection Bay is currently buckling from irrepressible racial tensions; not to mention the catastrophic bushfire alert that has the whole town on edge. Caleb’s homecoming couldn’t come at a worse time... Read Simon's full review

FOR DADS WHO LOVE
HISTORICAL THRILLERS

Read Simon's review
Defectors by Joseph Kanon
Joseph Kanon’s Defectors moves deliberately but colourfully, with intelligent prose and a strong Cold War period feel. With his recent literary gems (Leaving Berlin, Istanbul Passage), the heir apparent to John Le Carré is doing a wonderful job re-sparking interest in classic spy fiction. Nobody is doing it better. Frankly, nobody can do it better. Like Alan Furst’s The Foreign Correspondent and Le Carré’s The English Spy, Kanon’s latest perfectly encapsulates the potency of a spy thriller devoid of explosions and shootouts. This is a thriller that eschews video game shoot-’em-up style action, and instead relies on the the complexities of its characters and their confused loyalties to maximise suspense. Defectors is a virtuoso display by an author at his peak. Read Simon's full review


FOR DADS WHO LOVE
EPIC COP NOVELS

The Force by Don Winslow
Don Winslow, the acclaimed, award-winning, bestselling author of The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, turns his sights away from the War on Drugs to deliver a truly epic, Godfather-eque cop novel, The Force. It opens with NYPD Detective Sergeant Denny Malone in federal lockup, reflecting on the decisions that landed him behind bars. Formerly a hero cop and the self-proclaimed King of Manhattan North, Malone was in charge of an elite NYPD unit commissioned to battle drugs, guns and gangs, until something -- well, everything -- went wrong, and his whole world came crashing down. Seems 18 years of bending the rules has finally taken its toll. Not that Malone's remorseful. In his mind, he's done what he's had to, in order to keep the streets safe and line the pockets of his comrades, who deserve maximum compensation for the risks they take. Malone doesn't consider himself corrupt or dirty: when you're working under the hammer of a broken justice system, you make your own rules. Against the backdrop of community outrage from high-profile police shootings of young black men nationwide, Winslow unveils Malone's unravelling. The Force is a propulsive crime novel, offering plenty of social commentary, and a dose of Winslow's trademark dynamism and flair.

FOR DADS WHO LOVE
LITERARY CRIME

Read Simon's review
Wimmera by Mark Brandi
Wimmera tracks the friendship of two boys from a defining moment in their childhood, when a mysterious newcomer arrives in the small Australian country town of Wimmera, through to the discovery of a body in the river twenty years later. Mark Brandi’s debut is a simply extraordinary literary crime novel, delivered with intelligence, power and heart.
Read Simon's full review





FOR DADS WHO LOVED
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN & GONE GIRL
Read Simon's review

The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham
In this standalone psychological thriller, Robotham explores the lengths we’ll go to bury the truth beneath a flood of lies. He never writes a dull page, ratcheting up the tension, pressing his foot against the accelerator, until the pages start turning themselves. The Secrets She Keeps is gripping and heartbreaking in equal measure. You will doubt everything and everyone, because ultimately, the characters at the novel’s centre simply can’t be trusted. They are liars, cheats and scoundrels. And they are so utterly compelling, you might breeze through this one in a single sitting. It’s ‘forget your job, meals, friends and family’ kind of good. Read Simon's full review




Sunday, 30 July 2017

Review: Tin Man by Sarah Winman

This is a story of love and friendship, and how — usually for the better, sometimes for the worst — they are inextricably linked, like the strands of a double helix. When Ellis and Michael meet as young boys they quickly become inseparable, forming an unquantifiable relationship; a love that extends beyond pure romance, rooted in the deepest of connections. But when Annie enters their lives, the fabric of their relationship changes. Tin Man depicts these shifting sands from both Ellis’ and Michael’s perspectives, events switching back-and-forth through time. It’s a book that explores both love, and lost love; of paths taken, and the pain of paths abandoned; what was, and what could’ve been. That it does all this —  so evocatively, with such nuance and empathetic characters, in fewer than 200 pages — is a testament to Winman’s storytelling. She has crafted a novel that is both hauntingly sad, yet incredibly uplifting, reminding us of the potency and everlastingness of first love.
Told with extraordinary tenderness and feeling, sonorous prose lighting its pages, Tin Man is a closely observed, deeply sympathetic rendering of three relationships, and our helplessness against the power of love. Superbly written and desperately moving, it is one of those few novels I want to re-read again, languorously this time, to bask in the beauty of the prose, and savour my moments with these characters.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Review: The Late Show by Michael Connelly

Simon McDonald reviews the first book in Michael Connelly's new series starring LAPD Detective Renée Ballard.

Michael Connelly’s last Harry Bosch novel, The Wrong Side of Goodbye, was another in a long line of masterful police procedurals. Make no mistake: Connelly’s work is the standard to which all crime fiction should be held. It would be easy for the author, with his 30th book, to rest on his laurels: another Bosch novel; maybe another Lincoln Lawyer legal thriller. Instead, he’s gone and created a brilliant new protagonist, LAPD detective Renée Ballard, who has worked the night shift ever since her failed sexual harassment claim against Lt. Robert Olivas, her supervisor at the Robbery Homicide Division. And while there are plenty of similarities between Ballard and Bosch — a thirst for justice, and penchant for going rogue, to name just a couple — Renée’s no female carbon copy of the now-retired Harry. She’s fresh and distinct, inhabiting the same world of torment, fear and danger as Bosch, but providing a very different perspective. Please, Mr. Connelly, sir: don’t let The Late Show be Ballard’s first and last appearance.

Ballard works the night shift at the LAPD’s Hollywood Division alongside her partner, Jenkins, accustomed to initiating investigations, but finishing none, as each morning she turns her cases over to day shift detectives. When she catches two cases on the same night, she can’t part with either. One is the brutal beating of a prostitute; the other is the killing of a young woman in a nightclub shooting.  Despite orders from her superiors and her partner to back off, leave it alone, and let the assigned day shift detectives handle both cases, Ballard launches dual unsanctioned investigations, both of which could lead to her losing her badge, or even worse, her life.

The landscape and themes Connelly explores in The Late Show will be familiar to readers who’ve followed Harry Bosch’s exploits since the beginning, but there’s something refreshing about this young, driven detective’s perspective. When we met Harry in The Black Echo, he was already a seasoned detective with a ton of baggage; it’s very cool to see Connelly try his hand at a less experienced, but no less determined investigator. Long-time readers will also notice characters (or their  kin) from previous novels popping up, either as key players or just in the background. It’s easy to forget, we’ve been reading about Harry Bosch since 1992, more than 20 years, and the world’s continuity remains remarkably intact.

As is his hallmark, Michael Connelly wonderfully combines a mass of procedural detail, a speeding, Byzantine plot, and a flawed hero. The Late Show engages from the first page and never lets go, and Renée Ballard is a character I want to be reunited with as soon as possible. Smartly put together, expertly paced and unpredictable. Just great stuff. To use an oft-repeated word when reviewing Connelly’s work: masterful.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Review: The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham



Simon McDonald reviews Michael Robotham's The Secrets She Keeps, a compelling psychological thriller that delves deeply into the psyche of the human mind.
In Michael Robotham’s sure and practised hands, domestic noir has achieved new heights. With its perfect blend of sharp plotting, great characterisation and a powerful narrative, The Secrets She Keeps might well be the spiritual successor to Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train we’ve all been waiting for.
The Secrets She Keeps revolves around two central themes: the attainment of a (perceived) perfect life, and the extremes we are capable of going to in order to keep our darkest secrets safe. Our narrators — Agatha Fyfle and Meghan Shaughnessy. — come from vastly different backgrounds, but are united by two unconnected and deeply personal secrets, both of which have the potential to unravel their lives. Agatha thinks Meghan has it all — two perfect children, a handsome and successful husband, a happy marriage — while all shehas is an absent boyfriend (and father of her unborn child) who won’t return her calls. If only Agatha could see the inner-workings of Meghan and Jack’s marriage; see past the sheen and the smiles plastered on their faces in public. Is a third child really the antidote to their woes? And if it is, suppose that antidote was maliciously removed… the consequences would be devastating.
In this standalone psychological thriller, Robotham explores the lengths we’ll go to bury the truth beneath a flood of lies. He never writes a dull page, ratcheting up the tension, pressing his foot against the accelerator, until the pages start turning themselves. The Secrets She Keeps is gripping and heartbreaking in equal measure. You will doubt everything and everyone, because ultimately, the characters at the novel’s centre simply can’t be trusted. They are liars, cheats and scoundrels. And they are so utterly compelling, you might breeze through this one in a single sitting. It’s ‘forget your job, meals, friends and family’ kind of good.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Review: Australia Day by Melanie Cheng


Our bookseller Simon McDonald reviews Melanie Cheng's collection of short stories, Australia Day.
Some of the pieces in Australia Day have been published elsewhere, including in the Griffith Review and Sleepers Almanac, but I’d yet to sample Cheng’s work prior to cracking the spine of this collection, and in truth, through my own ignorance, I knew little about her fiction. It was only thanks to the cherished booksellers grapevine that my attention was piqued, and I’m ever-so-grateful that community highlighted another gem. Cheng’s mastery of the form seems to deepen with each story, and at various moments I was jubilant and disheartened by her depiction of our society, but constantly awed by the deftness of her prose. Most admirable is Cheng’s capacity to both indict and acquit Australians throughout her stories: she is equally scathing as she is complimentary, and neither is ever overtly expressed, always nuanced.
Australia Day is a stunning reminder of our great nation’s diversity. Regardless of our heritage, where we’ve come from, or where we’re going — race, religion, ethnicity be damned — we are all inextricably linked by the land we inhabit and share. Melanie Cheng’s short story collection is a celebration of our multiculturalism, even when some of her insights prove uncomfortable. It’s necessary reading, not only because it’s a microcosm of who we are, but because each story is a gem, and a joy to behold.