I looked at the pale, freckled hand on the back of the empty bar seat next to me in the business class lounge of Heathrow airport, then up into the stranger's face.
'Do I know you?'
Delayed in London, Ted Severson meets a woman at the airport bar. Over cocktails they tell each other rather more than they should, and a dark plan is hatched - but are either of them being serious, could they actually go through with it and, if they did, what would be their chances of getting away with it?
We seem to like spending time with bad people - sociopathic characters who are constantly scheming to manipulate and kill. You just have to look at the popularity of Dexter or Hannibal Lecter or the success of Gone Girl. The Kind Worth Killing understands this desire and plays on it to the hilt. None of the characters come across as particularly likeable and all of them have skeletons in their closets but Swanson makes spending time with them fun.
The Kind Worth Killing has a fabulous cold open: a man meets a woman in an airport bar. The rules are different in airport bars and before long, and after more martinis, Ted is revealing all to Lily about his wife’s infidelity and his desire to kill her. What surprises him is that his companion encourages the idea and offers to help. To reveal anything that happens after that point would take this review well into spoiler territory. Suffice to say that at most points in the narrative, whatever you think is going to happen is not what happens.
There are a couple of caveats with this novel. Firstly, there are the stereotyped gender roles. The main female characters are both stunningly beautiful but deeply, narcissistic and sociopathic. They are constantly using their beauty to manipulate the men around them and, literally in some cases, to get away with murder. The male characters, while also willing to do bad things, are much weaker, easily manipulated or led and never seem to be quite in control of their actions.
Secondly, all of the various narrative voices tend to blend. If not for the post-it note style tag with the character’s name at the beginning of each chapter it is sometimes hard to distinguish between them. This is particularly the case in the section of the book that alternates between the two female protagonists.
On top of this the plot has a couple of holes that, if you stopped too long think about them, you could drive a well stocked ute through. But Swanson has written a classic page turner and manages the pace to ensure that there is no time to think about anything other than what might be coming next. From the opening couple of chapters that introduce the first two thoroughly unlikeable characters, the reader is too busy turning pages to find out how character A is going to outwit or manipulate character B in order to kill character C. In the end, this is a great book to read on a plane, or in an airport lounge, at least as a way of avoiding meeting any sociopaths.
Review - LOCK IN, John Scalzi
Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. 4% suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And 1% find themselves 'locked in' - fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus. 1% doesn't seem like a lot. But in the US that's 1.7 million people 'locked in' - including the President's wife and daughter. Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering, America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can fully restore the locked in.
For those who like their science fiction with a crime twist or those who like their crime with a sci-fi bent or those who just like a really good read, John Scalzi delivers. Scalzi has been writing sci-fi for a while and has dabbled in a number of subgenres including the Heinlein-esque Old Man's War series, which garnered a number of Hugo Award nominations, and the 2013 Hugo Award winning Star Trek homage Redshirts.
Lock In is like none of these, it is a police procedural set in a post-pandemic world introduced via a few brief pages of info dump. The pandemic, besides killing a great number of people also had the effect of 'locking in' a number of its victims after they experience meningitis-like symptoms. These people, known as 'Hadens', after the president's wife who famously had the disease, find themselves fully conscious but unable to move or speak. A huge ‘moonshot’ style research effort led by the US president has resulted, twenty five years later, in Hadens having their own on-line world in which to meet and the development of 'threeps' - personal robotic transports into which they can project their consciousness and go out into the world. A small number of Haden survivors who are not locked in can also act as 'Integrators', humans who are able the host the consciousness of Hadens for short periods of time.
There is a lot to get across but Scalzi doesn't waste time with explanations, instead jumping into the death of an unidentified man at the Watergate Hotel. On the scene are rookie FBI agent, and Haden, Chris Shane and his grizzled, hard drinking partner Vann. All of the elements of a classic procedural are here and Scalzi doesn't disappoint as the clues stack up and the stakes get higher. There is a little more info dumping, which tends to technobabble, towards the end of the novel as the setup for the end game. But by that time the reader is well and truly invested in the outcome and the detail works in the universe that Scalzi has created.
At the heart of Lock In is an argument about the rights of people with disability, and the question over whether people with a disability need to be 'cured'. In the world of the novel there is a society of Hadens, many of whom don't remember what it is like to not have the condition they have. Political elements of the plot revolve around what happens when the government decides to stop supporting the Hadens financially and technically at the level which allows them to have that society. Lock In is too much an action oriented procedural to dwell too much on these issues but just raising them and having what is essentially a disabled protagonist, them takes the novel to another level.
While there is not a lot of room to explore the world of Hadens to deeply in the book, Scalzi has also written a companion novella Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome available free on the Internet. This in itself is a wonderful piece of world building and hard science fiction and is much more thoughtful than the usually hysterical global pandemic genre.
Lock In is the type of book that makes bookshop owners quail as it’s hard to know which shelf to sell it from. Scalzi is known to sci-fi fans but Lock In is also a great crime novel and would be an eye-opener for crime fans. It is less genre-mash and more genre busting, demonstrating that there is no reason to pigeon hole a good book.
Review - LAND OF SHADOWS, Rachel Howzell Hall
Along the ever changing border of gentrifying Los Angeles, seventeen year old Monique Darson is found dead at a condominium construction site, hanging in the closet of an unfinished unit. Homicide detective Elouise “Lou” Norton’s new partner, Colin Taggert, fresh from comparatively bucolic Colorado Springs police department, assumes it’s a teenage suicide. Lou isn’t buying the easy explanation.
Having been a bit of a fan of one of her earlier books - NO ONE KNOWS YOU'RE HERE - the chance to read LAND OF SHADOWS was gratefully accepted (courtesy of NetGalley). Set in Los Angeles, with another strong, flawed, believable and extremely likeable central female protagonist this writer has a fabulous way of making that world come alive. There's a strong sense of place, particularly in this book, set as it is in that sort of fringe world between deprived communities and incoming gentrification, stalled because of economic downturn and malaise. Add to that a couple of very different central protagonists - Lou Norton from the neighbourhood, a woman from a difficult childhood, strong, flawed, resilient in many ways and vulnerable and self-destructive in others. The incoming cop - her new country boy partner - a bit of a fish out of water in the inner-city, somebody who has much to prove and not a lot of ideas on how to go about that.
Given she's the central character in this book, Norton holds up her end of the bargain very well. After her sister goes missing when they are children, she's spent her life and her career looking closely at the man she suspects was behind that disappearance. The fact that his name appears again in this latest murder gives her much to be wary of. Obsession can make a poor investigative tool and she's aware of that, whilst also utterly committed to finding what happened to her sister as well as this latest victim. She's also dealing with a serially unfaithful husband, and the implications that he has for her "happy ever after plans" once she finds out what did happen all those years ago.
She's a bundle of contradictions needless to say. Strong in the job, determined and quite forceful, she's a good mentor for the new cop on the block, albeit prickly and inclined towards sarcasm. Yet her home life, as luxurious and physically comfortable as it is, is a car crash. The fact that she stays anywhere near her husband might be a difficult dilemma for some readers to process.
Within the personal, and the interactions between the two central characters, there's a reasonable, slowish and very procedural investigation. The identification of the victim, the following up of her movements, the way her family operates, the connections between her family members, the past, the present, suspects, places and events all build a picture that eventually develops into a solution. Sure, some of these connections are predictable, and the creepy criminal voice lurking around the edges is a device that's been done to death, but much of that is carried by the strength of the characters and the by-play between Norton and Taggert and, in particular, her personal situation. There's some gentle poking of fun at all levels throughout this book. Norton doesn't take herself too seriously which really helps with some of the emotional turmoil, and the country boy daftness of Taggert never steps over the line into caricature.
Contradictions, inconsistencies and the personal and professional are part of what Hall explores with great precision in this novel. There's much in all of these characters that is required to add up to the whole. Part of what makes Norton a great cop is her compassion, her ability to see the grey, and her understanding that sometimes things aren't straightforward. Part of what makes these two characters feel like that should have a long, and very fruitful fictional life is the strengths, weaknesses and reality of both of them.
Review - THE JOB, Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg
The third book in the exciting and suspenseful Fox and O'Hare series from Janet Evanovich, No. 1 bestselling author of the iconic Stephanie Plum novels, and Lee Goldberg, bestselling author of the Monk series. Catching bad guys is what Special Agent Kate O'Hare does. Working side-by-side with them... not so much.
Janet Evanovich, creator of the popular Stephanie Plum series, and Lee Goldberg, creator of the Monk TV series, have teamed up. This is their third outing together but no familiarity with the previous two books is required to thoroughly enjoy this instalment. What is required is an ability to seriously suspend your disbelief and just go with the flow as these books are as much fantasy as crime.
Kate O'Hare is a gung-ho FBI agent. Little does the world know that she has managed to catch notorious con man and thief Nick Fox and he now works with her. At the start of The Job, someone is impersonating Nick to carry out brazen heists around the world. Kate immediately knows that Nick is not to blame because he is too smart to be caught on camera. This series of robberies is just the lead-in to the hunt for an elusive and violent Columbian drug lord who has changed his face and identity. Kate and Nick put together a team to carry out a spectacularly elaborate con to bring the man to justice.
The Job is full of fast cars, expensive art, five-star hotels and fine food. It is a fantasy heist novel in which a team with seemingly unlimited resources, create an illusion to ensnare a bad guy. It's all good fun. There is the obligatory sexual tension between Kate and Nick, particularly when they have to play at being a married couple. There is a fair amount of action. And there is a healthy disregard for authority in order to do the right thing.
The Job is the third book in this series but not having read the first two instalments is no impediment to picking this one up. Overall, if you like this type of thing, this is a perfect summer beach book.
Review - PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG, Anne Blankman
In 1930s Munich, danger lurks behind dark corners, and secrets are buried deep within the city. But Gretchen Müller, who grew up in the National Socialist Party under the wing of her "uncle" Dolf, has been shielded from that side of society ever since her father traded his life for Dolf's, and Gretchen is his favorite, his pet.
Uncle Dolf is none other than Adolf Hitler. And Gretchen follows his every command.
Up front, I've always struggled with fiction that uses fact as the entire basis for a made-up story. I'm twitchy about the possibility (albeit possibly unintentionally) of reinventing history. PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG is therefore built on a particularly challenging premise - that the central character in this book, Gretchen Müller, is a protégé of Adolf Hilter.
Needless to say it came as no surprise to find that Müller's loyalty to her "Uncle", the party and all is undermined when she meets a fearless and "handsome" (couldn't he at least have been average looking...) Jewish reporter. To whom she is fiercely attracted despite her anti-Jewish conditioning.
So a rather hefty component of illicit love into the bargain. Which turned out to be one of the stronger elements of the entire book. The mystery component, what actually happened when Müller's father supposedly took the bullet to save the Fuhrer's life, seemed to struggle a bit for traction – or at least it did for this reader.
The PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG has a really strong sense of place, and of the time about it. Obviously there's a hefty component of foreboding and tension built into the society, and that's frequently well drawn out with the battles between members of the Nazi Party, the Communists and of course the Jewish population. There's also the tension between Müller and her ambition to study medicine and the expectations for young women of the time, particularly fatherless young women with a mother who runs a boarding house to keep the family alive.
For my own taste I have to admit I found much of the romance / attraction element was overly predictable, and overly forefront. The mystery elements were swamped, which left it feeling uninteresting / optional to the overall story. Having said that the character of Müller is reasonably strong although perhaps not best served here – she sometimes came across as a bit wet when she obviously wasn't supposed to be.
The elements where the origins of Hitler and the Nazi Party start to rise to prominence were interesting, although I've no way of assessing whether or not they were historically accurate (which is why I struggle a lot with this sort of fiction). It was also interesting that a lot of the build up around those figures seems to have provided exactly the breeding ground in which your average psychopathic lunatic with a chip on his shoulder flourishes. Hence the character of Müller's brother Reinhard.
Unfortunately other characters – interestingly particularly that of Daniel (he of the handsome love interest) are less fleshed out. Wraith like, that might have suited the way he seemed to waft into Müller's field of view, but it was frustrating for those of us trying to get an emotional connection with somebody in the story. And let's face it - the downtrodden Jewish character in a society which is rapidly losing it's collective mind and humanity should have been a character that you could side with.
Since reading PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG I've heard it's the start of a series – ? a trilogy. It could be that some of the missing elements in this book are straightened out and built on in the subsequent books.
Allowing for this reader's reluctance outlined earlier, I wasn't 100% convinced by PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG. It didn't deliver enough to sweep this reader into the story, burying the whispering doubt over historical accuracy under the weight of an enthralling puzzle.
Review - CASEBOOK, Mona Simpson
From the acclaimed and award-winning author: a beguiling new novel about an eavesdropping boy working to discover the obscure mysteries of his unraveling family. He uncovers instead what he least wants to know: the workings of his parents' private lives. And even then he can't stop snooping.
It's taken quite a few attempts to read CASEBOOK, it's been one of the most picked up and discarded books in the review pile for quite a while.
The idea behind it was part of the problem – a young boy eavesdropping on his family as his parent's marriage falls apart. It feels therefore like it's going to be very personal. Devastating even. Unfortunately the storytelling relies heavily on the stream-of-conscious voice of young Miles – who frankly – doesn't feel "real". Or maybe he just doesn't feel right – too voyeuristic. Odd. Creepy. Certainly tediously addicted to the sorts of injokes that some people like to use to keep others on the outside. It's not hard to get the hint you're not part of the cool group.
Which isn't a great way to be made to feel if you're reading something. It made every paragraph, every chapter, every page a drag. Constantly being reminded of not getting the joke, by a kid that was making your skin crawl a bit, and about people that frankly were considerably more dreary than anything else. I was bored. And annoyed. And then more I got so obsessed with how bored and annoyed I was, I found I was reading just to make myself more and more convinced that I was right to be bored and annoyed. About half way through I found I couldn't even remember who most of the characters were, but I was still bored. And annoyed.
So I threw in the towel on CASEBOOK about three-quarters of the way through. Which is most unusual – normally I can find something. But in this case the voice didn't work, the characters weren't interesting, likeable, identifiable or understandable and their path to salvation was definitely not heading in my direction.
Review - THE GIRL IN 6E, A.R. Torre
“I haven't touched a human in three years. That seems like it would be a difficult task, but it's not. Not anymore, thanks to the internet.
I am, quite possibly, the most popular recluse ever. Not many shut-ins have a 200-member fan club, a bank account in the seven-figure range, and hundreds of men lining up to pay for undivided attention.
They get satisfaction, I get a distraction. Their secret desires are nothing compared to why I hide... my lust for blood, my love of death.
Taking their money is easy. Keeping all these secrets... one is bound to escape.”
Whatever I thought THE GIRL IN 6E was about, I can't begin to tell you how wrong I was. Having said that I'm also now considerably more educated about the world of paid Internet sex services than I ever thought I wanted to be.
The story is told from the perspective of “Jessica Reilly” who performs virtual sex acts online (known as camming), for customers willing to pay $6.99 per minute. She works through agency websites, and her private site, and has an extensive clientele of return customers. Male and female. Straight and kinky. She's equipped to satisfy anyone's fantasies, from a bed and elaborate, very technical web-camera, equipment, toys and costume collection.
She's also a voluntary shut in who hasn't left her apartment in 3 years. Everything she needs is delivered – normally by UPS. The amount of effort she puts into her lifestyle is quite impressive, although from the outset the reasons are decidedly odd. Deanna Madden is quite convinced she will kill anyone she comes into close personal contact with. To the point where she supplies a neighbour with the illicit drugs he craves to lock her in every night.
The only person who gets close (and that's mostly “Leave It. Thank You” spoken through the door), is the UPS delivery man, who it has developed a bit of an obsession about meeting Deanna / Jessica. When he finally does, it's not quite what he was expecting and not just because of the camming.
But what do you do when you're voluntarily shut in, when you have the violent and high-risk sort of background that's slowly revealed, and a client who seems to be threatening something truly horrible?
Somewhere in the middle of the discomforting explicit sex acts, and the internal voice that obviously had a lot more to reveal, THE GIRL IN 6E became compulsive reading. The character of Deanna is strong, and whilst her voice is tempting, hinting almost teasing the reader, that sort of fits with her day job. It's very easy for the reader to feel some sympathy, just as it is to wonder where on earth this book was going.
Engaging, compelling, and inventive with really strong story telling, THE GIRL IN 6E has been revised and reworked from the original, self-published version “On Me, In Me, Dead Beneath Me”.
Bad things happen. Everybody dies. But the girl in the red dress kicks against the pricks. Four merciless and compelling stories by emerging writers from Canada, the UK, and USA.
From behind the wheel of her father's lovingly restored Barracuda, a waitress will protect her baby sister at all costs.
A nihilistic junkie whore hell bent on revenge snatches a last-gasp shot at an unlikely redemption. Her father sold her virginity for the price of a custom paint job. Now she's back and she's taking the whole damn car.
The combination of cars and girls makes absolute sense to me. Include them in a series of noir styled, dark and pointed short stories, and CARS & GIRLS from the Pankhurst Collective was both unexpected and an absolute pleasure to read.
Whilst the central theme of cars and girls carries through each of the stories in the collection, they are a varied bunch, in setting, style and resolution. The exciting thing though is that no punches are pulled. This is a dark and frequently violent collection, full of explicit sex and gun battles putting the central female characters in the sorts of roles normally allocated to men. And doing it seamlessly.
Given that each story has it's own particular flavour and style, there are some aspects (other than the darkness and the violence) that hold throughout. Each story is fast-paced, strong, gritty and in your face. That's not to say that anything is particularly gratuitous, it's finely balanced noir. There's tension and pace in most of them, and enough twists and turns to keep you guessing, although to be fair, the first story, 500, is of a slightly less frenetic pace, and perhaps a little more predictable than what's to come.
The collection is made up of 500 by Zoë Spencer, Road Runner by Tee Tyson, Barracuda by Madeline Harvey and Crown Victoria by Evangeline Jennings.
CARS & GIRLS definitely isn't a book for fans of traditional women protagonists. You get the distinct feeling the only use that any of these women would have for a teapot couldn't be discussed in polite society. It is, however, one for readers interested in something different, smart, stylish, and undeniably very clever.
Review - IN THE COMPANY OF COWARDS, Michael Mori
On a beautiful, balmy evening in Cuba in 2007, David Hicks walked out of Guantanamo Bay, in that moment ceasing to be a detainee of the United States and regaining his rights as an Australian citizen. Watching on was the man who had fought for four long years for Hicks's right to go home: Major Michael Mori.
When Michael (Dan) Mori first appeared on our TV screens, and in print, defending David Hicks, his sincerity, and his belief in fair play always shone through. As did the way that he appeared to consider his words, take care with the message he was delivering, and acted with the best will in the world to do what was right by his client. In short, he always seemed like a very impressive human being, and after reading his book, can't shake the feeling that we're lucky to have him here now in Australia.
David Hicks, and his time spent in Guantanamo Bay has been documented in the past in his own book, and one by an ABC journalist. I doubt there's an Australian who doesn't at least have some knowledge of the case, and an opinion. Regardless of whether or not your political leanings are to the left or the right though, there is always the presumption that justice, and a fair trial are part of what it means to live in a democracy. Personally I've no patience for, or understanding of, the "why do you need a defence in cases like this" argument. It's ignorant. Having now read IN THE COMPANY OF COWARDS, it's hard to be less convinced of the need for two sides in a trial, as it is hard to understand how the system of Military Commissions ever was allowed to come into being. And what our Prime Minister and Cabinet were doing supporting them.
Whilst I'd be the first to say that there's very little to admire about Howard's coalition government, and considerably more to regret, reading this book makes you realise how insidious the active disengagement process had become. Mori's own increasing despair at the unfairness of the system he was working within is palpable in this book, although at no point does this disintegrate into a rant. He's even-handed in the telling, which probably makes the nature of the system, and the way it was supported here, even more concerning.
It will not be at all surprising if likely suspects leap to with partisan political "takes" about this book, although to be frank, they are going to have to work hard at making this sound like anything more or less than what it is. An insider's view of the Military Commissions, and the treatment of a particular individual who was held without charge for an inexcusably long period of time, who was subjected to horrendous mistreatment and who was ultimately swept under the carpet into something / anything to get this mess out from under the upcoming Federal Election. Mori is, was and remains a man who comes across as a man who believes absolutely in due process. He's a Military lawyer, a man experienced in both prosecution and defence, and somebody who went on to become a Navy-Marine Corps Military Judge in Hawaii.
IN THE COMPANY OF COWARDS does not read like a point scoring exercise, a grandiose attempt to garner publicity, or even a blow by blow analysis of war policy. It's a look at a deeply, profoundly, terminally flawed system, implemented in haste, bolstered and carried by political masters, in an attempt to do what? As Mori says, the worst of the worst can be tried in the Military Court-Martial system (and were and have been since). Cautionary tale if ever there was one.
Review - THE BONE CHURCH, Victoria Dougherty
In the surreal and paranoid underworld of wartime Prague, fugitive lovers Felix Andel and Magdalena Ruza make some dubious alliances – with a mysterious Roman Catholic cardinal, a reckless sculptor intent on making a big political statement, and a gypsy with a risky sex life. As one by one their chances for fleeing the country collapse, the two join a plot to assassinate Hitler’s nefarious Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Josef Goebbels. But the assassination attempt goes wildly wrong, propelling the lovers in separate directions.
A fascinating combination of historical exploration of real places and time-periods in history, and the fictional tale of two young people, THE BONE CHURCH, opens with the story of two fugitive lovers, whose lives are impacted by the natural death of her mother (in difficult circumstances), and the murder of his father (and their protector) by the Nazi's.
Weaving the Nazi invasion of Prague and the Cold War in Czechoslovakia into the lives of these two people provides a stark reminder of the length of impact that wars have had on that part of the world. The idea that the same two people who fled the Nazi's are still being impacted in the mid-1950's was chilling, although that is tempered by the lengths to which people who are willing to help will go. And a well judged sense of humour.
The style of storytelling is particularly interesting in THE BONE CHURCH. Whilst the main thrust is sparse, matter-of-fact and so all the more chilling, much of the atmospherics, and environment comes across as sumptuous and utterly at odds with events. Using that sparse style, the author is able to look at those events, in particular the impact of the invasion and the subsequent war on Jewish and Gypsy populations, in a clinical and precise manner, whilst weaving them into a complex plot. The way that the action ebbs and flows and shifts and spins was realistic, in particular the way that the impetus for both good and bad is often in the hands of the people who surround Felix and Magdalena. Because of that, try as they might, their path forward is twisted and frequently muddied by others. As you'd expect in that sort of scenario, everything cannot always be drawn to a tidy conclusion and the reader is left to imagine, to wonder and to ponder. An unsettling experience when the paranoia of the time is so stark.
A very assured debut, THE BONE CHURCH is a really good thriller. It is also a character study, an exploration of the human psyche, with a touch of history and a strong sense of place as well.