Updated: Jul 22, 2020
Wherein I hope that bunching together these paltry short reviews will look like the real thing because getting through my to-be-read list is going to require several more lifetimes, and, quite frankly, my author colleagues shouldn't have to wait that long. So for a selection of titles I have enjoyed...
The Dry by Jane Harper
I loved this slow-burn thriller set in small-town Australia where everyday life is imbued with rural insularity and prejudice. It is in this context, while a debilitating drought blisters the landscape, frays nerves, and impoverishes families, that a well-loved local identity, a farmer, turns a gun on his young family, then kills himself. But is that really what happened? Why then did no one see it coming? And what does it have to do with former events in the township, events that occurred more than 20 years ago? Into this simmering furnace, steps special investigator Aaron Falk, returned to his hometown to say his goodbyes to his former best friend and pulled into the investigation by the local police force. Harper's The Dry is a story within a story, with the current crime dredging up another unresolved mystery, both threads culminating in a twisted, but believable conclusion. Throughout Harper offers the reader a kaleidoscope of Aussie character pastiches, beautifully rendered and keenly accurate. Indeed, the Australian flavour of this novel is simply top-notch, made even better by the absolutely impeccable narration of Steven Shanahan. The Dry isn't just a great double mystery, it's the pilot for a Harper's mystery series, the story making an intriguing backstory for the main character, Falk, who Harper uses again in Force of Nature.
Force of Nature by Jane Harper
This latter novel, while still an excellent read, I enjoyed less. To be fair, The Dry was always going to be a hard act to follow. Force of Nature has the same great Aussie flavour as its predecessor. Again Harper offers a twisted tale set in rural Australia and populated with complex characters, and the narration is hors pair, but somehow this one resonated less for me. Here is the blurb:
Five women reluctantly leave the city for a challenging hike across the rugged Giralang Ranges as part of a corporate retreat. Only four come out the other side. Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a particularly keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing bushwalker. Alice Russell is the whistleblower in his latest case - and Alice knew secrets. About the company she worked for and the people she worked with. In an investigation that takes Falk from corporate heartland to isolated bushland, he discovers that every person on that retreat had something to hide....
And perhaps therein lies the reason: Force of Nature fell short for me because Harper's investigator Aaron Falk was less connected to the story, the main character solving the mystery while hovering at the edge of the trail. In Force of Nature, Falk is a bystander whereas in The Dry, the stakes are personal.
Wholesome Terror: Lawfully Combative Verse by John Edward Lawson
I need to make a confession here because the thing about John Edward Lawson's poetry is that oftentimes I don't really get it. That is to say, I read it and in the moment I think, "wow, that's profound' and then, when I read it again, the meaning has shifted, so the poem means something else. The words which just a second ago trilled with perfect understanding have somehow blurred or rearranged themselves, or wriggled away like a tapeworm...
1/4 and 1/2
long, and inhabit pigs
Maybe it's because the images are so brutal that I look away too quickly and lose my place. "Butterflied chest flaps', and "globs of pulped infant" will do that to a person. Or maybe it's because each bedazzlingly real metaphor tends to lurch, or segue, or jolt into yet another startling image, and, blinded by the first, I am slow to catch up. Released in 2014, the themes presented in this collection are all the things that are important to us now: politics, medical misadventures, escalators that ascend too slowly. I think the remedy is to give these poems more than one reading. Yes, more than one reading. Like licking a lemon, Wholesome Terror: Lawfully Combative Verse is a collection to have lying around so you can pick it up and suffer and cringe a second and third and fourth time. So you can freak yourself out. Although, I would dearly have loved to have seen Sylvia Plath appear on Dancing with the Stars. My favourite poem in the collection is the quieter Insert Pithy Title Here. People who know me will know why this one made me cry. Also, pigs feature in this collection more than once.
The Extinct by Xiaole Zhan
I'm thrilled to present the Young NZ Writers Youth Laureate Editor's Choice Winner, Xiaole Zhan for her narrative poem The Extinct. Only one of two manuscripts chosen from 32 novels by secondary students, The Extinct is a book which astounded me for its originality and for the young author’s clear-eyed maturity. A tale of magical realism told in stunning language, Zhan speaks of nostrilled violins, a brittle-boned home, and a tiger whose fading stripes bear an unknown language. At just seventeen years old, she dares to employ an innovative narrative structure, “a thick wave of words” to use her own phrase, set out in moving retellings of events told over time by the same young protagonist. I love Zhan’s use of the second-person perspective, a technique which allows her to blur the lines between novel and poem. In The Extinct, even the cadence is delicious. Readers cannot help but be enthralled. This title will be launched on 31 May and will be available in print and ebook formats from Phantom Feather Press.
It's A Small World by Emma Uren
And since I have mentioned the Editor's Choice Award, I must also include the winner of the Young NZ Writers Youth Laureate Award. This was won by Emma Uren for her title It's A Small World. Well-crafted and engaging, It’s a Small World is an adventure which readers of all ages will enjoy. In an innovative approach to storytelling, Uren introduces two interconnected parallel narratives, weaving them together to culminate in a cohesive and satisfying resolution. Allen, living in a contemporary-future, creates a ‘civilisation’ project, while Sophie, his creation, lives within that world. It’s a well-conceived concept, which has been cleverly achieved through alternating narratives, well-rounded protagonists, and a good dose of laugh out loud humour. In particular, judges were impressed with how emotion was the driver for certain ‘powers’ in one ‘species’ and the way in which Uren reveals those traits though dialogue. The glorious cover art is by author-illustrator David Schembri. Thanks to SpecFicNZ and The Wright Family Foundation for their generous sponsorship of this initiative. This title will be launched on 31 May and will be available in print and ebook formats from Phantom Feather Press.
Dracula's Revenge by Charles R. Rutledge
With romp-along pacing and characters plucked from the pages of our favourite iconic horror tales, this Jennifer Grail /Carter Decamp novella is sinfully delicious escapism and the perfect read to devour over a couple of evenings. Set in the same world as the Griffin & Price novels that Rutledge co-authors with James A. Moore, Dracula's Revenge is a stand-alone tale which retains all of the features we loved from the parent works: gritty dialogue, unexpected twists, and fabulous gothic humour. If you haven't discovered these books, then you are missing out on a treat. A great addition to the crime-horror genre.
Police Detective Jennifer Grail is called to the scene of a bizarre murder. A man in an affluent Atlanta suburb has died of blood loss, but there’s no blood to be found at the scene. The only wounds on the body are two punctures in the throat. Jen knows what it looks like, but she’s not ready to accept vampirism as the answer. Before the day is over two more people will be dead and Jen will be forced to confront the existence of a supernatural killer. Enter Carter Decamp, the enigmatic expert on the occult. Jen and Decamp’s investigation will lead them to a small town on the Georgia Coast, where an ancient evil waits and plans. Dracula's Revenge brings two of the most famous horror icons, Count Dracula and The Frankenstein Monster, into the present day in a ‘cops and monsters’ thriller that melds Gothic horror with hard-edged crime fiction.
Throwback by Lynn Hortel
"THROWBACK by Lynn Hortel is an intense supernatural thriller with strong characterization and an evocative southwestern setting – a hard-edged, brutal nightmare for the #metoo generation." – Tim Waggoner
"Hortel's Throwback is a heartbreaking litany of pain that seems almost devoid of hope -- but, like The Haunting of Hill House, suggests there is power in facing the tormenting ghosts of the past. A searing, assured debut." -- Aaron Sterns, Co-writer Wolf Creek 2, Author Wolf Creek: Origin
The endorsements from Waggoner and Sterns above say it all. I can only agree. I so love this story. I really wish I'd written it. In the age of #Metoo, Hortel's Throwback is both shocking and not, heartbreakingly sad and achingly hopeful. It is a startlingly important book and exquisitely-written, a gripping thriller from an author to watch. You definitely need to pre-order this book. As debuts go, Hortel gives Jane Harper a run for her money. Here is the blurb:
Nine-year-old Jordyn used to hear her dead grandma talk. She used to go on flying dreams too, so high that she could see Earth from space. But when her father murders her mom and brother, child protective services place her in the care of Mr. Payne. She escapes six long years later—but not before she forgets how to fly.
Life takes a turn for the better. She gets a job at the Pink Pig Diner, saves her tips, and buys a house in the desert, a little fixer-upper. She even falls in love with the cook, a veteran, who understands the nightmares. Her crazy dad’s in prison, Mr. Payne is dead, and she survived it all. Besides the bad dreams, she’s never been happier.
That is, until a park ranger kidnaps her and holds her captive on his off-the-grid property. But that’s not the worst part. Because if the ranger murders her, Mr. Payne is waiting on the other side to keep her close forever…
The Hills of Mare Imbrium by Carleton Chinner
The first book in Chinner's Cities of the Moon series, The Hills of Mare Imbrium opens with main character Jonah Barnes arriving on the Moon to scatter his dead brother's ashes. He doesn't plan to go back to Earth. Instead, he hopes to stick around, get a job, and escape his family's crippling disappointment in him. But the Moon has its own troubles, with the local people simmering revolt against the ruling classes and their far-off Earther masters. On the face of it, The Hills of Mare Imbrium, like much of the science fiction of recent decades, follows the classic socio-political message of Star Wars, and even shares some of the same characters, with a naive outsider fresh from loss and with nothing to lose, a privileged yet practical rebel 'princess', and a hot headed leader of a group of impoverished rebels intent on fighting the oppressive ruling class. And why not? It's a winning formula which readers love. What makes Chinner's tale stand out from the rest is the entirely plausible world-building he has established in this first volume, none of it heaped on us in dreaded info-dump, but cleverly woven into the narrative in a way that is compelling and readable. Offering some terrific new technologies and even some cyber-monsters, I challenge hard sci-fi fans not to like this one.
Lady Bits by Kate Jonez
A collection of sixteen knock-the-wind-out-of-you tales by award-winning author Kate Jonez, Lady Bits is a study in how to put together a collection, with each story hitting a different emotional trigger, each resolution landing just a little closer to the bone than the last, so that when you reach the conclusion you are purple with bruises. Perhaps it is because, at their core, Jonez' characters are too recognisable as your sister, an aunt, or a colleague, and the situations they find themselves in, or that they march into, well, we've seen them before, haven't we? Jonez makes us relive them, unsettling the reader with stunning prose that makes your skin tingle. Disturbing. Powerful. I can see this one on next year's awards lists.
Author Gene O'Neill says it far more eloquently:
"Kate Jonez is not your typical genre writer. I think she has more than a little in common with Janis Joplin singing the blues. You never just read or listen to either, you experience the story or song. There isn't a typical Kate story, but some share a few characteristics. The main character (narrator) is different, and often knows it, finds herself in an unbearable situation, and deals in more or less special ways. And always there is a literary rather than genre ending. Kate's stories do not just terminate. They have a slingshot effect, the reader realizing the story goes on past the last words. Kate is not just a writer for other writers to read, she is one to emulate. A rare voice." --Gene O'Neiil, The White Plague Chronicles and Entangled Soul (with Chris Marrs)
Disclaimer: I have met some of the writers mentioned above, or if I haven't met them, I have exchanged emails with them, so you really can't trust my judgement. I highly recommend purchasing a copy of these works and checking them out for yourself.