MLA Platinum Award Press Release

Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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Sweet Sorrow
by David Nicholls
A beautiful read. (8/4/2020)
“In the chaos of our family’s self-destruction he had quietly and unassumingly made himself present and though I could hardly recall a conversation that might be considered personal or honest, in the strange, mute semaphore of teenage boys he’d communicated a sense of care and somehow passed on the message to the others, an unspoken command to be, if not kind , then not actively cruel.”

Sweet Sorrow is the fifth novel by British author, David Nicholls. It was mid-1997, school was done, and sixteen-year-old Charlie Lewis was resigned to an unpromising future, waiting for the rest of his life to begin. Meanwhile, there was a long summer to endure, living with his father, Brian, the currently unemployed former owner of a chain of failed record shops. By default, as the older child, Charlie was left to look after his father when his mother left to live with her lover, taking along his sister.

“I knew from science fiction, rather than from Science lessons, that time behaves differently depending on your location, and from a sixteen-year-old’s lower bunk at the end of June in 1997, it moved more slowly than anywhere else in the cosmos.”

Brian Lewis was now often a sad, Mad Dad (chronically, clinically depressed), and sixteen-year-old Charlie was frightened, furious and resentful of the father he’d formerly connected so well with: he went out on his bike as often as possible.

“Boredom was our natural state but loneliness was taboo and so I strained for the air of a loner, a maverick, unknowable and self-contained, riding with no hands. But a great effort is required not to appear lonely when you are alone, happy when you’re not.”

On one of these rides, Charlie found himself quite unintentionally rehearsing Romeo and Juliet with Full Fathom Five Theatre Cooperative on a hint of a possibility of a promise from the lovely Fran Fisher, playing Juliet. It was something he kept meticulously separate from his school mates, whose ridicule could not be borne, but which he eventually realised was enjoyable for more reasons than Fran’s proximity.

Few authors can match Nicholls for portrayal of the kind of hopeless male who might show a bit of promise but ultimately excels in mediocrity: “Not admired but not despised, not adored but not feared; I was not a bully, though I knew a fair few, but did not intervene or place myself between the pack and the victim, because I wasn’t brave either. I neither conformed nor rebelled, collaborated nor resisted; I stayed out of trouble without getting into anything else. Comedy was our great currency and while I was not a class clown, neither was I witless” and “in photos of myself from that time, I’m reminded of those early incarnations of a cartoon character, the prototypes that resemble the later version but are in some way out of proportion, not quite right” are examples.
Nicholls gives the reader a moving tale of first love with a protagonist who will strike a chord with anyone who can remember their teens, can remember agonising over every word, overthinking every gesture. There’s plenty of humour, some of it a little bleak, but also some lump-in-the-throat moments. A beautiful read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Migrations: A Novel
by Charlotte McConaghy
brilliant novel. (8/2/2020)
“I lie in the sea and feel more lost than ever, because I’m not meant to be homesick, I’m not meant to long for the things I have always been so desperate to leave. It isn’t fair to be the kind of creature who is able to love but unable to stay.”

The Last Migration is the first adult literary fiction book by Australian author, Charlotte McConaghy. A dire near future, a world of mass extinctions, oceans almost empty of fish: Franny Lynch boards a fishing vessel in Tasiilaq to follow her tagged bird, one of perhaps the very last Arctic terns, on its long migration south.

Under harsh conditions of extreme cold, wild storms and a tense relationship with the crew who seem to barely tolerate her, Franny’s mind cannot avoid forays into her troubled past: parental abandonment, a fervent love, heart-breaking tragedies, grief and incarceration.

Franny Lynch comes from a line of women possessed of wanderlust, but she meets the one man with whom this need not spell disaster: “I rest my head on his shoulder; I rest myself in his hands. It seems a safe place to be kept, even to belong. But where does he get to belong. What crueller fate is there than to belong in the arms of a woman who dies each night?”

But now she makes the journey, selecting this reticent sea captain, Ennis Malone, convincing him to take her along, promising the thing he wants most. She watches the crew: “Even though they are as varied as a group of people can be, I can tell they are all the same, all of these sailors. Something was missing in their lives on land, and they went seeking the answer. Whatever it was, I don’t doubt that they each found it. They are migrants of land, and they love it out here on an ocean that offered them a different way of life…”

What could possibly underlie a determination so single-minded, so all-consuming that this conservation-minded woman can set aside what seems a clear conflict of interest to board a vessel whose captain is equally obsessed with securing the Golden Catch? As the story jumps from present to past and back, McConaghy gradually introduces snippets of Franny’s life that coalesce to form a heart-breaking picture. The resulting “aah” moment will have even the most callous reader choking up with tears.

McConaghy gives the reader gorgeous prose, marvellous characters, some extremely topical subject matter, plenty of emotion and a smidgen of hope. A map would have enhanced the enjoyment of this brilliant novel.
The Love Story of Missy Carmichael
by Beth Morrey
a wonderfully uplifting read. (7/23/2020)
“Surveying the boxes, chests and trunks - the leftovers of lost lives: Fa-Fa, Jette, my mother and father, Leo, even Alistair and Mel, since they’d begun new lives elsewhere – I fancied I could hear the echo of them all in their things.”

Saving Missy is the first novel by British author, Bath Morrey. Now that dear her son Alistair and her sweet little grandson Arthur have returned to Australia after their Christmas visit, Missy can admit to herself that she is desperately lonely. Their big house is so empty without Leo, and her daughter Melanie, teaching in Cambridge, no longer visits London after the row they had. But Millicent Carmichael is also a reserved English lady who does not display her feelings in public.

When she spots young Otis in the park one day, that ache for her grandson intensifies. His redhead mother is obviously a terrible woman, loud, and unpleasant. Casually waiting for another glimpse of Otis, Missy meets interior designer Sylvie Riche and is invited for coffee along with Irish Angela and Otis. But do these people really want her company?

It turns out that Angela needs someone to watch Otis when journalistic deadlines loom, and Missy decides she can put up with strong opinions peppered with expletives, imparted through a haze of smoke and alcohol, if it means a dose of little boy. But even more urgently required is a place for Bob, a dog whose family can’t keep her just now. Missy is quite sure she does not want a dog.

A change of heart, though, sees Missy meeting dog walkers and, almost unintentionally, allowing Angela, Otis and Sylvie into her house, her attic and, eventually, her life. Inside, the house is more than “minimalist” bare: Missy has relegated clutter and anything deemed unnecessary to the attic.

Triggered by exchanges with her new acquaintances, and items brought forth out of the attic, memories from Missy’s childhood, her first encounter with Leonard Carmichael, and significant incidents during their almost six decades of marriage, emerge. Thus the reader learns how Missy Carmichael arrived at this point in her life. Gradually revealed, too, are Missy’s secrets, her regrets and those things about which she feels most guilty.

When Missy has unbent enough to accept the help and love and care on offer, it turns out she herself has more to offer than she ever dreamed. Missy discovers that, even in her eighty-first year, she can give comfort and support and knowledge to those who need it, something quite different from the role of a wife and mother that precluded any possible career her splendid degree might have offered.

Morrey gives the reader a beautiful story with some predictable moments and a few surprises. Her depictions of London and Cambridge are evocative, and her characters feel like people you meet in real life. She gives lots of them wise words and Missy’s observation on the memory stick: “You just plugged it in, apparently. If only memories were that easy to access, and contain” is bound to resonate with readers of a certain vintage. There are plenty of wry observations and more than a few laugh-out-loud scenes. This debut novel is a wonderfully uplifting read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Better Reading Preview and Harper Collins Australia
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know
by Malcolm Gladwell
a fascinating and enlightening read. (7/23/2020)
4.5?s
“There are clues to making sense of a stranger. But attending to them requires care and attention. We should accept the limits of our ability to decipher strangers.”

Talking To Strangers is the sixth book by British author, Malcolm Gladwell. Is it a book about social interaction? Yes, certainly, but not so much a “how to” as a “why do we get it wrong”. Gladwell explores the reasons that we seem to be so bad at telling when strangers are lying to us. He does this with reference to a myriad of psychological experiments, research, case studies and examples.

Gladwell holds that we are successfully deceived by strangers through a combination of three main reasons: the fundamentally human tendency to default to believing we are being told the truth; that facial expression and demeanour are much less reliable than we believe; and context matters a great deal.

“We fall out of truth-default mode only when the case against our initial assumption becomes definitive. We do not behave, in other words, like sober-minded scientists, slowly gathering evidence of the truth or falsity of something before reaching a conclusion. We do the opposite. We start by believing. And we stop believing only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away.”

Gladwell cites examples of Cuban spies and the CIA, Hitler and Chamberlain, Bernie Madoff and the SEC, the Penn State Paedophile Case, a murder in Perugia, and more “If every coach is assumed to be a pedophile, then no parent would let their child leave the house, and no sane person would ever volunteer to be a coach. We default to truth—even when that decision carries terrible risks—because we have no choice. Society cannot function otherwise. And in those rare instances where trust ends in betrayal, those victimized by default to truth deserve our sympathy, not our censure.”

Gladwell talks about whistle blowers, bail judges, alcoholic blackout and sexual assault, the effects of torture on brain function, and ultimately relates it all back to the tragic consequences of a traffic stop in Texas.

Regards reading faces and behaviours: “Each of us, over the course of our lives, builds our own set of operating instructions for our face, based on the culture and environment we inhabit. The face is a symbol of how different human beings are, not how similar we are, which is a big problem if your society has created a rule for understanding strangers based on reading faces.”

He tells us “Our strategies for dealing with strangers are deeply flawed, but they are also socially necessary. We need the criminal-justice system and the hiring process and the selection of babysitters to be human. But the requirement of humanity means that we have to tolerate an enormous amount of error. That is the paradox of talking to strangers. We need to talk to them. But we’re terrible at it”

And also “The thing we want to learn about a stranger is fragile. If we tread carelessly, it will crumple under our feet. And from that follows a second cautionary note: we need to accept that the search to understand a stranger has real limits. We will never know the whole truth. We have to be satisfied with something short of that. The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.”

Fully indexed, and with footnotes and thirty-one pages of comprehensive end notes, this is a fascinating and enlightening read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Penguin UK
His & Hers
by Alice Feeney
Gripping British crime fiction (7/21/2020)
His & Hers is the third novel by British journalist and author, Alice Feeney. The audio version is narrated by Stephanie Racine and Richard Armitage. When DCI Jack Harper is called out to a murder in the woods near Blackdown, he’s shocked to realise the victim is a woman with whom he was intimate the previous evening. And he soon discovers several other items that make it clear that someone might be setting him up as the suspect in his own investigation.

Already stunned to have been casually demoted from her BBC TV newsreader position, Anna Andrews is even less impressed to be sent to Blackdown to cover possible murder case. Blackdown is the place she grew up, and she’d be happy never to return: too many unhappy memories, one of which involves the victim.

Jack is dismayed to see his ex-wife at the scene, not least because she’s with a BBC press photographer, but also because it stirs too many sad memories. He already has a challenging case to run, with a young, too-eager-to-please colleague, DS Pria Patel, who’s getting on his nerves, and pressure from higher-up to get a result.

With little more than a puzzling message on the victim’s nails, a strange item in the mouth and a boot-print, not much progress is made before, mere hours later, another victim is found. Jack isn’t at all sure that his small team is up to dealing with a serial killer. And it starts to look like Anna is personally involved…

The narrative is carried by three voices: mostly Jack and Anna, with occasional (in the audio, voice distorted) commentary by the murderer. If Jack’s part seems genuine and truthful, Anna’s feels less reliable, while the murderer’s parts are often quite cryptic. Overall, it is sufficiently ambiguous to throw suspicion on several characters.

Feeney is skilled at sowing the seeds of possibility. The slow disclosure of important information, connections and (sometimes) explosive secrets make this a pages turner. Red herrings, twists and distractions mislead and keep reader guessing and cycling through potential murder suspects right up to the thrilling climax. And beyond. Gripping British crime fiction.
This unbiased review is from an audio copy provided by NetGalley and Macmillan audio.
When She Was Good: Cyrus Haven #2
by Michael Robotham
Another brilliant read! (6/9/2020)
“People think they want the truth, but the opposite is true. Honesty is mean and rough and ugly, while lying can be kinder, softer and more humane. It’s not honesty that we want, but consideration and respect.”

When She Was Good s the second book in the Cyrus Haven series by award-winning Australian author, Michael Robotham. Initially, it looks like retired Detective Superintendent Hamish Whitmore has committed suicide. But that’s not what forensic psychologist, Cyrus Haven sees when he examines the scene. It quickly becomes clear that Hamish was murdered, and that it is related to the old (closed) case he couldn’t let go. What disturbs Cyrus most is the tiny notation in a corner of Hamish’s case whiteboard: Angelface, London, 2013.

Evie Cormac is back at Langford Hall, a secure children’s home, impatiently waiting to be deemed old enough to be released. But not everyone agrees that she’s ready. Meanwhile, she endures, hanging out for visits from Cyrus, and more importantly, their Labrador, Poppy. But Cyrus has been picking at the past, hoping to find out more about what Evie refuses to reveal; have his subtle enquiries tripped a wire that will put them all in danger?

For all those readers who wondered just how Evie ended up behind the wall in that house where the tortured corpse was found, this instalment of Cyrus Haven eventually explains all that, and a lot more! Evie doesn’t trust anyone, and maybe Cyrus would do well to take a leaf out of her book. As he meticulously follows up leads, it’s like he’s pulled a tiger’s tail. This novel is filled with edge of the seat, heart thumping action. And the final chapter, oh boy! Another brilliant read!
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Hachette Australia.
Good Girl, Bad Girl
by Michael Robotham
brilliant crime fiction (6/4/2020)
Good Girl, Bad Girl is the first book in the Cyrus Haven series by award-winning Australian author, Michael Robotham. When Nottingham psychologist, Cyrus Haven first encounters Evie Cormac, it’s at the request of his acquaintance, Adam Guthrie, a social worker at Langford Hall, a secure children’s home. His mild interest is piqued by Guthrie’s claim that Evie is a “truth wizard”. But when her history is revealed, his professional attention is joined by empathy: Cyrus, too, is a survivor of an horrific adolescent trauma.

Evie Cormac is used to being lied to: it’s been happening all her life, and she can always tell. So Cyrus Haven’s honesty gains him a wary respect. She even admits to herself she might like to talk to him again. Not that she will reveal anything of what happened to her; she hasn’t yet and never will.

Chief Inspector Lenore Parvel isn’t really convinced about all that psychology mumbo-jumbo, but she’s known Cyrus since he was thirteen, and she trusts his judgement, so he is called in to view the scene as soon as Jodie Sheehan’s body is found. The fifteen-year-old’s future as an Olympic figure skater has been cut short, and Lenny is determined to find the person responsible for what looks like a rape and murder.

Lenny and Cyrus interview extended family and friends, trying to ascertain the sequence of events leading up to Jodie’s death. But as post mortem results and forensic evidence become available, it’s clear that not everyone is telling the truth. It seems that the Golden Girl is not quite as virtuous as her family proclaims, and there are many secrets and hidden agendas surrounding the case.

What a talented author Robotham is! His characters are fascinating and his plot weaves and ducks and turns: lots of red herrings keep the reader guessing right up to the exciting final pages. While most of the narrative is carried by Cyrus, events are also shown from enigmatic Evie’s perspective. There’s plenty of humour, some of it quite dark, and the banter between Evie and Cyrus is a delight. Luckily, this pair make an encore appearance in the sequel, When She Was Good. A brilliant read!
A Conspiracy of Bones: Temperance Brennan #19
by Kathy Reichs
Virtually boneless, but still plenty to intrigue. (6/1/2020)
A Conspiracy of Bones is the nineteenth book in the Temperance Brennan series by best-selling American anthropologist and author, Kathy Reichs. Life has turned upside down on anthropologist Tempe Brennan: apart from distracting family dramas and her own medical diagnosis, Ryan and Slidell have abandoned their police force jobs to start up a PI business. But most disturbing of all is that the new boss at MCME has a sizeable grudge against Tempe and is freezing her out of her usual consultancy there.

Margot Heavner, appointed after Larabee’s murder, seems to be oriented to maximum publicity at the expense of ethics. She and Tempe locked horns over the case of a murdered child, and now she is being excluded from a strange new case: a faceless, fingerless, gutless body that Heavner has already implied to the press is a murder victim.

But apparently someone wants Tempe involved: she has been sent, anonymously, pictures of the body. Tempe has another ally at the MCME, and she manages to get her own photos, a sample and information about the autopsy. And what she sees raises one puzzling question: why is Heavner lying about the body?

Can Tempe resist getting involved? If she can discreetly investigate and identify the victim, is she doing it for the right reasons? Because publicly proving Heavner wrong and ending her exile from the lab is an attractive proposition. Slidell, if initially hesitant to get involved, becomes quite interested when links to a certain missing-child cold case become apparent.

Tempe does exasperate: her tendency to jump, alone, into a potentially dangerous situation against all reasonable advice is starting to wear a little thin. However, the snappy dialogues between Tempe and Slidell, Tempe and Ryan are a joy, and there is lots of clever detective work done by both Tempe and Slidell.

This installment features a radio shock-jock, child porn and pedophiles, conspiracy theories and the dark web, and Reichs also includes plenty of fascinating tidbits like: Zombie ants, military bunker real estate, composite imaging from DNA phenotypes and taphophobia. The notes at the end are also interesting. Virtually boneless, but still plenty to intrigue.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Simon & Schuster Australia
The Satapur Moonstone: A Perveen Mistry Novel
by Sujata Massey
Excellent historical fiction (5/25/2020)
The Satapur Moonstone is the second book in the Perveen Mistry series by award-winning British-born American author, Sujata Massey. When the governor’s top councillor offers Bombay’s first female solicitor, Perveen Mistry a small job in the Sahyadri Mountains at the tiny Princely State of Satapur, she’s a little hesitant.

The work, finding an agreement between the widow of the late maharaja and the dowager maharani regards the education and welfare of the prospective ruler, the ten-year-old maharaja, would not present a problem; working for the British Government, however, she finds distinctly unappealing.

But anticipating that it may lead to further such work for women in seclusion, she accepts. And apparently the scenery is spectacular, and cooler weather in October will be welcome. After a somewhat undignified arrival in the area, she meets the political agent, an Oxford-educated civil servant, Colin Sandringham, who is not at all what she was expecting.

During her stay at the Circuit House, Perveen meets some interesting guests, and has a chance to learn more about the people and situation at the Royal Palace. Concerns expressed in letters from the two women at odds have her wondering about the young prince’s safety.

Her concern is reinforced by the interviews she conducts at the Palace, after an unpleasant journey and a poor welcome. Perveen begins to entertain doubts about the accidental nature of the older brother’s demise the previous year. And when there is a death, she also worries about her own safety.

Massey gives the reader another interesting and intriguing historical mystery. The setting, a castle isolated by weather and terrain for months at a time, is different; the plot has plenty of twists and red herrings to keep the reader guessing right up to the dramatic climax; and lots of fascinating details, such as travelling by palanquin, the intricacies of succession rules, Royal etiquette and customs, and degrees of seclusion practised by Indian women, keep the reader enthralled.

While Perveen’s marital status still precludes any sort of liaison, there is a hint of a possible romance. The mention of 1922 in the back-cover blurb is puzzling, as the events clearly take place in October 1921, following directly on from the events of A Murder At Malabar Hill. This is excellent historical fiction and more of the plucky and appealing Perveen Mistry will be most welcome.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Allen & Unwin.
Days Without End
by Sebastian Barry
a moving and powerful read (5/22/2020)
“The mind is a wild liar and I don’t trust much in it that I find there. To tell a story I have to trust it but I can issue a warning like a ticket master issuing a ticket for a western-bound train that will be obliged to go through wilderness, Indians, outlaws and storms.”

Days Without End is the seventh novel by award-winning Irish author, Sebastian Barry. In his later years, Thomas McNulty thinks back to his youth: he skims over the awful experience of sailing to Canada and barely surviving, and jumps straight into the first time he met Handsome John Cole (“my beau”) under a Missouri hedge during a rain storm. From that moment on, everything happens in tandem.

In Daggsville, as youthful teens, they don dresses to dance with miners, until they grow too tall. In the army, they ride west to deal with an Indian problem in California, finding themselves in the middle of a massacre of women and children. The parallel between the Irish, the Indians and the African Americans is quickly clear to them: “It’s a dark thing when the world sets no value on you or your kin, and then Death comes stalking in, in his bloody boots.”

A trek across the prairies that involves hunger: “There was no game below the mountains this time and soon our bellies were gnawed by hunger. It was weeks of a journey and now we were a-feared of what hunger might do. A hunger-knower like myself was a-feared more than most. I seen the cold deeds of hunger.”

Also experienced are a flash flood, frostbite, a firing squad, heatstroke, many encounters, good and bad, with Indians and, ultimately, a treaty. Friendships are forged, though not with all: “No one could prize a man with a tongue like a bolus of knives.”

And if they see the worst of humanity then: “Desolate and decimated though we were, there was something good there. Something that couldn’t be extinguished by flood and hunger. The human will. You got to give homage to it. I seen it many times. It ain’t so rare. But it is the best of us.”

From Indian wars to the Civil War via an interlude on the stage in drag in Grand Rapids with the orphaned Indian girl they have brought home. While the graphically described battle scenes definitely illustrate the unglamorous side of war, they do become a tiny bit tedious. Surrender, captivity and finally release are not the end of the drama, even after they settle on a Tennessee tobacco farm. More than once, getting into women’s clothing proves to be a saviour…

The punctuation and grammar (or lack thereof) give authenticity to the voice of this mid-19th Century uneducated Irish immigrant. But Barry is such a skilled author that, despite this, he often makes Thomas McNulty’s prose sing: “Then the rains came walking over the land, exciting the new grasses, thundering down, hammering like fearsome bullets, making the shards and dusts of the earth dance a violent jig. Making the grass seeds drunk with ambition” and “It was so silent you could swear the moon is listening. The owls are listening and the wolves.” Characteristic of Sebastian Barry’s work, this is a moving and powerful read.
The Widows of Malabar Hill: A Mystery of 1920s Bombay
by Sujata Massey
a very enjoyable read (5/19/2020)
A Murder on Malabar Hill, also titled The Widows of Malabar Hill, is the first book in the Perveen Mistry series by award-winning British-born American author, Sujata Massey. Bombay in 1921 may not be ready for a female lawyer, but Jamshedji Mistry has given his daughter an education and Preveen Mistry is determined to contribute to Mistry Law. If catering to women needing legal services gives their firm an edge, then she will embrace that.

When Omar Farid dies, he leaves three widows. Perveen is dealing with the will when a request comes in from the household agent/guardian regards the family’s wakf that rouses her suspicion: all three widows have signed over their endowments to the wakf (family charity trust). However, the documents give cause for concern.

When she visits these women in purdah, she finds discrepancies in what they know about their gift to the wakf and the intended use of the funds; quite a few secrets between the women; and a distinct lack of harmony. Perveen is, nonetheless, resolute about her duty to the women and their interests. But, shortly after her visit, there is a brutal murder at the house…

A welcome distraction is the arrival of her college friend Alice Hobson-Jones, whose parents live on Malabar Hill, next to the Farid house. While Alice has her own problems, and issues of confidentiality preclude Perveen from sharing too much, she’s grateful to have Alice’s perspective.

She wishes, too, that she could share her concern about a disturbing glimpse of a man she had thought far away in Calcutta, Cyrus Sodawalla, with whom she has an unhappy history. As the story unfolds, each tidbit of information reveals another plausible motive for the murder and, more than once, Perveen has to check for possible conflicts of interest before she acts.

Perveen is a plucky and very likeable protagonist. Her backstory is told in flashbacks to 1916, describing how she came to be a lawyer and illustrating also her parents’ unfailing support. Her interactions with others indicate she needs to work on her poker-face and, at one point, she has fingers in so many pies that when she is kidnapped, she runs through a list of possible assailants.

Massey manages to include plenty of humour in this series debut, as well as a wealth of fascinating snippets of Indian social history. The restrictions that women faced at the time, both in law and through religion are demonstrated, and the practical concerns for women choosing to live in Purdah are shown. This is a very enjoyable read and another encounter with Perveen Mistry in The Satapur Moonstone will be eagerly awaited.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy.
Redhead by the Side of the Road
by Anne Tyler
If only this dose of Tyler’s magic had been longer… (5/7/2020)
Redhead By The Side Of The Road is the twenty-third novel by award-winning, best-selling American author, Anne Tyler. At forty-three, Micah Mortimer isn’t dissatisfied with his life: it may be predictable, but having an adequate place to live, just enough work, and the company of a woman friend suits him fine. Excitement is overrated.

“He and Cass had been together for three years or so, and they had reached re things had more or less solidified: compromises arrived at, incompatibilities adjusted to, minor quirks overlooked. They had it down to a system, you could say.”

Micah exercises daily, eats healthy food and has a series of (not entirely inflexible) routines that give him a sense of control. He makes house calls around the city for his IT business, Tech Hermit and, while being careful not to get too involved, looks after the tenants in his building in his role as unofficial super. From his older sisters and their families, there is a mixture of concern and amusement at the way he lives his life.

Then, in the space of an October week, two unsettling incidents ruffle his calm. Cassia faces the threat of eviction from her apartment because of a secret pet (and Micah’s reactions to this later turn out to be unsatisfactory); and a teenaged boy turns up claiming that Micah is his father.

It is always such a pleasure to read a book by Anne Tyler, and this one has you smiling all the way through, unless you are laughing out loud or saying “oh, dear” or “oh, my”. Nothing terribly dramatic happens, but Tyler’s special talent is making ordinary lives shine.

Tyler is wonderful at character description: “She was so sharp-edged, both literally and figuratively – a shrill, vivacious mosquito of a girl, all elbows and darting movements, and it was a wonder she’d given a glance at a stick-in-the-mud like Micah.”

Micah is quirky but believable and his inner monologue is often particularly entertaining: the remarks he resists making, and the Traffic God who comments on his impeccable driving are two examples.

His bewilderment at human interaction is palpable: “Sometimes when he was dealing with people, he felt like he was operating one of those claw machines on a boardwalk, those shovel things where you tried to scoop up a prize but the controls were too unwieldy and you worked at too great a remove.”

Family gatherings are Tyler’s specialty: “A mahogany side table held a lamp and a pair of pruning shears and a bottle of nail polish. No doubt the living room was equally disorganized, but you couldn’t tell, because it was filled wall-to-wall with people… The general impression, as always, was tumult: noisy, merry, unkempt people wearing wild colors, dog barking, baby crying, TV blaring, bowls of chips and dips already savaged.” As always, many of her characters are a little eccentric, but their observations on life are insightful at the same time as being amusing. If only this dose of Tyler’s magic had been longer…
This unbiased review is from a copy provided by Penguin Books Australia.
Sea Prayer
by Khaled Hosseini
A very worthwhile purchase. (3/6/2020)
Sea Prayer is an illustrated book by best-selling author, Khaled Hosseini. The text is very short and comprises what a father is telling his young son about the land they are about to leave, and how wonderful it once was, as they sit on the beach with many others, awaiting the boat that will take them to what they hope will be safety.
It is beautifully illustrated in a watercolour wash by Dan Williams and the proceeds go to the UNHCR and The Khaled Hosseini Foundation to assist global refugees. It was inspired by the story of a three-year-old Syrian refugee, Alan Kurdi, who washed up on a Mediterranean beach in 2015, and is dedicated to the thousands of refugees who have perished at sea fleeing war and persecution. A very worthwhile purchase.
The Ruin
by Dervla McTiernan
brilliant crime fiction (3/6/2020)
The Ruin is the first novel in the Cormac Reilly series by Irish-born Australian author, Dervla McTiernan. A month after his transfer from an elite Dublin unit to Mill Street Garda Station in Galway, and Detective Sergeant Cormac Reilly is still being lumbered with cold cases to review, instead of any “real” work. But then the supposed suicide by drowning of twenty-five-year-old Jack Blake sees him assigned a very familiar cold case: one he was never able to close.

In February 1993, as a green young Constable, Reilly was sent to the dower house at Kilmore for a probable domestic dispute. What he found was the Blake family: Hilaria Blake, dead from a heroin overdose, five-year-old Jack malnourished and bruised, and fifteen-year-old Maude trying to care for him. Twenty years later, Cormac still vividly remembers the tiny battered boy and his attentive sister, who vanished that day to not be seen again.

Cormac is as surprised as anyone to learn that Maude Blake has turned up, and is apparently questioning the suicide ruling, with some compelling proof. Nor does his grieving girlfriend, Aisling Conroy agree that Jack was at all likely to take his own life. But this is not the case that Cormac will be working.

He is directed to re-examine Hilaria Blakes death, and soon his colleague from his training days turns up testimony implicating Maude in her mother’s death. It becomes clear that several of his colleagues have agendas to which he is not privy, and it becomes difficult to know whom he can trust.

McTiernan’s debut novel is filled with twists and turns and red herrings. Sexual predators, physical abusers, religious paedophiles, rapists and corrupt cops all feature in a plot that builds to a heart-thumping climax. This is brilliant crime fiction and more of Cormac Reilly will definitely be welcome.
Highfire
by Eoin Colfer
a very entertaining read! (3/3/2020)
“Every time he met someone, Hooke was figuring how to murder them and get away with it, in case the need arose.”

Highfire is a stand-alone novel by Irish author, Eoin Colfer. The Louisiana bayou: about the last place you'd expect to find a dragon. But here, just upstream from Petit Bateau on a trib of the West Peace River, is Vern (formerly Wyvern Lord Highfire of the Highfire Eyrie and possibly the very last dragon in the world), drinking Absolut, watching Netflix, wearing Flashdance T-shirts and staying under the (human) radar.

Fifteen-year-old Cajun-blood tearaway, Everett (Squib) Moreau is about to meet with a local small-time crook for some work when he witnesses the murder of said crook by (the totally corrupt Constable) Regence Hooke who, incidentally, is displaying what Squib considers an unhealthy interest in his mother, Elodie. Heard, but not seen, he tries to escape, and when Hooke begins tossing concussion grenades at him, and Squib believes he’s about to die.

Blacked out from the unexpected G force lift, Squib comes to, stunned to find himself in the cabin of what claims to be a dragon: a talking dragon who begins interrogating him. Fast forward some hours, and he has a job that includes acting as gofer for the (human-hating) dragon and shovelling dragon excrement over a mogwai called Waxman. As you do.

Regence Hooke has mighty plans concerning the takeover of a New Orleans mob boss’s operation, and observes Squib’s diligent industry with not a little interest: there might just be something here he can make use of… From there, heaps of action and gunplay, lots of high-power weapons and therefore a substantial body count. Colfer gives his characters plenty of clever, funny dialogue and it all makes for a very entertaining read!
Into the Fire: Orphan X #5
by Gregg Hurwitz
Another entertaining action thriller: bring on number six! (2/27/2020)
Into The Fire is the fifth book in the Orphan X series by best-selling American author, Gregg Hurwitz. With perhaps the idea of having something like a normal life, Evan Smoak vows that whomever Trevon Gaines sends him, it will be his last Nowhere Man mission.

When forensic accountant, Grant Merriwether is murdered, his cousin Max quickly realises that the “in the event of my death” envelope Grant gave him is going to spell trouble. Max narrowly escapes walking in on a thug ransacking his apartment, and the LA Times journalist to whom he was meant to take Grant’s letter has been brutally slain. Desperate, Max clutches the straw he has been offered: the Nowhere Man’s number.

Evan is, as always, efficient and dispenses with the threat quick smart. So why is someone still shooting at him and making threatening phone calls? Is there another tier to this mission? He needs to get this sorted so Max (and Evan?) can start living a normal life. Although if a normal life involves Home Owners Association meetings, he might have second thoughts: “A familiar feeling of unease resurfaced, that Evan was a traveler in a foreign land, observing native customs and rituals without understanding their purpose. Being concussed didn’t exactly clarify matters.”

In this installment, Evan: inflicts a designer wound to facilitate tracking; gets into a dog fight; has a bedroom magnet mishap; rescues a puppy; provides a form of crudités to a meeting; mugs a mugger; goes to jail, and escapes, and does much of it while suffering concussion. It’s no surprise to readers of Out Of The Dark that Trevon Gaines makes a reappearance, and Joey Morales’s participation is virtually a given.

As always, it’s a good idea to suspend disbelief when reading this series, or you’ll start thinking that it’s as well Evan Smoak doesn’t have a paying job because when would he get time to maintain all his safe houses and vehicles, and who cleans his house? Washing clothing and cleaning shoes seems to be a moot point as they end up in the fireplace, replaced by an endless supply of identical new items. Another entertaining action thriller: bring on number six!
Out of the Dark: An Orphan X Novel
by Gregg Hurwitz
An excellent action thriller. (2/21/2020)
Out Of The Dark is the fourth book in the Orphan X series by best-selling American author, Gregg Hurwitz. Among other things, Evan Smoak’s extensive training made him a skilled assassin. His very first mission, in an unnamed Eastern European state, involved the assassination of a foreign minister; it is this mission that somehow has led to his latest one. And he’s setting his sights high with this target: the President of the United States.

On this mission, he’s up against a formidable opponent: Special Agent in Charge, Naomi Templeton has the Secret Service in her genes and has recently been promoted to Deputy Director of Protective Intelligence and Assessment. And as the daughter of a former Director, she has something to prove. But Hank Templeton, now languishing in an Aged Care Facility, could also be a distraction. What Evan Smoak isn’t initially aware of is the dangerous man who has been tasked with killing him.

In this dose of Orphan X, Evan: deals with a dislocated shoulder (not his own); narrowly avoids participation in a father-daughter dance; neutralises a Los Angeles drug trafficker; finds, in Trevon Gaines, someone even more obsessed with order than he is; leaves a message, cryptic to others, but unsubtle for his target; has fun with a Tesla S; stays at the Watergate Hotel; and goes skate-boarding.

The situations where Evan chooses to interact, unarmed (or apparently so), with weaponed opponents are quite entertaining, as is the paranoia he induces in his target. As with all books in this series, it’s wise to check your disbelief at the door and just go along for the fantastic ride, as Evan gets himself out of multiple impossible (and often lethal) situations, and all without the level of equipment that backs him up in LA..

Fans of the previous book will welcome the reappearance of Joey Morales (and the clever, snappy dialogue that results), and readers familiar with DC will enjoy this instalment for the many locations mentioned. Book number five, Into The Fire, promises to be just as much fun. An excellent action thriller.
Hellbent: An Orphan X Novel
by Gregg Hurwitz
Excellent page-turners! (2/14/2020)
Hellbent is the third book in the Orphan X series by best-selling American author, Gregg Hurwitz. The one person that Evan Smoak does not expect to call his Nowhere Man line is his mentor, Jack Johns. And it turns out to be a call he would never want to receive. Soon after, he sees vision of Jack’s final moments. But Jack has left him a message and a mission.

Jack’s instructions are for Evan to “secure the package” and it takes him a while to understand that the package is a sixteen-year-old girl, an Orphan Program washout, a discard. His initial plan is to stow Joey somewhere safe while he gets on with his revenge mission, because for sure taking along a sixteen-year-old girl will be nothing but a burden. But it all turns out to be less about revenge than something else.

Joey is no ordinary sixteen-year-old girl, and it's entertaining to watch this lone wolf reluctantly working in tandem with a talented and resourceful teen who knows her way around more than just a computer. Perhaps Evan unintentionally slips on some of Jack's commandments occasionally, but now, with Jack's murder, #4 (never make it personal) is off the table. This time it's definitely personal.

While there are many serious moments, including when Jack dies (but cleverly, very cleverly), much of this installment is hilarious. The addition of this whip-smart young woman makes for many laugh-out-loud interactions, and Joey draws on that human part of him that Jack insisted on nurturing.

For novices of this series, the prologue already sets the tone with Evan Smoak, fight-torn, fleeing police pursuit in a stolen car when thumping begins from the vehicle's trunk. Some of the weapon description is likely to make the eyes glaze over, but again, it’s easy to picture this on the screen, big or small.

As usual, there is a high body count, predicted by the statement "Evan needed to get food, and then he had people to kill." All that going on, and then a Nowhere Man request that brings his in close quarters with a ruthless Salvadoran gang, the threat of which he disperses very elegantly. The Trojan Horse idea? ingenious! A quick short story (The Intern) follows, then it’s on to #4, Out Of The Dark. Excellent page-turners!
The Nowhere Man: An Orphan X Novel
by Gregg Hurwitz
would be great on the screen. (2/9/2020)
The Nowhere Man is the second book in the Orphan X series by best-selling American author, Gregg Hurwitz. Evan Smoak has helped another needy person and is about to relax when a loose end niggles, so he follows up, finds there is more to do and proceeds. But, mission not yet complete, he is captured, sedated and imprisoned.

The cell is a luxurious one, resembling a well-appointed bedroom, but it is a prison, without a doubt. The where, the how and the why are gradually revealed, and then it’s up to Evan to escape in order to complete his mission (and another, that has since lined up for his attention). He has already managed to kill a few of his guards and keeps a tally of the number of guards and dogs that will be obstacles to his escape: “Two dogs, ten guards, one sniper, Dex and counting. He’d have to kill a lot more of them tomorrow.”

While the first installment of this series saw Evan utilising advanced technology in addition to his personal skills, in this one, Hurwitz puts him in a situation where he has only his own talents on which to rely. These are, of course, not inconsiderable. Needless to say, there’s a high body count. The agent of Evan’s final, impossible escape will likely be predictable for most readers, but doesn’t detract from the enjoyment.

Watching Evan Smoak improvise is certainly interesting, but his attempts to neutralise a dozen guards, two by two, while it might appeal to MMA fans, is likely to make some eyes glaze over. Again, it would be great on the screen. It is easy to see this series becoming addictive in a suspend-all-disbelief-and-hold-on-for-a-wild-ride kind of way. Bring on #3, Hellbent.
Orphan X: An Evan Smoak Novel
by Gregg Hurwitz
A page turner! (2/4/2020)
Orphan X is the first book in the Orphan X series by best-selling American author, Gregg Hurwitz. Just what is Evan Smoak? Some sort of fixer, avenger? He’s certainly not the importer of industrial cleaning supplies he claims to be. He flies very much under the radar; is skilful and well resourced, both materially and psychologically; extraordinarily efficient; and cautious, always cautious. But this time, in answering a call for help, has his caution been insufficient? Because suddenly, unusually, he is not completely in control of the situation.

Just what turned twelve-year-old Evan from Pride House Group Home into the accomplished (if enigmatic) man on a mission for justice, and how, is told in flashbacks. How he achieves that justice, and for whom, makes for a cleverly plotted tale full of twists and tricks and red herrings that reaches multiple exciting climaxes.

One of the commandments that Evan lives by is to deal with one mission at a time. But certain residents of his apartment block now seem to need his help regardless of what else might be needing his attention, and he’s finding it hard to dismiss them. Is Evan a sucker for a sob story?

This is a novel that would translate well to film. The Las Vegas rooftop fight scene, while it might appeal to fans of mixed martial arts is, at nine pages, so long that it becomes boring enough to skip to the end. Would look great on film, though.

In setting the scene, on a scale of clunky to subtle/seamless, Hurwitz‘s information dump is closer to the former. A step away from literary crime fiction, what is clear from the first book is that with this series the best approach is to park your disbelief, locate the grabrail and just hold on for the (often quite far-fetched) ride! A page-turner!

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