Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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Horse: A Novel
by Geraldine Brooks
A wonderful novel that is probably her best yet. (8/6/2023)
“Jarret wondered how it could be possible to have so much, just from gambling on cards and horses. If a man could win all this, then maybe he could lose it. What if he decided to wager Lexington away, or the two of them? They were his property, just like the barn.”

Horse is the sixth novel by Pulitzer prize-winning Australian author, Geraldine Brooks. In 1850, in Lexington, Kentucky, Warfield’s Jarret, son of talented Black horse trainer Harry Lewis, is present for the birth of a foal destined to become the nineteenth Century’s most remarkable racehorse and the greatest thoroughbred stud sire in racing history: Lexington.

In 1852, freelance journalist and artist, Thomas J. Scott witnesses the closeness of the pair when he is there to capture the horse in oils.

In 2019, aspiring art historian and freelance writer Theo Northam is in Washington DC working on a thesis about the representation of black people in nineteenth Century art when he stumbles on a dingy painting of a bay colt in a junk pile. He takes advantage of a Smithsonian contact to have the painting identified and evaluated at their Conservation Institute.

Australian manager of the vertebrate Osteology Prep Lab at the Smithsonian Museum Support Centre, Jess encounters Theo when she tries to find out more about the nineteenth Century equine skeleton kept for many years in a dusty museum attic, located at the request of a British researcher studying equine anatomy.

In 1954, Manhattan gallery owner Martha Jackson is offered a painting that markedly departs from the usual style of her acquisitions, but her generally quiescent sentimental bone twinges, and she adds the painting to her private collection.

How these characters are linked is the basis of an enthralling tale that serves as a tribute to horses and art, and those who love and care for both. But the reader doesn’t have to be a fan of horses or racing or art to be utterly captivated.

Told over three timelines by five main narrators, this story gives the reader a wholly credible collision of reality and imagination, interweaving fact with fiction, all of it rich in historical detail. a marvelously diverse cast of real people and fictional characters. Brooks gives them depth and appeal, wise words and insightful observations. And she does it all with some gorgeous descriptive prose.

“Jarret learned the unfamiliar names: the burnt sienna that he’d thought of as mere brown, the French ultramarine that he’d known simply as blue. But blue wasn’t so simple to Scott. He had Prussian blue, cerulean, cobalt, teal, navy. So many complicated words for a simple thing. Jarret knew the names for horse colors— bay, blood bay, buckskin, dun, roan— but now it seemed like every other thing was just as various if you troubled to look at it closely.”

“It wasn’t a good idea to speak without putting a deal of thought into it. Words could be snares. Less of them you laid out there, less likely they could trap you up.”

While the focus is on the horse and the people around him, Brooks also touches on racism in all its extremes: slavery, the shooting of unarmed black people, and the insidious everyday racism that occurs due to privilege or ignorance. The ingrained cruelty of modern-day horseracing, especially to those horses that fail to make the grade, is also touched on.

Her meticulous research into horses, art, and racism is apparent on every page and it is heartening to see that she has incorporated her late husband’s love of Civil War history into the story. A wonderful novel that is probably her best yet.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Little, Brown Book Group UK.
The Collected Regrets of Clover: A Novel
by Mikki Brammer
a moving, thought-provoking and uplifting debut novel (7/9/2023)
The Collected Regrets Of Clover is the first novel by Australian-born author, Mikki Brammer. As a New York City death doula, thirty-six-year-old Clover Brooks has held a lot of dying hands; she’s listened to a lot of last words and, as a mark of respect, noted down regrets, advice and confessions.

Her kindergarten teacher, Mr Hyland was the first dying hand she held. She was interested more than upset. When she was six, her parents’ accidental death in China put her in the care of her grandfather, Patrick. Having been absent for much of his own daughter’s childhood, he took the chance to get it right with Clover, raising her to be have a strong moral compass and developing her observational skills.

It’s an unusual vocation to have and, to avoid negative reactions, she doesn’t tend to broadcast it: most people are uncomfortable talking about death. Patrick’s death, alone, while Clover was overseas, was the impetus for this choice: if Clover can prevent others dying alone, she will. Her referrals come from social workers and hospital staff.

She sees her role as being present, listening, not turning away from the painful aspects of dying. It means helping someone die with dignity and peace. Sometimes it’s just about them not being alone or helping them get their affairs in order before they go. Other times it’s about helping them reflect back on their lives and work through any unresolved issues.

She doesn’t try to make them focus on all the positive things about their life— all the things they should be grateful for; it isn’t her job to help them gloss over that reality if they don’t want to; it is to sit with them, listen, and bear witness.

Clover lives with her dog and two cats and, in between clients, doesn’t really have a social life. Raised by an introverted grandfather and with a few negative relationship experiences, Clover is wary: “Observing the world, rather than engaging with it, meant I didn’t have to invest emotionally. If I never got close to anyone, they couldn’t leave me. Or it wouldn’t hurt if they did.” Her only real friend is her elegant, elderly Black neighbour in their West Village apartment block, Leo. When a young woman, Sylvie moves into a vacant apartment, she seems intent on friendship with Clover: is it worth taking a chance?

She regularly frequents one of the numerous death cafes in New York: an idea had developed by a Swiss sociologist named Bernard Crettaz as a way of normalizing conversations around death. It’s at the Public Library death café that she first encounters Sebastian Wells, whose grandmother is dying. She’s not entirely convinced he’s genuine, to start with, wondering if he’s a predator scamming vulnerable people.

But eventually, she agrees to keep his grandmother, former photojournalist, Claudia Wells, company as she lives her last weeks and days. Claudia is an interesting and fiesty woman whose one regret involves a certain young man she met in Corsica shortly before she married.

It seems that Sebastian might be interested in more than a professional relationship but, lacking instinct and experience, she wonders how to tell if this time it might work out OK. Driving seven hours to Maine with Sebastian to possibly track down Claudia’s past lover gives Clover mixed messages about their potential compatibility…

What a fascinating topic Brammer has chosen for her tale, not a comfortable one for all readers, but definitely worth exploring. Her characters are complex and appealing for all their very human flaws and foibles, and she gives them wise words and insightful observations: “The secret to a beautiful death is living a beautiful life” and “Don’t let the best parts of life pass you by because you’re too scared of the unknown. Be cautiously reckless” are examples.

This is a moving, thought-provoking and uplifting debut novel and more from Brammer is eagerly anticipated.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Penguin General/Viking
The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece: A novel
by Tom Hanks
more than one string to his bow. (7/6/2023)
The Making Of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece is the first novel by award-winning American actor, film-maker and author, Tom Hanks. There are no prizes for guessing what the book is about. Freelance journalist and reviewer, Joe Shaw is invited by successful writer/director Bill Johnson to watch the process of a movie being made. He’s so enthralled, he decides to write a book.

Back in the post-war years, former WW2 marine, Bob Falls is the inspiration for his nephew, Robby Andersen’s comic about a flame thrower who saves his platoon from annihilation by the Japanese. Meanwhile, aspiring screenwriter Bill Johnson sends a script to agent Fred Schiller who teaches him how to polish his work to movie standard. Turns out they have a hit on their hands.

Many hit movies (and one flop) later, we watch Bill’s writing routine, and learn from what he draws inspiration, this time, a heroine who can’t sleep, one of the Ultra in Dynamo’s Agents Of Change series, and a flame-throwing ex-marine, from an old Kool Katz Komix comic. His interactions with his highly efficient Production Assistant, Al Mac-Teer set her on a path to find out who owns the rights. Eventually, Dynamo studios and the Hawkeye streaming service are collaborating with Bill to produce another Agents Of Change movie for streaming.

By the time the first days of filming are described, the massive coordination effort involved to bring it in on time and on budget will grip the reader as they follow the antics of the self-absorbed knucklehead who has scored the male lead role. His pretentiousness indicates that he clearly isn’t on the same page as the rest of them: Bill, his talented leading lady, Wren Lane the support actors and the crew. Do they let this guy derail the whole thing?

For each significant character, Hanks provides vignettes – if a vignette can be this detailed – giving each of them backstories and describing how they become part of the movie. By the end of 417 pages, you love each and every one, and wish you could spend more time with them.

Peppered throughout are interesting, informative, and often amusing footnotes, and illustrator R. Sikoryak provides three examples of Robby Anderson’s comics, two in full colour. “Interviews” with various cast and crew members add another perspective.

It must be obvious from the long list of credits at the end of each movie just how many people are involved in such an endeavour, but Hanks brings their roles to life, and demonstrates just how important each one’s contribution is. Hanks proves, once again, that he has more than one string to his bow.
Her Deadly Game
by Robert Dugoni
Another excellent read from the master of the legal thriller. (3/16/2023)
Her Deadly Game is a stand-alone novel by award-winning, best-selling American author, Robert Dugoni. When Keera Duggan takes on the LaRussa murder case, she’s only been with the family firm, Patrick Duggan & Associates for a year, and she’s never defended a murder case. But she’s the daughter of Patsy Duggan, the Irish Brawler, and no one should underestimate her, especially not her narcissistic, controlling ex, Prosecuting Attorney Miller Ambrose. He’s vindictive, but she vows that he’s not satisfying his grudge in this trial.

Wealth management multi-millionaire, Vincent LaRussa claims he came home on a June Sunday night from a charity do to find his wife, Anne, shot in the back of the head as she sat in the kitchen in her wheelchair. The ghost gun is on the floor beside her. SPD Detective Frank Rossi leads the case, and tries to keep an open mind, but Ambrose has already decided the husband did it and, even if he has to play dirty, he’ll prove it.

There are lots of little unexplained things at the scene, baffling bits of trace that seem to turn the whole thing into a riddle. Anne had two visitors before Vince returned home and, on that sweltering June night, the air-con had been turned off.

Each piece of information that Keera’s investigator turns up adds another wrinkle to an already puzzling case, and to complicate matters further, Keera is receiving anonymous emails that point her to bits of LaRussa’s history, facts that don’t put him in too favourable a light.

Then there is the allegation of infidelity, and a punishing pre-nup. Is Vince a devoted husband? Or is he a lying, cheating psychopath? Did Anne’s best friend and doctor cheat with Vince? Who else might have a motive to kill Anne LaRussa?

As well as the pressure from the PA, Keera knows she needs to win this one for the sake of the family law firm, suffering her ageing alcoholic father’s reduced performance.

Set in Seattle, there is some intersection with characters from the Tracy Crosswhite series, and Dugoni sets his story against the background of Keera’s online chess game, the tactics of which may appeal to players, and parallel the court case strategies. There are plenty of twists and red herrings, and the astute reader will keep in the back of their mind an unsolved earlier case. Another excellent read from the master of the legal thriller.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Thomas & Mercer.
Dear Mrs. Bird: A Novel
by AJ Pearce
outstanding debut novel (3/4/2023)
Dear Mrs Bird is the first book in the Emmy Lake Chronicles series. A slightly vague job advertisement and a desperate desire to be a journalist: these are what lead twenty-two-year-old Emmeline Lake to quit her position with Strawman’s Solicitors and sign on as a Junior typist for Launceston Press. All her family and friends are excited for her: it’s a dream come true.

On her first work day in January 1941, she’s thoroughly disheartened when she realises that she will be typing out letters for an advice column in The Woman’s Friend, an old-fashioned weekly magazine apparently on its last legs, rather than fast-tracking to becoming a Lady War Correspondent for The Evening Chronicle.

Worse still, the acting editress, Mrs Henrietta Bird was, decades ago, the most loved advice writer in the press, but sees no reason to update her outlook or advice. She absolutely refuses to read or reply to anything Unpleasant, and Emmy is given a long list of Unacceptable topics, whose letters must be cut up and binned.

Those Unacceptable letters, though. Women who have made poor decisions, or been unlucky, or just aren’t sure what to do. Often the war had exacerbated their problems. Emmy agonises over them: surely these people deserve someone to care about their problems and help them?

She knows she probably doesn’t have the life experience to help some of them. Eventually, though, she can’t ignore them any longer, and risks her job to write personal replies. And then she takes it one step further, not reckoning on readers familiarity with Mrs Bird’s attitude.

Daily life goes on around Emmy and her best friend, Bunty, whose grandmother allows them to live in her London house while she stays safely in Little Whitfield. Engagements are broken and made, heartbreak and romance continue.

But with a war on, rationing and air raids are part of life, along with sweethearts stationed far away and volunteer night shifts at the fire station. News of those lost at the front or in air raids can make it hard to stay upbeat. And then the worst happens…

In this outstanding debut novel, Pearce easily captures her era and setting, her characters are endearing for all their very human flaws, and the plot is realistic. A dose of historical fiction that is funny and moving. The sequels, Yours, Cheerfully and Mrs Porter Calling, are eagerly anticipated.
Killers of a Certain Age
by Deanna Raybourn
a very entertaining read, (3/2/2023)
“’I wasn’t expecting that. I should have stretched first.’ The truth was, it had been some time since I’d wrapped myself like a pretzel around someone I was trying to kill, to say nothing of choking someone out. It’s more a matter of leverage than brute strength, but you always feel it in your biceps and traps as soon as you’re finished if you’ve done it right.”

Killers Of A Certain Age is the first contemporary novel by best-selling American author, Deanna Raybourn. After forty years as highly-trained assassins, Billie Webster and the three other women who make up Project Sphinx surely deserve the Caribbean Cruise they’ve been given on their retirement from The Museum, an extra-governmental organisation targeting Nazis, drug dealers, sex traffickers and other nasty types.

But while she has turned sixty, Billie hasn’t lost an ounce of her training, so she instantly spots the assassin. She and her friends quickly act to learn who his target is (them!!), then efficiently neutralise him. Shock that they are being taken out after their loyal service only galvanises their actions: they ensure that innocent souls will not be lost and make their way to safety. The aftermath includes a rather large explosion.

“For all our experience, we were used to the luxury of an entire organization at our disposal, ready to pluck us out of the field if we were in danger, prepared to clean up our messes, remove us from the line of fire. For the first time in forty years, we were on our own.”

Putting their talents and resources to good use, the four make it to Billie’s New Orleans safe house where they regroup and then work out what next. Learning the why of it is a priority; they contact one person they believe they can trust, only to soon find out they can’t. But they do find out that there’s a bounty on their heads. Quite why takes some more investigation, and they quickly realise that running and hiding is not really an option: they have to fight back.

It's truly enjoyable to watch these women being underestimated, both as old and as women, and then robustly proving that neither is a valid reason. This is a novel that will especially appeal to readers of a certain vintage, who will be pleased to see that these older women still have it, in spades, thank you very much! And the twist is excellent.

Any novel that starts with “AUTHOR’S NOTE Some of the dates are misleading; some of the names are lies. I’m not trying to protect the innocent. I’m trying to protect the guilty. You’ll understand soon enough” promises a very entertaining read, and Deanna Raybourn certainly delivers.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton.
Old God's Time: A Novel
by Sebastian Barry
a beautifully written, intensely affecting read. (2/23/2023)
Old God’s Time is a stand-alone novel by award-winning Irish author, Sebastian Barry. Now nine months retired after forty years in the Gardai, Tom Kettle lives in the Annex Flat of Queenstown Castle on Dalkey Island. His existence is fairly solitary, frugal and uncomplicated. He sees his landlord, wealthy Mr Tomelty, weeding the garden, and sometimes catches sight of the boy who lives with his actress mother in the Turret Flat, or hears the cellist in the Drawing Room Flat shooting at cormorants from his balcony.

But on a storm-threatening February afternoon, Gardai Wilson and O’Casey come wanting the former Detective Sergeant’s input on their latest case, a difficult and sensitive matter: a priest whose previous molestation case had been quashed by the higher-ups, now to be prosecuted. What they want to know about stirs all sorts of memories Tom would rather not think about.

“Yes, he had grown to love this interesting inactivity and privacy – perhaps too much, he thought, and duty still lurked in him. The shaky imperative of forty years in the police, despite everything.”

Then a special request from his former CO, Detective Superintendent Jake Fleming brings him in to Harcourt Street. He’s asked to share what he recalls of the investigation that he and his meticulous colleague, Billy Drury carried out into a pair of priests in the early eighties. He relates how frustrating it was that the evidence provided by Scotland Yard was passed, on order of the Chief Commissioner, to the Archbishop to handle, with the expected non-result.

Mention is made of what they believe to be a spurious accusation by the priest now under charges, about the murder of his priestly colleague, not long after the detectives investigation. The memories that dredges up, Tom would also wish to avoid. Now a decade widowed, Tom is thrust into memories of meeting his wife, and the confessions, made to each other, of their awful childhoods in Catholic-run orphanages, revelations that bonded them.

It eventually becomes clear that Tom might not be the most reliable of narrators: some of what he relates is definitely imagined. As people, places and conversations trigger long-repressed memories, Tom’s thoughts gradually reveal the truth of events, of a crime unsolved, and the reasons this good man is now utterly alone in a tiny flat surrounded by books still in boxes. “A sort of blossoming sense of relief maybe, that the wretched Fates had done with him. Had noticed his great happiness long ago, and emblem by emblem taken it away from him.”

This story is very much a slow burn: Barry indulges in digressions and tangents that sometimes seem to be unrelated but all add to the rich tapestry of the lives he is describing. In a story that powerfully demonstrates the devastating effect, on so many lives, of the Church’s systemic cover-up of abuse by those entrusted with the care of children, and the power of the Catholic Church, even into high levels of the legal system, over Irish society, Barry gives Tom one final, dramatic act to save a child from that danger.

As always, Barry’s descriptive prose, be it applied to characters or setting, is exquisite: “O’Casey, a long thin person, with that severe leanness that probably made all his clothes look too big on him, to the despair of his wife, if he had one” and “The sunlight stuck its million pins into the pollocky sea, the whole expanse sparked, and sparkled, as if on the very verge of a true conflagration” and “he found he couldn’t tidy his frazzled mind” are just a few examples. This is a beautifully written, intensely affecting read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Faber & Faber
The Dictionary of Lost Words
by Pip Williams
brilliant debut (2/18/2023)
“Some words stretched so far back in time that our modern understanding of them was nothing more than an echo of the original, a distortion. I used to think it was the other way around, that the misshapen words of the past were clumsy drafts of what they would become; that the words formed on our tongues, in our time were true and complete. But everything that comes after that first utterance is a corruption.”

The Dictionary of Lost Words is the first novel by English-born Australian author, Pip Williams. Ever since she was a little girl, sitting under the sorting table at her Da’s feet, in the loftily-titled Scriptorium (the old iron shed lined with pigeonholes in the back garden of Sunnyside), Esme has loved words.

Under the direction of the editor, Dr James Murray, and with several other assistant lexicographers, her Da, Henry Nicoll was compiling a dictionary: the Oxford English Dictionary. The words, their meanings and their use in quotes came on slips of paper, to be sorted and debated (sometimes quite vociferously) and included or rejected.

“Whenever we came across a word I didn’t know, he would read the quotation it came with and help me work out what it meant. If I asked the right questions, he would try to find the book the quotation came from and read me more. It was like a treasure hunt, and sometimes I struck gold.”

The slips might be discarded, the word rejected if the definition was incomplete, or a duplicate. Esme hated the idea that words would be lost. And sometimes slips were dropped. Esme began to save these words. They would go into her Dictionary of Lost Words.

This unusual, inquisitive little girl wasn’t going to fit the middle-class wife-and-mother mould. At school: “If all the children at St Barnabas were a single word, most would be examples of the main definition. But I’d be some rarely used sense, one that’s spelled strangely. One that’s no use to anyone.” Esme was happiest when working in the Scriptorium.

Eventually, “I had a desk and would be given tasks… I would serve the words as they served the words.” She later came to realise that words would not be included for various reasons, but the one that most troubled her was that the word did not appear in print, even if it was commonly used.

“I’m sure that there are plenty of wonderful words flying around that have never been written on a slip of paper. I want to record them. … Because I think they are just as important as the words Dr Murray and Da collect. … I think sometimes the proper words mustn’t be quite right, and so people make new words up, or use old words differently.”

But it was when she was exposed to a charismatic suffragette that she began to notice how the process was skewed against women, the poor and the disenfranchised. And if motherless Esme wasn’t brave enough to take their type of militant action, her female mentor could suggest a less blatant way.

Williams populates her novel with a marvellous cast of characters: quirky, diligent, loyal, nasty, loving and wise, they’re all there, and emotional investment in Esme and her friends is difficult to resist. She deftly demonstrates the power of words: sometimes, just one will bring a lump to the throat, a tear to the eye.

Her extensive research is clear from every page: so much interesting information, both historical and philological, is woven into this wonderful tale. Especially fascinating to any lover of words is the process of making a new dictionary, illustrating the reason it takes so long. Laugh, cry and incidentally, learn a lot in this brilliant debut.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Affirm Press.
Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six
by Lisa Unger
A page turner (2/12/2023)
“What’s interesting is the families that pretend to be happy, that have a carefully constructed facade, just barely propped up by secrets and lies. One breath and it all falls down.”

Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six is the twentieth novel by award-winning, best-selling American author, Lisa Unger. In today’s high-pressure world, what could be better than a weekend getaway in a secluded cabin in the woods in Georgia? Hannah’s brother Mako is treating them all: Hannah and Bruce, Hannah’s best friend Cricket and her new man, Joshua, Mako and his wife Liza. What they find on the Friday afternoon, though, is more like a mansion: every luxury, including a hot tub, a chef and waitress.

Hannah hopes Bruce will take a break from work; Bruce hints at problems with her brother’s gaming software franchise; Mako seems intent on playing the magnanimous host; Liza is struck down with a migraine just when she would like to be connecting with Mako; Cricket thinks she’s falling in love; and their host, Bracken Jameison, is looking forward to some interesting viewing from his cameras.

No one is expecting that, within hours of their arrival, one of their number will be missing, with fresh blood indicating this is no benign walk-off-in-a-huff.

Unger sets a scene with so much potential for conflict: Hannah, anxious about leaving her toddler for the first time, and worried about Bruce’s uncharacteristic behaviour; Liza holding a guilty secret whose consequence might break her marriage; Cricket’s anticipation about her brand new relationship clashing with her ongoing attraction to her ex; a new beau on the scene who is an unknown quantity; an unsettling murder/suicide story about the cabin; a cabin host whose disregard of his guests’ privacy might be something other than titillation.

Then there’s the disgruntled PA bent on revenge. Add to that the intrigue generated by the apparently unrelated narrative, set twenty years earlier, of a boy named Henry whose origin and connection are a mystery. Also, for some, troubling DNA test results. And the edges of a hurricane that will, in all likelihood, cause a power outage. Lies and secrets, red herrings and distractions, all make for plenty of tension that keeps the reader guessing right up to the nail-biting climax. A page turner.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Legend Press.
The Kind Worth Killing
by Peter Swanson
brilliant crime thriller (1/5/2023)
The Kind Worth Killing is the first book in the Henry Kimball/Lily Kintner series by award-winning American author, Peter Swanson. On his way back to Boston from London, Ted Severson is still stewing about his wife’s recently-discovered infidelity. Flight delayed, he’s in the business-class lounge filling up on martinis when he shares his anger with a stranger. After all, he won’t see this woman again after today.

But the discussion is interesting: he admits to Lily that he’d like to kill Miranda, and she agrees that Miranda deserves to die. And she’s prepared to help him do it. Eventually, he’s satisfied that she’s not a cop wearing a wire, that she’s serious and genuine.

She tells him “The way to commit murder and not get caught is to hide the body so well that no one ill ever find it. If there was never a murder, then there can’t be a murderer. But there are many ways to hide a body. You can leave a body out in the open but make it look like the opposite of what actually happened.” Lily Kintner would know: she has first-hand experience.

The first half of the story is told through narratives alternating between Ted and Lily: Ted’s in the present day, while Lily’s begins when she was thirteen, from which it soon becomes quite clear what her attitude is to murder.

Thereafter, the first of several excellent twists (pre-book a chiro appointment?) precludes revealing further details without spoilers. Other characters take up the tale, one of those being Boston PD Detective Henry Kimball. When he eventually talks to Lily, he’s sure that she’s lying about something, and he’s unwilling to let it go.

Henry amuses himself (and the reader) writing dirty little limericks about those involved in the cases he’s investigating, something that turns out to be his undoing. And the ending? Well, who knows quite what is going to happen there. Readers who enjoy this brilliant crime thriller will be very pleased to learn there’s a sequel, The Kind Worth Saving.
Less Is Lost: Arthur Less Book #2
by Andrew Sean Greer
entertaining and enjoyable (12/15/2022)
Less Is Lost is the sequel to Pulitzer-winning novel, Less. It’s when Less and Freddy have been together nine months, our favourite Minor American Novelist has completed his first novel and is on his way to give a lecture when two calls derail his day: his agent has lined up a paying gig he doesn’t want to take; and a long-time rival for certain affections brings sad news. The sad news includes a funeral, and notification of a huge debt that Less naively never anticipated. Homelessness is on the horizon.

During all this, Freddy is in Maine, on a course, and receiving detailed daily calls that allow him to chronicle for the reader this upheaval in his partner’s (and his) life. Less decides to throw himself into the gigs he flatly rejected earlier, to cover the debt and save his beloved Shack on the Vulcan Steps: interview and profile sci-fi author, H.H.H. Mandern; part of a jury for a literary prize; a personal appearance with the theatre troupe performing one of his short stories, and anything else that comes up.

Mandern, however, throws a wrinkle into his ambitious plans, and Less finds he has inexplicably agreed to drive the author from Pams Springs to Santa Fe in an antique converted live-in van called Rosina, accompanied by a sleek black pug called Dolly. It’s not until they are well underway that Mandern reveals their mission.

Even more surprised is he to be driving Rosina further across the country, with Dolly as his faithful companion, and the daunting prospect of reconnecting with someone from his past looming. Mandern tells him: “You may not know it, Arthur Less, but you’re full of adventure. You’re a reckless man.”

Greer’s protagonist might remind some readers of those that David Nicholls creates: inept, accident-prone, awkward, sometimes graceless, and his ineptitude is often a source of humour: his woeful German language skills, his rogue moustache razor, blueberries that aren’t, an unintentional flood, a donkey ride, becoming an RVer, surviving a hurricane.

Indeed, Less bumbles his way through encounters with communes, Navajo guides, beertenders, propositioning campers, and his alter-ego. He regularly makes a fool of himself, yet things seem to fall into place for him somehow. Freddy expands quite a bit on what the reader already knows about him, Less and Robert Brownburn, making it hard not to fall even harder for this middle-aged gay white novelist. Greer’s plot, characters and prose are entertaining and enjoyable and more of this cast will be most welcome.
Now Is Not the Time to Panic: A Novel
by Kevin Wilson
a marvellous coming-of-age tal (12/14/2022)
“I had wanted people to care, to notice, but I hadn’t wanted them to put their own hands all over it, to try to claim it. But how do you stop something like that? You just tried to make more of it so you didn’t lose your claim to what was inside of you.”

Now Is Not The Time To Panic is the fourth novel by award-winning American author, Kevin Wilson. It’s a phone call from a stranger that casts Frances Budge’s mind back twenty years. Mazzy Brower is an art critic, writing about the Coalfield Panic of 1996, and she’s convinced that Frankie Budge started it. She’d be right, but does Frances want to talk about it?

Back during the summer vacation of ‘96, Frankie was sixteen, her mom was working, her triplet brothers flipping burgers at fast-food places, and her dad long gone, in Milwaukee with a new family. She was bored and a bit lonely. And so was Zeke, new in town from Memphis, his mom catatonic with grief over her cheating husband.

An aspiring novelist (Frankie), an aspiring artist (Zeke), a stolen photocopier, lots of paper and toner, and an idea: what could go wrong?

Their poster had an enigmatic slogan (The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us) surrounded by some strange illustrations. They made copies, lots of copies, and put them up around town. And they made a solemn vow to tell no-one that they were the ones who made it.

The reaction initially pleased them, but the analysis of the meaning, that was a bit upsetting: “I kind of wanted other people to not understand it in ways that they assumed a really cool artist had made it. I didn’t want them to not understand it in a way that they think we’re devil worshippers who abduct kids.”

And then, in that pre-internet-as-we-know-it-now world, it went viral. It spawned copy-cats and a weird and dangerous dad militia, The Poster Posse. Violence, lives lost, none of that was what they wanted. But at sixteen, they too naïve to realise that once you release something into the world, you lose all control over it.

They never did tell anyone, so how does Mazzy Brower know? And if she tells the world, then what?

Wilson paints a vivid picture of how a single piece of American pop culture, a culture-altering poster, can expand into a phenomenon and cause mass hysteria. His characters are appealing for all their very realistic flaws; some of their seemingly inexplicable choices can be attributed to their tender ages but they can’t fail to elicit the reader’s empathy. Funny and thought-provoking, this is a marvellous coming-of-age tale.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Text Publishing.
The Marriage Portrait: A novel
by Maggie O'Farrell
Maggie O’Farrell never disappoints. (12/3/2022)
“Vitelli looked at Lucrezia for a long moment. His eyes travelled from her hair, divided down the centre, to her temples, to her eyes, cheeks, neck, arms, hands. Lucrezia quailed, trembling. She felt like a floor being swept by a brush, again and again.”

The Marriage Portrait is the ninth novel by award-winning, best-selling British author, Maggie O’Farrell. From the moment that Lucretia di Cosimo de’ Medici learns she is to be given to Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara in marriage, she is afraid. The twelve-year-old already senses there will be danger in this contract. Yet, she is indeed married to him at fifteen and dead, less than a year later.

In a dual time-line narrative, O’Farrell details the day that Alfonso takes his young bride away from her servants, her women in the castello at Ferrara, to an isolated fortezza near Bondeno; and describes Lucrezia’s life in the decade and a half that precedes it. With exquisitely beautiful descriptive prose, she expands the scant known historical record into an enthralling tale rich in interesting minutiae.

Lucretia is a fascinating protagonist: her mother Eleanora blames her own distraction at the time of conception for the restlessness and intractability of her fifth child. Lucretia is intelligent and aware, a talented artist, but lacks close connection to her parents and siblings, feeling more love from her wet nurse and her mother’s nurse, Sofia, than her family.

“She recalled every word of the story the tutor told them last week – it was the way her mind worked. Words pressed themselves into her memory, like a shoe sole into soft mud, which would dry and solidify, the shoe print preserved forever.”

She pleads not to be wed to Alfonso, to have to leave Florence and live far away in Ferrara, but such is the mindset of the Grand Duke of Tuscany: children are for marrying off, matches necessary to form strong alliances; of course the wedding will go ahead.

The first weeks of her marriage are spent in the delizia near Veghiera, learning her imperious husband’s mercurial moods and understanding that this marriage will be nothing like the loving relationship her parents still enjoy. Her only ally is her maid-servant, Emilia, the daughter of her wet nurse.

When she can’t paint, any boredom or unpleasantness, she endures through dissociation. A disguise allows her to explore: “A maid in a brown dress might as well be a table or a sconce on the wall. She has access suddenly to the private hidden life of the castello, the wrong side of its embroidery, with all the knots and weave and secrets on display.”

Finally in Ferrara, while Alfonso is ever-busy with matters of state, Lucrezia is swept into the company of his sisters: Elisabetta, she takes to immediately; Nunciata, not at all. Alfonso engages an artist, assisted by apprentices, to paint Lucrezia’s marriage portrait.

O’Farrell’s extensive research is apparent on every page, but never is this a dreary tome full of dry historical facts; rather, the reader is gripped by the progress towards Lucrezia’s inevitable fate and the breathtaking final chapter.

And the prose! It’s hard to limit the quotes: “The tigress didn’t so much pace as pour herself, as if her very essence was molten, simmering, like the ooze from a volcano. It was hard to distinguish the bars of the cage from the dark, repeating stripes on the creature’s fur. The animal was orange, burnished gold, fire made flesh; she was power and anger, she was vicious and exquisite; she carried on her body the barred marks of a prison, as if she had been branded for exactly this, as if captivity had been her destiny all along.”

Also “The sentence seems to slide from her mouth and gather like smoke in the air between them” and “Sleep will not come for her; it is a steed she cannot catch or harness; it throws her off, it takes flight if she comes near, it refuses her entreaties” are examples. Maggie O’Farrell never disappoints.
The Bullet That Missed: Thursday Murder Club Mysteries #3
by Richard Osman
Very entertaining! (10/30/2022)
The Bullet That Missed is the third book in the Thursday Murder Club series by British TV presenter, producer, director, and novelist, Richard Osman. Back in 2013, TV journalist Bethany Waites was about to crack wide open a massive case of VAT fraud when her car went off Shakespeare Cliff. Her body was never found. This is the cold case that Joyce Meadowcroft has selected for Coopers Chase’s Thursday Murder Club to next examine.

It turns out that the pretext under which they invite Bethany’s colleague, the very well-known journalist/newsreader Mike Waghorn to join them, is totally unnecessary: Mike is very forthcoming, happy to share any skerrick of information he has with these four elderly sleuths. Elizabeth Best, though, is a little distracted by a series of vaguely threatening text messages.

It’s after Ibrahim visits a prison to ask an inmate for help that the object of their interest, a woman jailed for the VAT fraud, is murdered. Joyce enlists her daughter to look over the financials, giving the TMC a bit of direction for their investigation. Eventually, in the interests of gaining information, Ron shares a pleasant afternoon of snooker with a crook and a former KGB colonel.

Elizabeth and Stephen are abducted, treated civilly and released; Ron endures a massage; Elizabeth and Joyce attend the taping of a TV game show and Elizabeth does a bit of acting; it becomes clear that Ibrahim’s talent is definitely not cracking poetic code, although he’s quite good at anagrams; DC Donna De Freitas becomes a TV star.

Joyce dabbles in cryptocurrency; Ron’s new lady is called on to use her talents on a body in a freshly-dug grave; Stephen’s observational skills make a significant contribution; a money-launderer chooses the wrong mug of tea; Joyce tries her hand at writing crime fiction, though it seems she’s better, in this instance, at solving real-life crime.

Osman lays a few interesting trails for the reader and then drags some red herrings across them to keep everyone guessing right up to the reveal. And then adds a few more excellent twists just when you thought you had it all straight. All the regulars appear and Ron’s grandson Kendrick even makes a quick but important appearance.

By the final pages there’s a significant body count that could have been higher had a certain money launderer got his way. And also, had he not. Also, by the end of this instalment, quite a few rather delightful pairings have formed. As before, there’s plenty of humour, some of it quite black, as well as a lump-in-the-throat moment. More of this cast is most definitely welcome.
Demon Copperhead: A Novel
by Barbara Kingsolver
Moving and thought-provoking: a wonderful read. (10/27/2022)
Demon Copperhead is the ninth novel by award-winning best-selling American author, Barbara Kingsolver. It’s in August of his eleventh year that life falls apart for Damon Fields. Despite his inauspicious beginning and life in a double-wide trailer with his single mother, his first ten years are happy ones.

With strong Melungeon features, flame red hair, green eyes and darker skin, inherited from a father who died before he was born, Damon soon acquires the name Copperhead, Demon being the natural warp of his given name. A good student with a talent for drawing, he excels at school and enjoys spending his free time with his best friend, Maggot, grandson of his mother’s landlady, Nance Peggot.

The catalyst for change seems to be the arrival into their lives of Murrell Stone, known as Stoner, whom Damon quickly assesses as bad news. That he is a bully, expert in gaslighting, is soon obvious: “Mom took up with a guy that believed in educating with his fists, that bullied and brainwashed her till the day she died.”

By the time he arrives in his father’s hometown in Tennessee, the now-eleven-year-old has suffered the physical and psychological abuse of his new step-father, lost his pregnant mother, been fostered out into two differently neglectful homes, done hard physical labour, worked an illegal job, missed school to harvest tobacco, been half-starved, and robbed.

From there, the story follows Demon’s rollercoaster fortunes in life: patronage from his paternal grandmother, a football coach and an art teacher; recognition of his talents and abilities; injury and drug addiction; the deterioration and loss of people close to him. He proves to be resilient, and eventually learns that not all the people he chooses end up being true friends.

With her reinvented David Copperfield set in modern-day Appalachia, Kingsolver illustrates the potent impact on young lives of the poor choices that people themselves make, or are made by those charged with their care, often when there is, realistically, no choice at all.

When those people in his life who have good intentions but no means are unable to step up, her protagonist ends up at the mercy of people rorting the welfare system for their own gain or merely their survival, under the supposed care of poorly-paid and under-resourced people stuck in a poorly funded and disorganised system. All of this will feel wholly realistic to those with experience of said system.

Shown, too, is the Appalachian(?) mindset perpetuated by some teachers at less well-off schools that their students lack the intelligence to compete academically with richer schools. This can result is students believing, often to their detriment, injury-wise, that sport or unskilled labour is their only option. Credibly presented is the casually indiscriminate use of prescribed narcotics in teens with its ensuing downward spiral into addiction, and also the power of the intelligent cartoon.

Damon’s feels like an authentic voice which gives the story added credibility. Kingsolver gives her young protagonist insight: “A mean side to people comes out at such times, where their only concern is what did the misfortunate person do to put themselves in their sorry fix. They’re building a wall to keep out the bad luck.”

And makes him perceptive: “A dead parent is a tricky kind of ghost. If you can make it into more like a doll, putting it in the real house and clothes and such that they had, it helps you to picture them as a person instead of just a person-shaped hole in the air. Which helps you feel less like a person-shaped invisible kid.”

And, of course, the reader can rely on Kingsolver for gorgeous descriptive prose: “I found a good rock and watched the sun melt into the Cumberlands. Layers of orange like a buttermilk pie cooling on the horizon. Clouds scooting past, throwing spots of light and dark over the mountainheads. The light looked drinkable. It poured on a mountain so I saw the curve of every treetop edged in gold, like the scales of a fish. Then poured off, easing them back into shadow.”

Many of Dickens’ characters are easily identifiable by their slightly altered names and roles; several are sterling characters, although the one with that name is the polar opposite. Those familiar with it will find elements of the story somewhat reminiscent of AB Facey’s memoir A Fortunate Life. Included is a bonus essay revealing Kingsolver’s inspiration for this tale. Moving and thought-provoking: a wonderful read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Faber & Faber.
by Andrew Sean Greer
entertaining and enjoyable (9/3/2022)
Less is the first novel in the Less series by award-winning best-selling American author, Andrew Sean Greer. Quickly approaching fifty, Arthur Less is dismayed to be invited to the wedding of a former lover. Attending is out of the question: Arthur Less devises a “cats cradle of junkets” that will ensure he is out of the country and very busy while Freddy Pelu marries Tom Dennis in Sonoma, CA.

First on his itinerary is New York City, interviewing an author of a sci-fi series with a cult following. This is preceded by a lunch with his agent, the outcome of which is a shock: his new novel will need a rewrite if it is to attract a publisher.

From there, Mexico City (an interview about his famous lover, poet Robert Brownburn), Turin (nominated for a book award), Berlin (teaching a five-week course), a short, unplanned stop-over in Paris (catch up with a friend), Morocco (to celebrate the birthday of a friend of a friend, and his own), India (a writing retreat, to fix his novel?), and Japan (to review some restaurant meals).

But at each destination, and often, during his travels, Arthur is overwhelmed by reminiscences, reveries, flashbacks, courtesy of those he meets, old friends and new acquaintances, and of little incidents that occur. Much as he would rather not, he recalls not just past lovers, but those he truly loved (and perhaps still does?), and fails to scrub Freddy from his mind and heart.

It’s on his fiftieth birthday that he is blessed with an epiphany about his apparently unwanted novel, and it’s a delightful irony that it just about describes what Greer has written: “What if it isn’t a poignant, wistful novel at all? What if it isn’t the story of a sad middle-aged man on a tour of his hometown, remembering the past and fearing the future; a peripateticism of humiliation and regret; the erosion of a single male soul? What if it isn’t even sad?”

Greer’s protagonist might remind some readers of those that David Nicholls creates: inept, accident-prone, awkward, subject to “those writerly humiliations planned by the universe to suck at the bones of minor artists like him”, whose “brain sits before its cash register again, charging him for old shames as if he has not paid before”.

And towards the end, his friend/rival tells him “You are the most absurd person I’ve ever met. You’ve bumbled through every moment and been a fool; you’ve misunderstood and misspoken and tripped over absolutely everything and everyone in your path, and you’ve won. And you don’t even realize it.”

The story is related by an unnamed narrator whose identity gradually becomes clear. Greer’s plot, characters and prose are entertaining and enjoyable, and it’s no surprise that this novel was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Fans will be pleased to know they can look forward to a sequel, Less Is Lost.
Shrines of Gaiety: A Novel
by Kate Atkinson
Superlative historical fiction. (9/2/2022)
“The war was history, and history didn’t interest Freda, she’d had no part in it. She was vibrant with the present and hungry for the future.”

Shrines Of Gaiety is the fifth stand-alone novel by award-winning, best-selling British author Kate Atkinson. It’s in the late spring of 1926 that the notorious Nellie Coker is released from Holloway prison, having served six months for a liquor licencing offence. Clearly, her paid policeman, DI Arthur Maddox, has fallen down on the job. Probably intentionally, Nellie thinks, and planning to take over her business as his own.

Her five nightclubs have been operating under the management of her adult children, but her stint in jail has diminished her. Nellie has her finger firmly on the pulse, though: she realises that Maddox isn’t the only threat she faces, and she won’t go down without a fight.

Gwendolen Kelling has come from York to look for two fourteen-year-old runaway girls. Freda Murgatroyd, half-sister of Gwendolen’s friend, Cissy has dragged her best friend Florence Ingram to London, promising a singing and dancing career on the stage. The reality isn’t as sparkly as they had hoped, but Freda is determined. She may not be entirely street-smart, but she’s far from the naiveté Florence evinces.

Having lost two brothers in the war, a father to illness, and then cared for her demanding, dying mother, Gwendolen quits her job at the library and seeks out DCI John Frobisher at Bow Street Police Station, assured that he is the man to help her find the girls. Frobisher is, indeed, concerned about the number of girls going missing in London over the last few months, believing that Nellie Coker’s clubs are swallowing them up.

Frobisher is on secondment from Scotland Yard, at Bow Street to root out the corruption that is rife. He is convinced that Maddox is the main actor, but the man remains frustratingly absent from duty, and Frobisher is unsure which of the men at Bow Street can be trusted: who knows if they are in league with Maddox? The ones that aren’t lazy or stupid, that is.

Frobisher quickly decides that there is clearly more to this librarian than meets the eye, and Miss Kelling’s timely arrival somehow has him sending a civilian undercover into Nellie’s citadel club, The Amethyst. She might spot her runaways there; she might just see something else useful…

Once again, Atkinson has written a brilliant story with a wholly believable plot that twists and surprises. In a tale that includes murder, blackmail, theft, corruption, and a prostitution racket, there is also plenty of dark humour, some delicious irony, a few farcical near-misses, and dialogue with many amusing mental asides. Loyalty, trust and a perceived lack thereof, also feature.

As well as main characters of surprising depth, Atkinson gives the reader a marvellously entertaining support cast: a war veteran who rescues damsels in distress, a somewhat precocious, perceptive pre-teen who fends well for herself, an aspiring novelist inclined to melodrama, a dissolute gossip columnist, and a jewel thief bent on revenge.

She gives them insightful observations: “Men talked in order to convey information or to ruminate on cricket scores and campaign statistics. Women, on the other hand, talked in an effort to understand the foibles of human behaviour. If men were to ‘gossip’, the world might be a better place. There would certainly be fewer wars”

Her extensive research into the era is apparent on every page, and as always, she is expert at setting a scene rich in detail with succinct descriptive prose: “The Cokers all had very eloquent eyebrows. They could conduct entire conversations with them, without saying a word” and “Sometimes he thought he could feel the weight of history in London pressing down on the top of his head” and “Much as he disliked being chained to his desk – Frobisher bound, his liver pecked at by bureaucracy – this pointless trailing around was time-wasting” are examples. Superlative historical fiction.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Random House UK Transworld
Dark Horse: Orphan X #7
by Gregg Hurwitz
Entertaining action drama. (8/2/2022)
Dark Horse is the seventh book in the Orphan X series by best-selling American author, Gregg Hurwitz. Evan Smoak is busy restoring his refuge on the twenty-first floor of the Castle Heights Residential Tower to its former pristine state when he gets a call for the NOWHERE MAN. Aragon Urrea’s daughter has been taken from their South Texas town by a Mexican drug cartel.

When he eventually decides that he can work on this man’s behalf, if certain strict conditions are met, Joey’s online skills give him an entry into the much-feared Leon Cartel, and his talent for bluff gets him in close to El Moreno, to the chagrin of the man’s lieutenants. When he eventually connects with Anjelina Urrea, there’s a wrinkle in the situation that need a massive alteration of his plans.

In this instalment, Evan spends a good bit of time in a sewer, watches an ultrasound, is faced with numerous scenes that really challenge his control over his OCD, and is distracted from his main mission by a medical emergency involving his ongoing love interest.

A visit to Evan’s personal arms dealer, Tommy Stojack is required for some very fancy gear and, as well as the usual firearms, knives, fists and feet, weapons wielded include a pencil, a scalpel, a defibrillator, a crowbar, a fully grown lion, and a Mont Blanc fountain pen. Readers should be prepared for a lot of violence, some of it especially cruel, some truly nasty characters, and a very high body count.

Joey Morales is a breath of fresh air and the perfect foil for serious Evan: every page that features Joey is pure entertainment. Her assistance, in his absence, with refurbishing Evan’s recently-destroyed condo becomes a bone of contention, though. His Castle Heights neighbours always add humour and tension relief. As usual with this series, it’s best to don your disbelief suspenders from page one and just enjoy the ride. Entertaining action drama.
The It Girl
by Ruth Ware
A gripping thriller. (7/29/2022)
The It Girl is the seventh novel by best-selling British author, Ruth Ware. When Hannah Jones arrives at Pelham College in October 2011 to begin her three years at Oxford, the last thing she expects is to be part of a group of six funny, clever students, but sharing a suite with intimidatingly beautiful and conspicuously wealthy April Clarke-Cliveden turns out to confer automatic acceptance.

“Now, as she stood there, her head spinning a little from the champagne she had drunk, she had the strangest feeling— almost as if she were surveying herself from a distance, marveling at the fact that she— Hannah Jones—had found herself surrounded by these exotic, clever, glamorous creatures.”

About the only fly in the ointment is that the guy who renders her weak at the knees, Will de Chastaigne, hooks up with April. None of them could ever have predicted that, less than a year later, April would be strangled to death. And Hannah would find her body.

Ten years on, Hannah and Will are expecting their first baby. Will is working crazy hours, trying to make full partner: they’re gong to need the income when Hannah has to give up her bookshop job. The nightmares and PTSD have finally decreased to manageable levels. Hannah has always felt guilty, both for surviving when April didn’t, and living the life April should have been living, with the husband she should have had, and now the baby she could have had.

Then, the news that the man convicted of April’s murder on Hannah’s evidence has died in prison. John Neville was absolutely resolute from the trial onward that he had nothing to do with her death and mounted several unsuccessful appeals. Will his death finally put an end to the media circus, the emails and calls that surround every appeal?

It seems that journalist Geraint Williams wants to look further into claims that the police and the court got it wrong, and his words have Hannah wondering, as do remarks made about the whole awful incident by others in that close group who re-establish contact: did she get it wrong? Did she put an innocent man into prison?

Hannah recalls that while brilliant, luminously beautiful April could be charming, beguiling and kind, she also had a malicious streak, revelling in cruel pranks, and what Hannah now learns from those friends has her guessing and second-guessing about who might have had motive and opportunity, other than John Neville.

Ware has crafted a dual-timeline mystery that is hard to put down: plenty of clues and red herrings and a brilliant twist to distract the reader in the lead-up to a nail-biting climax. It does lose half a star for a poorly-researched factual error that is integral to the resolution, but the Oxford scenes cannot fail to strike a chord with anyone who has lived in the residential college of a long-established university. A gripping thriller.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Simon & Schuster Australia.
Two Nights in Lisbon: A Novel
by Chris Pavone
definitely a page-turner (5/9/2022)
Two Nights In Lisbon is the fifth novel by best-selling American author, Chris Pavone. When Ariel Pryce wakes up alone in a Lisbon hotel on a July Monday morning, she expects to find her (ten years younger) husband of three months in the dining room having breakfast. She doesn’t. John Wright hasn’t been seen by the staff; everything but his phone is still there; the phone goes to voicemail.

When Ariel takes her concern to the local police, they are almost dismissive: he hasn’t been gone long enough for it to be a concern. But they do find her interesting enough to tail. From the smirks the smarmy fellow at the US Embassy gives her it’s clear he is equally indifferent, although he does take some intriguing information about the couple to the CIA Chief of Station down the corridor. An American journalist hanging around the embassy offers help, which Ariel politely declines. No sign of John at the hospitals she contacts.

The hotel’s CCTV shows him leaving early in the morning, not dressed for the client business meetings he has scheduled, and maybe getting into a car. The male cop is still sceptical: Ariel’s ignorance of her husband’s clients doesn’t help. But his female colleague is a little more willing to make an effort. What happens next changes the complexion of his absence, but much more can’t be said without spoilers.

The opening chapters are intriguing enough to draw the reader in, but it’s not until things hot up that Ariel’s steel is revealed. And how! With flashbacks to her recent past, and a bit of action with a tail, Ariel demonstrates just how self-sufficient she can be. And it’s those scenes where she is fending for herself that provide plenty of dark humour.

It’s soon clear that neither Ariel nor John is quite who they seem; nor do all those claiming to want to help find John have entirely benign intentions, but most of them definitely want to know what is behind Ariel’s apparent power over a certain influential figure.

The main narrative is carried by Ariel, but many of the minor characters contribute, and the narrative often switches between them, relying only on context to denote whose perspective is being given. Rather than adding confusion, this seems to give the story an immediacy that keeps the reader engrossed.

While there are hints at espionage and the influence of foreign powers, the apparent immunity to prosecution of privileged white males who indulges in sexual harassment of the worst kind (and who closely resembles a certain president), is central to the story.

Very little suspension of disbelief is required in this tightly plotted story which has plenty of red herrings and enough twists to possibly necessitate a chiropractic consult. Pavone’s latest is definitely a page-turner.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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