Short takes: Crime and thriller books reviewed
Don Winslow (HarperCollins $35)
Winslow continues his late career run with this collection of five novellas and a short story. The project was inspired by Stephen King's Different Seasons which was made up of short novels that were later made into the films Shawshank Redemption, Stand by Me and Apt Pupil. The first story Broken reads like an outtake from 2017's The Force - a dark macho revenge story of a cop gone rogue set in New Orleans. The collection gets better as it goes on with the jewel heist narrative of Crime 101 and a wry, funny story dedicated to Elmore Leonard, which begins when a none-too-bright criminal gets rid of a gun in the chimpanzee enclosure of The San Diego zoo. While never less than entertaining, this is an uneven collection that feels like a mop up of stories Winslow had on his hard drive.
James Sallis (No Exit Press $24)
Best known as the author of Drive - adapted by director Nicolas Winding Refn in 2011 - Sallis has long been one of the most intriguing and underrated writers of noir fiction. His narrative is discursive; his characters flawed but exacting observers. "I begin a novel as though I see movement over in the corner of the room," he has said. "But when I look that way, there's nothing. As I write on into the story I start to hear... the breathing gets louder". The character he's brought so vividly to life here is one Sarah Jane Pullman. Much of the first half of the book is a first-person account of her hard fought past which involved an itinerant life of military service, abusive men and petty crime, but when she becomes a sheriff something changes in her. As one character says "... you get down toward the end and you hope your life... had some shape to it... wasn't some glob of stuff slapped on a plate."
A brief, but remarkable, novel that will linger in the memory.
Peter Heller (Hachette $25)
Wynn and Jack, two college friends, leave for a much anticipated kayaking trip down the Maskwa River in northern Canada - both are skilled in the wilderness which they love. Their differences balance them - Wynn is an optimist when it comes to human nature, Jack less forgiving, a trait that Heller foreshadows through flashbacks. There's also a fire a few miles away that they figure they can outrun.
Heller is a lover of the wilderness and adventure - and there's fantastic descriptions of rivers and landscape here (perhaps a few too many). If Jack and Wynn seem too good to be true - both are tough outdoorsmen who can quote poetry at each other - the buddy-fest is soon shattered by the arrival of a dishevelled man who claims his wife is missing. Despite the danger, Jack and Wynn head back to look for her and this is when the book - and fire - kicks into gear. Heller combines crime, nature and adventure into a compelling thriller. My only quibble is the almost cursory ending; still, this tragic ride down the river is highly recommended.
No Bad Deed
Heather Chavez (Headline $35)
First time author Chavez turns in a breathless domestic thriller that begins when veterinarian Cassie sees a woman being attacked and stops to help. While Cassie foils the attack, the man escapes in her car and now has all her contact details. There's also the strange words he says to her, "Your life is already f**ked up. You just don't know it yet." It turns out he wasn't exaggerating as Cassie's life is soon turned upside down. Firstly her husband disappears. Are the two events connected or was this something she should have seen coming? It's an intriguing opening and Chavez puts Cassie through her paces in a book that starts fast and goes supersonic. That's also its weakness, with plot and action coming at the expense of character and a finale that stretches credibility but you'll stay up all night to get there.
By Sarah Vaughan (Simon and Schuster, $35)
Reviewed by Helen van Berkel
Anyone who is a mother will know the utter heart-thumping terror of seeing her child injured. It's a physical blow to the solar plexus, a combination of shock and fear for the child, coupled with gut-churning guilt and self-blame over real or imagined negligence.
That's the journey that Sarah Vaughan takes us on. Jess arrives in A&E with her fractious 10-month-old daughter Betsey. Jess' friend and fellow mother Liz is the pediatrician who examines Betsey, and she is shocked to discover the little girl has a fractured skull. Liz struggles to reconcile the child's injury with her knowledge of Jess, and finds she comes up wanting in terms of the support she herself could have offered.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
Most of the story is told from the point of view of the two women, touching on their relationships with their own mothers as suspicion strains their friendship. The pair met at ante-natal classes and we are taken on a journey into their growth as mothers as well as their development as women. Little Disasters is essentially about unvarnished motherhood. It's about the sheer slog it can be to look after an infant – not to mention demanding older children - the day after day struggle that seems to have no end. It takes a toll on relationships, friendships and, most of all, on the mother herself.
But this isn't just a book for mothers, or even just for women. No role is more judged than that of mother and Vaughan unpicks how wrong those judgments can be. She shows how harmful the human tendency to judge before offering empathy can be for a person who is in genuine need of a little help. The subject matter means it is not necessarily a pleasant read but it is a good read, a satisfyingly challenging story that is also recognisable and important. The historical look at the two women's own childhoods was, in places, distracting and perhaps an unnecessary thread in a story that stands tall on its own, but it also brought in a dimension of redemption and reconciliation. This being a novel, you know that there is more to the story than the surface narrative but it seemed to me that the final twist in the tail was unnecessary. The reaction of those involved was unbelievable and it was a distraction to an important story.
A THEATRE FOR DREAMERS
by Polly Samson (Bloomsbury, $33)
Reviewed by Ruth Spencer
The cubist shadows of whitewashed buildings draw brilliant and beautiful bohemians to the paradise of Hydra in 1960. The theatre of the title is the amphitheatre of stacked houses around the harbour, a blank-faced audience for artists arriving on the ferry with dreams of fame. Erica, 18, a rain-soaked refugee from dreary England stumbles into the Greek sunlight and the summer of her coming of age.
Lush, evocative language conveys the succulence of every orange. It also conveys the rather lurid dramas of Hydra's artists, including real-life Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnson. They take fictional Erica under their wing, the better for her to witness their turbulent relationship and artistic torments. Leonard Cohen and his muse Marianne dance their pas de deux (and sometimes trois or quartre) for Erica through the stone streets. Using Cohen as a way into the story feels like capitalising on his mythology; such a well-researched book couldn't be accused of unseemly haste, but readers may feel a degree of discomfort at the fictionalising of a recently departed icon. Cohen is not the central figure however, remaining an enigmatic part of enchanted Hydra.
There's a great deal of sensual pleasure to be had reading this heady vision of bohemian coolness and tropical abundance, but what holds you is that the intoxicating theatre for dreamers is as unreal as a play. The artists unconsciously mock the backbreaking poverty of the native Greeks, playing at peasantry with candles and bucket toilets. The younger artists founder, distracted by wine, sex and sun. The older cohort, inspiration flown, assuage their ennui with retsina and cruelty.
But the greatest struggle, in this window in time between emancipation and the actual Pill, is for the women. Cast as muses, then graduating to mothers and drudges – if they're lucky – their ambitions are sidelined in service of male genius. It's a problem Erica can perceive, and see its culmination in Charmian Clift's disintegrating life, but can't avoid. In a novel that plays with romantic nostalgia around the 60s and the sun-soaked beauty of an island captured in its best moment, paradise proves difficult to inhabit even when you live there.