The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, by Hannah Tinti



I expect this book to be one of my favourite of the year.  It’s a great, big, brutal, riveting read.

Samuel Hawley has a daughter, Loo – a fierce, independent teenager.

He also has a past – and 12 bullet holes on his body that tell a story of brutality and danger.

After years of wandering, he’s back in his late wife’s home town, a small fishing town in Massachusetts, trying to build a life.

Loo is an outsider at school, but she learns to create some space. And she also makes a connection with a boy – a friendship that absolutely no one approves of.

The story switches between present day and the past, one by one detailing the bullets that have scarred Hawley’s body.

It becomes clear that the past is about to catch up with Hawley, and he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to protect Loo from the consequences.

This is a big, cinematic, violent story – one that you could imagine the Coen Brothers or turning into a great film.

It also has that mythic resonance, which is not surprising given it is loosely based on the Greek tale of the Labours of Hercules, a reference that’s interesting but not intrusive for the reader, or necessary to know.

Hannah Tinti’s 2008 hit The Good Thief was a classic example of word-of-mouth success. It’s been a long wait for her fans, but worth it. Brilliant.

This book was published in March 2017

Insomniac City, by Bill Hayes


This was a beautiful book – for the writing, the observations, the people and the photographs. Quite short, and very sweet.

Memoirs, not surprisingly, are usually all about the writer, but this moving book turns the tables.

Insomniac City is written largely as an observer – someone who pays close attention and notices and loves.

His first subject is the insomniac city itself – New York. Hayes arrives there after the death of his lover, needing a new start.

The second subject is the man he falls in love with when he moves to that city, the acclaimed neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, perhaps best known for Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

Hayes and Sacks’s relationship begins almost accidentally. Sacks writes to Hayes, complimenting him on one of his books. When Hayes responds, they get into the habit of writing – Hayes from San Francisco and Sacks from New York.

When they meet, they discover they have more in common than both being insomniacs, and a late-blossoming love affair begins.

The portrait of the man that emerges is every bit the sweet genius any reader of Sacks’s books would recognize.  It’s a gentle, loving and deeply intimate view of a remarkable man.

Until they met, Sacks had mostly hidden his homosexuality and been celibate for decades.

The delight he takes in the relationship is almost heartbreaking, given how few years they have together before Sacks dies of cancer in 2015.

The book is a collection of Hayes’s diary entries, short essays, poems and photographs, sometimes focused on “O”, and sometimes on New York – on the people he meets on the streets and the subway, and photographs, and scenes that touch him.

This book was published in February 2017. The review appeared in the Herald Sun Weekend magazine. 

Romeo’s Gun, by David Owen


David Owen has been writing excellent fiction for many years, but with shame I say this is the first in his Pufferfish series that I’ve read. It deserves every success. 

The Tasmanian Police Force’s Detective Inspector Franz Heineken, aka Pufferfish, is as prickly and full of attitude as the creature he’s named after.  Which is no bad thing for a “seasoned Tasmanian rozzer”.

His small team is called in when the dashing and outrageously good looking sommelier Romeo Ferrari goes missing from his home, leaving behind bloody drag marks across the kitchen floor.

They have a horrified witness who is certain she saw a dead body on the rug, but by the time the police can get there, it’s gone.

As Pufferfish starts to investigate, the fingers start pointing in some very murky directions, including right into the heart of a major drugs operation in Victoria.

In the background, a killer strikes again, and it is a case that Heineken cannot ignore, even when it becomes professionally dangerous.

This is the seventh Pufferfish novel from Owen, an adopted Australian who now lives and works in Hobart.

The writing is funny and sharp, and loaded with attitude and local colour. The names, as might already be obvious, are often outlandish – it’s a good indicator of the fun Owen has with his writing.

For those lucky crime fans who will discover him for the first time with this book, the good news is his new publisher has indicated his back catalogue will be re-released.

This book was published in November 2016. This review first appeared in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine. 

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman


 My first Gaiman book was American Gods, which I loved without reservation. Every book since has confirmed what I knew then – this is a master storyteller at work. 

norsemythology_hardback_1473940163The arrival of a new book by fantasy legend Neil Gaiman is always a major event for his legions of fans.

In the year that his fabulous best-seller American Gods is coming as a TV mini-series (HBO, April), Norse Mythology is a timely exploration of what has been one of his enduring interests.

We already know a lot of the basics of Norse mythology – mainly through the Thor movies and the TV series Vikings and even Game of Thrones, but also through such high-culture explorations as Wagner’s The Ring Cycle.

In this carefully researched collection, the charismatic (if not very bright) Thor and trickster god Loki are centre stage as the story traces the gods from their beginning to Ragnarok – the total destruction of the gods and their home, Asgard.

Along the way, we meet Odin, chief among the gods, the great beauty Freya, frost giants, dwarves, the terrifying wolf Fenrir, the world serpent, the Valkyries, demons, elves and the ruler of the dead, Hel.

It’s almost a given that almost everyone behaves very badly if given the opportunity and lots of creatures die horribly.

As gods, they may be magnificent in their powers, but they are often remarkably petty and childish. As expected, Loki can be guaranteed to cause maximum trouble, just because he wants to – which is, of course, the point.

While the stories themselves are fascinating, what Gaiman brings to the party are his peerless story-telling skills.

He hasn’t “updated” the original tales or turned them into a novel – what he has done is turn dusty myth into page-turning fun.

This book was published in February 2017. 

The Possessions, by Sarah Flannery Murphy

A worthy entrant in the ranks of pyschological thrillers, with an ending that’s a little neat.

possessionsEdie, short for Euridyce, is a body – a channel by which people can in touch with dead loved ones.

Bring something that belonged to that person, pay for the body’s time and you can spend an hour talking with your lost child, or partner, or best friend. Edie has been a body for years, much more successfully than most.

She is plain – a blank canvas for others – and has cut ties to a past she is trying to ignore.

But then comes Patrick, who is desperate to talk to his lost love, Sylvia. He brings a bright pink lipstick, which all wrong for Edie, but she can’t put it aside. He also brings photographs, including one that is clearly against the rules.

Slowly Edie finds herself responding to Patrick. How much of that is Sylvia, pushing into Edie’s personal life and refusing to disappear as she should; how much is Edie’s own yearning for love?

As their meetings continue, Edie starts to get whispers of something strange about Sylvia’s death, tempting her into dangerous territory.

Murphy’s debut novel is a strong entry in romantic psychological thriller territory, with lots of tension and a terrific balance between growing knowledge and the deeper mysteries.

The ending will be too neat for some, and the big reveal is maybe less satisfying than it could be, but overall this is worth the effort.

This book was published in February 2017. My review appeared in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine. 

The Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis


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Lewis is an entertaining writer on difficult topics, and this was fascinating.

undoing-projectLewis is best known for Moneyball, his non-fiction book that looked at a new economics of building a successful baseball team, which become a hit movie starring Brad Pitt.

It’s also the starting point for this book. Lewis explains that in his examination of the choices made by the Oakland Athletics baseball team in 2002, he missed something more important.

This work on how to judge the value of the players emerged directly out of the world-changing work done by a pair of Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two men he’d barely heard of.

They took what was the standard view of a person who made “rational” economic choices – and proved it wasn’t true.

People make mistakes, consistently and predictably, when it comes to risk and making judgments. We make decisions based on how well a given person/thing matches the representative model we have in our heads, even when that is wrong or inappropriate. For example, we will employ people who match an image we hold in our heads over and above their actual ability to do a specific job.

The field Kahneman and Tversky developed, behavioural economics, changed the way economists thought.

The obsessive and fascinating friendship that developed between these two men as they developed their revolutionary ideas – and the way the relationship ultimately imploded – makes for a fascinating story.

Lewis is a vivid and engaging writer, and brings the importance of what they were doing to life. Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2002, and wrote the widely praised best-seller Thinking, Fast and Slow. Tversky died young, aged 59, of cancer.

This book was published in December 2016. My review appeared in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine. 

History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund


A decent thriller.

Linda is an outsider in a town in northern Minnesota, a sparsely populated place of lakes and woods, and a place where people on the fringes tend to congregate.

Her home is a cabin in what used to be a commune. When it disbanded, she remained behind with her (probable) parents, scraping out a backwoods life with very few of the trappings or comforts of civilization.

Her tough upbringing has made Linda a particularly good observer, and when a new teacher arrives at her school she notices some telling moments as a questionable relationship develops between him and another student.

she accidentally meets Patra, who is renting a place nearby with her husband and son, Linda finds work as a babysitter. Her time with Patra and her son increasingly offer a haven of normality, a view of family life she’s never had.

But when Patra’s husband Leo joins them, it becomes obvious that all is not quite what it seems. And what is being hidden could put a life at risk.

The story cuts between the events of this particular summer, and life for an older Linda, shaped by what happened. History of Wolves is a compelling coming-of-age story, packed suspense and tragedy.

This book was published in January 2017. My review appeared in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine. 

Peter Grant series, by Ben Aaronovitch


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aaronovitchRivers of London (Midnight Riot in the US)
Moon Over Soho
Foxglove Summer
The Hanging Tree

I’ve spent the past week happily belting through four of the six books in this fantasy/crime series. The latest, The Hanging Tree, was published in November 2016.

It’s based around PC Peter Grant, a young cop who becomes an apprentice in what is a little-known section of London’s police force that deals with magic, or “weird shit” as most describe it.

The boss of the unit – in fact, the only other person – is Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale. He hasn’t had an apprentice in many years, because Nightingale (and others of his kind), thought magic was on the wane in a life now ruled by science. Turns out, he was wrong.

There are wizards and fae, river gods and goddesses and various other well known magical creatures, but I want to state clearly  (because I’ve had a number of people assume this as soon as I said wizard or magic) – it really is nothing like the Harry Potter series.

As you might expect from someone who has also written for the TV series Dr Who and Jupiter Moon, Aaronovitch’s stories are packed with action and a lot of dry humour, with a light scattering of sex thrown in.

The first book has been optioned for TV by Feel Films, with a lot of internet speculation about the possible cast (though no sign of production yet). Aaronovitch has tweeted that his first choice for Nightingale would be Paul McGann, which would be perfect. A great round up of the speculation can he found here.

There’s even an official music video and a graphic novel/comic.

Meanwhile, if grown-up fantasy/crime seems appealing, enjoy the books. They are a delight from beginning to end.

The Good People, and Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent


good-peopleThe Good People, by Hannah Kent

I don’t intend to review this, as I did not finish it. After an engaging start, I got bogged down in the middle and could not get going again, despite several attempts.

I still think she’s a great writer, but the tweeness of the spoken language (all the ’tis and ’twas and  Irish historic dialect) was a bit much for me.

I believe mine is a minority view, and that people largely thoroughly enjoyed it.

I loved her debut novel. Below is the review I wrote when it was released in September 2013, published in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine.

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

hannah-kentYoung Australian author Hannah Kent’s debut novel – based on the true story of the execution of a woman accused of double murder in Iceland in 1829 – has created a major buzz in publishing circles. For once, this is a book worthy of all the hype.

Agnes Magnusdottir, abandoned as a child and brought up as a servant, is working at a remote farm when she is accused of murdering two men, one of them her employer and lover.

Her two co-accused are a fellow servant, a pretty teenage girl who had also been sleeping with her employer, and the girl’s fiance. When they are convicted, Agnes is sent to work for a local family until the date she is to be beheaded.

Initially ostracised, she finds grudging acceptance, revealing gradually the details of her upbringing and life, and what really happened in that isolated cottage. Kent’s extensive research about Agnes and her life shows on every page.

You can almost breathe the suffocating atmosphere of rural life in Iceland in the early 1800s – the lethal cold, the poverty, the hard work, the vicious gossip, the simple brutalities. A

gnes is as real a character as I have read, and her final journey moved me to tears.  Brilliant historical fiction.

Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

A new Zadie Smith novel is something to look forward to. Her writing is always both powerful and memorable. And this is no different – mostly. 

zadie-smithThe unnamed “I” of the story meets Tracey at a dance class in a poor area of London when they are children. Tracey is a big character – in presence, opinions, force and talent. The two become almost inseparable, though the narrator is often caught out by Tracey’s actions.

The narrator’s mother – a powerful, beautiful black woman with a strong sense of her culture and community, and the politics of it – is distant and preoccupied. Her friendship with Tracey becomes the most powerful inference in her life, to her mother’s displeasure.

Tracey and the narrator’s friendship ebbs and flows – and every time they come together again, there are consequences.

Tracey moves on to pursue her dreams of becoming a dancer, a star, and the narrator finds herself at a bit of a loss, finally finding a job at a youth TV station and then as PA to one of the world’s mega music stars (think Madonna, but Australian).

The star, Aimee, becomes interested in providing education for girls in Africa, and the narrator becomes deeply involved in the organisation of it – something we know from the start of the book is going to end very badly indeed.

The writing in this is as good as ever – i belted through it. But … the narrator is frustrating. She doesn’t know who she is and doesn’t ever really grow up, and it makes her an annoyingly doughy, passive character to have to spend all your time with, as a reader.

And I didn’t understand those key choices she makes late in the book that change everything. They felt forced on her by the requirements of the plot, and that was disappointing.

In some ways it felt like an echo of that other book about female friendship – the fabulous Neapolitan quartet by Elena Ferrante. I think it shows this is an idea whose time has come, and I’m grateful for that. The exploration of a difficult, conflicted friendship between women is both worthy and fascinating.

But in the end, after reading through it almost feverishly, the issues I had with the ending and the frustrating character of the narrator left me a little cold.

This book was published in November 2016