Hammer, Chris (2020) Trust. Allen & Unwin. Martin Scarsden and his partner Mandalay Blonde’s idyllic family life is shattered when Mandy’s past comes back to haunt her. Her troubles start when she is kidnapped but it is when the body of her former fiancé is found that the story really kicks off, unfolding in contemporary Sydney, complete with bushfire smoke and Covid. Intrigue, corruption, fraud, and stalwart investigative newspaper journalism are at the heart of this plot-driven novel. Will a good story get in the way of trust and the truth? Trust is the third novel featuring the two central characters. Intelligent and exciting read. Crime fiction at its best. Rating: 9/10.
Harper, Jane (2020) The Survivors. Macmillan. A new Jane Harper is always a highlight in my reading year. When former local “lad” Kieran returns home to a small Tasmanian coastal town, with his girlfriend and new baby, he finds his parents and friends struggling. Kieran is still haunted by the guilt of a reckless mistake, in the midst of a storm ten years ago, that changed his life forever. When a body is found on the beach, the town’s long-held secrets start to emerge and Kieran finds that he may be the catalyst to solving an old mystery. As with Harper’s other books the landscape is a major character. A finely tuned, albeit quiet, story of survival. Rating: 8.5/10.
McDonald, R W R (2019) The Nancys. Allen & Unwin. Eleven-year-old Tippy Chan is obsessed with the Nancy Drew books and wants to solve a real mystery. When her teacher’s body is found she and her minders, Uncle Pike and his boyfriend, fashionista Devon, start doing some detective work of their own. As the amateur detectives nose their way into trouble danger threatens. Set in a small town (Riverstone, aka Balclutta) in South Otago this 2020 Ngaio Marsh finalist is a bit of fun, with an ebullient dynamic between the young narrator and the adult characters. Colourful with plenty of verve and heart. Rating: 8/10.
Giridharadas, Anand (2018) Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Knopf. The modern plutocratic class of philanthropic billionaires, entrepreneurs, and elites claim that they are best placed to reform the global system with the stated intention of making the world a better place – an idea unpinned by “doing well for yourself by doing good for others”. In an age of increasing inequality, and giant fortunes, these elites see governments as largely incompetent, incapable of adapting to a changing world. Giridharadas calls this philanthropy, built from wealth often accrued through strenuous resistance to redistributive taxation, a charade. He finds these aspiring change agents are really only concerned with maintaining a system that has provided them with unimaginable wealth, rather than addressing the needs of an increasingly vast swath of humanity in dire need of help. Provocative and compelling. Rating: 8.5/10.
Francis, Gavin (2020) Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession. Canongate. In Island Dreams medic Gavin Francis takes us on a fantastic voyage travelling the islands of the world. The vignettes are a blend of diverse stories from his own travels and the great voyages in literature and mythology, illustrated with maps. He takes us from the Andaman Islands, Lofoten Islands, Mount Athos, and the Hebrides, to Alexander Selkirk, D H Lawrence and Charles Darwin. Remarkable stories of isolation and solitude, and the wonder of islands in human consciousness. A treasure. Rating: 9/10.
Norton, Graham (2020) Home Stretch. Coronet. When three young friends are killed in a motor accident a day before a village wedding the lives of the families are forever shattered. No more so than Connor’s wretched parents, and his sister Ellen. For Connor is wracked with guilt as the perpetrator of the horrific tragedy. Eventually he leaves his home, taking his secrets and truth with him. As the accident’s aftermath haunt those left behind Connor forges a new life, initially in Liverpool, then London and latterly in New York, but one day he will need to seek forgiveness and confront his dark memories. Norton tells an empathetic tale of identity, deceit, stigma, loneliness and stoicism, whilst celebrating his homeland. Nuanced storytelling. Rating: 8.5/10.
King, Lily (2020) Writers & Lovers. Grove Press. Casey Peabody has been working on her novel for six years. At thirty-one she is holding onto her dream to live a creative life whilst residing in a mouldy garage flat, working as a waitress, hiding from debt collectors, and grieving for her mother. When she falls for two men at the same time her world continues to fracture. Surely the fates are due to work in her favour soon? This is a beautiful novel about a brittle heroine who you learn to cherish, artistic passion, and love. Plenty of writing insights also. Delightful. Rating: 9/10.
O’Farrell, Maggie (2020) Hamnet. Tinder Press. In a story inspired by the short life of Hamnet Shakespeare Maggie O’Farrell has reimagined the life of a son, his mother, siblings and family. William Shakespeare remains offstage, unnamed, a loving but largely absent father to the 11-year-old boy whose death is the inspiration for Hamlet, whilst his mother Agnes (Anne) Hathaway, who has been vilified for over 500 years as being an illiterate peasant who tricked a genius into marriage, takes centre stage. This is a story of two halves, the first the coming together of Agnes and her husband to create a family, the second, the death of Hammet and the grief that drives them apart, with an unexpected redemptive volte-face. A profoundly moving portrait of love and loss. Wonderful. Rating: 9/10.