Tag Archives: thriller

Siracusa

Thriller about marriage and infidelity on an Italian holiday

Content warning: child grooming

After recently moving house, it has come to my attention that my to-read pile is too big. In my heart, I already knew this, but in unpacking and repacking my shelves I have had to face the reality of the situation. In 2020 I had a go at The Quiet Pond’s #StartOnYourShelfathon challenge and managed to get through 21 books languishing on my shelf (which was over a quarter of my books read for the year). This year, I’m trying a new challenge: The Mount TBR Reading Challenge. I am not doing very well so far! It has been a busy and challenging year so far but I have finally had a bit of time to try to get back in the swing of reading. I was looking for some inspiration to help me choose my next book and this book caught my eye after reading about the Siracusa Principles recently for work. I can’t quite remember where this book came from (perhaps an ARC from Harry Hartog?) but it will hopefully be the first of many form my to-read list.

Image is of “Siracusa” by Delia Ephron. The paperback book is resting on a wooden board next to a selection of antipasti including olives, mushrooms, artichokes, bocconcini and stuffed capsicum. Behind the board a wine glass rests on its side with the dregs of red wine still inside.

“Siracusa” by Delia Ephron is a thriller novel about two couples who decide to holiday together in Italy. When Journalist Lizzie and renowned writer Michael find out their friends Finn, Taylor and their daughter Snow are going to be in Europe at the same time, they organise a trip together in Siracusa, Italy. However, as the book progresses it becomes clear that the trip may not have been as innocent as it initially seemed.

This novel was told from the perspective of each of the adult characters, with Lizzie, Michael, Finn and Taylor each offering their take and thoughts on the events of the trip. Ephron is a clear writer and draws on the seascape and architecture of the city to underpin the growing tension in the novel between and among the two couples. Although she didn’t get any point-of-view chapters, by far the most compelling character is Snow. There seems to be an inexplicable discrepancy between how the characters talk about her and the things that she does and this, I believe, is the most interesting thing about the book.

However, ultimately I felt the book frustrating and hard to finish. All four characters are inherently unlikeable, and it is a strange position to be in when you find yourself spitefully hoping that characters cheat on each other. I’m not sure the structure of four points of view worked; even though it is a relatively short book, the chapters seemed to drag the same dirt over and over. I also didn’t find the voices distinct enough from one another to be truly compelling or to provide unique insight into the ill-fated trip. There was something quite uncomfortable about the way Michael and 10-year-old Snow interacted with each other. While all the characters applaud Michael for the “special attention” that he gives to Snow, the way their discussions are described (including, at one point, as a “flirtation”) just felt ick to be honest.

A novel with plenty of the pieces of a compelling story but perhaps not the right.

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To the Sea

New Zealand crime thriller about family secrets

Content warning: family violence, coercive control, physical abuse, sexual assault, disability, trauma

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of “To the Sea” by Nikki Crutchley. The eBook cover is of a woman in a long black dress standing on grassy sand dunes before a sea and stormy sky.

“To the Sea” by Nikki Crutchley is a crime thriller novel about Ana and her family who live on a coastal New Zealand property they call Iluka. At 18 years old, all Ana has ever known is the house, pine plantation and cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In her family, everyone has a role to play: Ana and her mother Anahita manage the housework, her grandfather Hurley builds furniture, her uncle Dylan looks after the land and her aunt Marina organises artist retreats to supplement the family’s otherwise self-sufficient existence. Everything they need is at Iluka and there is no reason for Ana to ever leave. However, when she meets a man on the beach one day who seems to know who she is, and photographer Nikau on an artist retreat takes an interest in her family, Ana begins to ask herself questions like why she has no father. As the narrative shifts between Ana and her mother Anahita 20 years earlier, the answers to Ana’s questions grow more and more deadly.

This was a dark and tense book that showed how insidious and entrenched gender roles and violence can become in a family. Crutchley juxtaposes the sinister events of the books against an beautiful if unforgiving landscape, and I especially enjoyed her descriptions of the harsh coastline. It is a bit strange to write this, but there was considerable creativity in cruel ‘punishments’ meted out by Ana’s grandfather and some of the scenes feel etched into my memory. At the heart of this story is control, and as the book progresses it is gradually revealed why Hurley and, by extension, Anahita, are so obsessed with controlling everything and everyone in Iluka. This book is an excellent reminder of how two siblings who grow up in the same family can have radically different experiences. The different ways that Dylan and Anahita relate to their father highlights the diversity in how abuse and control can play out, even under the same roof. Crutchley prompts to the reader to think about the meaning of safety and how far is too far to keep a family ‘safe’.

Although overall this is a strong novel, there were some parts that did not feel as strong as others. Some of Ana and Anahita’s chapters probably weren’t necessary to the plot and could have been pared back to quicken the pace of the book. I also thought that some of the peripheral characters like Nikau felt a bit less developed. While I appreciate we were getting the story largely through Ana’s eyes, I think some of the later events would have felt more significant if the characters were more fleshed out. There was also a reveal at one point about a character’s identity which I had guessed way, way earlier in the book and I wasn’t sure that story arc added much either (except perhaps to reinforce the idea that people are awful and the outside world should be shut out completely).

A tense and well-written book that explores in depths the dynamics of an insular family.

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The Thirty-nine Steps

Classic wartime spy thriller novel

This was my last (and 90th) book of 2021, and also my final book in my Short Stack Reading Challenge. Given that this was another book I picked up from the Lifeline Book Fair, and given that this fantastic charity unfortunately had to cancel their event very recently, it is a great reminder that you can support them by donating directly or visiting their permanent shop at the Fyshwick Markets.

Image is of “The Thirty-nine Steps” by John Buchan. The paperback book is placed behind a pink tweed cap, sunglasses and a pocketwatch. The cover is of two men in an old fashioned automobile wearing hats, gloves and goggles driving through wild countryside.

“The Thirty-nine Steps” by John Buchan is a spy thriller novella about a man called Richard Hannay who finds himself accidentally embroiled in a matter of national security. A healthy and energetic man in his mid-30s, when Hannay returns to England after extensive time in Africa, he meets a nervous man in a neighbouring unit and agrees to help him. However, when he finds the man’s corpse in his flat shortly afterwards, he realises that not only is his own life in danger but the lives of the entire country.

This is a quirky, fast-paced novella with all the hallmarks of any over-the-top James Bond film. The book is jammed packed full of disguises, explosions, aeroplanes and general spy craft shenanigans. One of the quaint things about this book is that everyone Hannay comes across immediately jumps to his aid. The majority of the characters are young men who are desperate for a little slice of adventure, and open their homes to a wild stranger without a second thought. There was also a light dash of political commentary thrown in for good measure.

Like any spy novel, this one was sufficiently ridiculous and built on the premise that members of a particular nation are inherently nefarious. The story skipped from scene to scene without much direction or respite, and at times the sheer amount of action and constant stream of new characters did impact the readability and the investment I had in the story.

A quick, action-packed novella that surely inspired the genre.

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The Diviner’s Tale

Mystery thriller novel about a water diviner who finds a lost girl

Content warning: kidnapping, sexual assault, Alzheimer’s disease

I picked up this book at the Lifeline Book Fair for one reason and one reason only: the tinted edges. Like many of the books I have been reviewing recently, this is another one that has languished on my to-read pile. So between all the fantasy, the books turned into adaptations and the other books with tinted edges, I decided it was time to read this one.

Image is of “The Diviner’s Tale” by Bradford Morrow. The paperback book is resting in grass next to a stick in the shape of an arrow. The cover is of a girl in a white dress standing in a misty, green forest. The book has blood red tinted page edges.

“The Diviner’s Tale” by Bradford Morrow is a mystery thriller novel about a woman called Cassandra who, between teaching classes in remedial reading and Greek myths and raising her twin boys as a single parent, has followed in her father’s footsteps as a water diviner. One day while dowsing land for a property, Cassandra sees the body of a young girl hanged from a tree. When she alerts the authorities, including her old friend and local sheriff Niles, and returns to the location the girl, all traces of her is gone. Cassandra is under a lot of stress with family challenges, and initially people think she must have imagined it. However, when a different girl emerges from the woods after being reported missing, Cassandra must acknowledge the visions that she has had since she was young, and face the traumas of her past before they catch up with her.

This was a readable, character-driven book that has a really strong sense of place. From Upstate New York to Mount Desert Island, Maine, Morrow engages deeply with the landscape and using Cassandra’s skills as a diviner to explore the geology and flora of the area was a unique way to do it. I liked the tension within Cassandra and her dad Nep between belief in the artform of dowsing and worry that they are nevertheless frauds. Cassandra of course is named after the Cassandra of Greek mythology, and while this isn’t the first modern day interpretation of Cassandra’s prophecies I’ve read, it was well done. I thought that his depiction of a parent living with Alzheimer’s disease was done well, and I loved Cassandra’s relationship with her twin boys, and their relationship in turn with their grandparents. I also liked that her kids Morgan and Jonah began to develop their own identities as the book progressed.

However, this is a dark book and the elements of her past that Cassandra tries to forget are very confronting. While thinking back on this book, it occurred to me that overwhelmingly Cassandra’s relationships were with men: her father, her sons, her ex-lovers and her friends. Her relationship with her mother is a little tense, and while I appreciated that she had a reputation for being a bit eccentric, I think perhaps I would have liked more women in this book (aside from Cassandra herself) than mothers and victims.

A well-written book that is hard-going thematically at parts.

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Nine Perfect Strangers

Low-key thriller novel about an unconventional health retreat

Content warning: suicide, mental health

I received a copy of this book ages ago courtesy of Harry Hartog. I have been on a real adaptation kick recently so when I heard that a TV adaptation was being released, and given my very real lockdown attempt to finally get on top of my to-read shelf, I was inspired to finally read it.

Image is of “Nine Perfect Strangers” by Liane Moriarty. The paperback book is sitting on a blue and silver yoga mat between a Tibetan singing bowl and a small milk jar with a sprig of wattle blossom. The cover is white with 9 differently coloured stones balanced on top of one another, and has the additional text that says “Can a health retreat really change your life forever?”

“Nine Perfect Strangers” by Liane Moriarty is a low key thriller novel about 9 people who sign up for a wellness retreat at a place called Tranquillum House on a property in rural Australia. A bestselling novelist, a couple with relationship issues, parents and their adult child, a mother, a lawyer and a cynical man everyone seems to recognise each find themselves hoping to change their lives for the better. The charismatic Masha, director of the program and supported by her staff Yao and Delilah, is eager to lead each person on a personalised 10-day journey of wellness and healing towards a new life. However, after the first few days it becomes apparent that Masha’s methods are unorthodox, illegal and potentially deadly.

This was a very readable book with Moriarty’s signature character-driven style. The book changed focus from character to character, but was primarily told from Frances the writer’s perspective who was particularly endearing. Moriarty really teased out each character’s personality and traumas, and even though his family’s story was one of the more challenging ones, I really enjoyed the character of Napoleon and how Moriarty unpacked his nerdy cheeriness to expose the pain beneath. I also thought Ben and Jessica had a really interesting dynamic, and Moriarty explores how a drastic change in life circumstances can impact a relationship and different perspectives on cosmetic surgery. I thought she really captured the spirit of the wellness tourism industry with just the right amount of foreboding to keep things interesting. I really felt that Moriarty must have spent quite a bit of time researching, because the way she wrote about certain elements of the book was very realistic. The tension between the projected confidence about finding the answers to a fulfilling life and the self-doubt that affects us all was done really well, and Masha’s hubris was something to behold.

As readable and amusing as it is, this book is a little bit extra and there were a few parts where the drama felt a little excessive. While I really enjoyed Moriarty’s descriptions of Tranquillum House, there was maybe a little too much celebration of the colonial project and the house’s convict history and no recognition of traditional owners of the land. Seeing the modern timber and glass building in the (American) adaptation of the book, I felt that perhaps it was the better setting. The ending was maybe a little too drawn out and neat, but in these times far be it for me to begrudge a happy ending.

A spirited and enjoyable read with a good dose of histrionics and a very tidy resolution. While the TV series is maybe a little too Americanised and a little melodramatic, so far it seems well-cast and fun enough to watch.

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Shelter

Outback thriller about secrets and lies

Content warning: family violence, child abuse, animal abuse, emotional abuse

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I actually read some of this author’s work when I was a teen and particularly enjoyed her biopunk novels, though this one is a significantly different genre.

Text Publishing — Shelter, book by Catherine Jinks
Image is of a digital book cover of “Shelter” by Catherine Jinks. The cover is of a silhouette of a small house and a dead tree in a paddock at either sunrise or sunset. There are lights turned on and there is fog in the background.

“Shelter” by Catherine Jinks is a thriller novel set outside a small country town in rural Australia. Meg is a middle-aged woman who lives alone in a small property. A survivor of family violence herself, she agrees to take in a young woman called Nerine and her two small children and let them hide out for a while. Despite the secrecy, remoteness and lack of reception, Nerine is adamant that her violent ex while find a way to track them down. As more and more strange things happen, Meg begins to wonder if it is her own ex-husband they should be worried about and how safe her hideaway really is.

This is a tense read and Jinks really demonstrates her prowess at setting pace and a sense of place. Meg is a believable character who is at once capable and independent yet ultimately very vulnerable. The scars left on her psyche by her ex-husband grow more and more evident as the pressure in the book continues, and I felt that Jinks really captured the long-term harm that being in an abusive relationship can have on you and how insidious emotional abuse in particular can be. Throughout this book, Meg second-guesses herself and her hesitation and lack of faith in herself ultimately impacts the way other people treat her and leaves her open to further exploitation. Heartbreakingly, I felt that Jinks wrote about how abusive families can impact children very authentically and the scenes with Ana were particularly compelling and upsetting.

However, this is not a feel good story and ultimately the ending felt very unsatisfactory. I appreciate the point I believe Jinks was trying to make about the justice system and how an emotional abuser can continue to indirectly cause you harm long after the relationship has ended. However, as the climax of the books unfolds and the impact of what happened becomes clear, I found it a little hard to suspend my disbelief. I know that Jinks has likely been inspired by (slight spoiler if you click through) this case, but I think that the Epilogue just felt a bit off to me. As I finished the book, I had a bitter taste in my mouth and I’m not sure Meg got a fair shake of the stick. Perhaps that was Jinks’ intention.

A complex, challenging and deeply uncomfortable novel that explores emotional abuse from a fresh and disturbing perspective.

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Red Sparrow

A thriller about Russian and American spycraft

Content warning: objectification of women, torture, sexual assault

It is the time for film adaptations, and this book is actually the tie-in edition. I remember seeing quite a slick trailer for this film (though I had never seen it), so on a whim I picked up this book at the Lifeline Book Fair. I have been reading a lot of books that have been adapted into films or TV shows recently so I thought I would stick with this trend and chip away at my to-read shelf.

Image is of “Red Sparrow” by Jason Matthews. The paperback book is sitting next to a bowl of borsch, Eastern European beetroot soup garnished with sour cream and dill. The cover is red with a picture of Jennifer Lawrence who plays one of the main characters in the film adaptation.

“Red Sparrow” by Jason Matthews is a thriller novel about Russian and American spies. After her career is stymied, former ballet dancer Dominika is pressured by her uncle to join Russian intelligence and train to become a ‘sparrow’, a secret agent trained in seduction. Her target is Nate: an American CIA agent who is forced to leave Russia and take up a much less exciting post in Finland. When Nate and Dominika cross paths, they are instantly drawn to one another and begin a game of spycraft made even more dangerous by attraction.

Image is of the book in a paper bag filled with ingredients in reusable containers.

I was able to forgive a lot in this book for one simple reason: at the end of each chapter was a recipe. I absolutely love fiction books with recipes, and this book had a recipe at the end of every chapter. The story had quite a lot of potential, and the earlier chapters in particular were tense and surprising. I enjoyed reading about Russia, and even if the parts about the sparrow school weren’t even remotely true it made for compelling (though disturbing) reading.

Image is of the book next to a plate of potato fritters that were absolutely delicious, and a creamy spinach dip that didn’t quite work.

As enjoyable as it was to cook recipes from the book, the rest of the book left a lot to be desired. I thought that the set up would have been perfect for a Spy vs. Spy thriller, where both Dominika and Nate use their spycraft skills to try to hook the other into betraying their country and spilling state secrets. Unfortunately, this book suffered from classic American exceptionalism, the tension between Dominika and Nate is broken way too early on and the book swiftly becomes more about the mechanics of passing on state secrets which, while of great interest to a former CIA agent, was of far less interest to me. This decision to shift focus meant that the pacing felt sluggish for the rest of the book, and I was much less invested in the characters. One thing I was shocked about was how frequently the author referred to breasts. Perhaps I’m not the target audience, but I was really shocked at how frequently the narrative was interrupted with superfluous references to breasts.

I’d like to say that the film was better, but it was not. They made the torture more gruesome, the sex more rapey and there was, disturbingly, more chemistry between Dominika and her uncle than there was between Dominika and Nate. An OK book peppered with fun recipes that did not need a film adaptation.

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Broken Humanity

French crime thriller about three linked people

Content warning: child abuse, trafficking

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

Image result for broken humanity karine vivier

“Broken Humanity” by Karine Vivier and translated by Kirsty Olivant is a crime thriller about three people who are linked by the disappearance of a little girl. Alice is a young girl whose life changed forever when her mother brought home a new partner. Now, instead of going to school, she must help her stepdad by befriending children and bringing them to his van, or else languish in a locked cellar. Judith had just planned on leaving her daughter in the car for five minutes while she went into the shop, and when she comes out after getting stuck at the checkout to find her daughter gone, she can’t stop blaming herself. Denis Papin has been released from prison and is trying to start a new, understated life despite being convicted of a terrible crime. However, when a little girl goes missing, he is suddenly a prime suspect.

This is a well-written, well-translated book that speeds along at a cracking pace. I often get asked to review crime thrillers and I blanch when they are 400 or 500 pages long because I know they are not going to be a quick read. This is a very quick read, and I am so, so appreciative of that. Even though it is a short, snappy book, Vivier covers a lot of different themes. I think that the most interesting of these is the theme of blame, and how we blame ourselves as well as others. Blame is something that permeates the stories of each of the main characters.

The critical thing for a good thriller is making sure that plot is watertight. I think that Vivier has all the elements there, and the story starts off strong, but I think that some of the later chapters lose the threads a little and miss some opportunities for that incredible dramatic thriller ending that readers hang out for.

A very easy read that touches on some difficult and interesting themes.

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The Rook

Urban fantasy about amnesia and a secret society

This was a set book for my feminist fantasy book club. It is getting a lot of attention recently because it is being adapted into a TV series. We mostly read books written by women, but this author is an Australian man who wrote this book from the perspective of a woman.

Image result for the rook daniel o'malley

“The Rook” by Daniel O’Malley is an urban fantasy novel based in London about Myfanwy, a young woman who wakes up with no memory. When she finds a letter in her jacket pocket to herself from herself, she discovers that she works for a secret agency as a high ranking administrator and that someone is trying to kill her. As she follows the trail her former self left her, Myfanwy is faced with a decision: start a new life, or solve the mystery of her old life.

This is a fun, fantasy/superhero take on the classic spy thriller genre. O’Malley brings bureaucracy to life and explores the concept of how a government could possibly handle ongoing and wildly variable threats of a supernatural variety. O’Malley is a spirited writer and largely this is an easy book to read. It actually reminded me a lot of Brent Weeks’ “The Night Angel Trilogy“, both in style and in the concept of some of the antagonists. O’Malley pushes human bodies and human wills to their limits in a similar way.

Prior to meeting with the rest of my book club, I had been taking notes on my phone, which I won’t quote here because it is way too full of spoilers, about things that bothered me about this book. There were numerous things. First of all, as someone with a Welsh name that your average Australian struggles to say, I was absolutely aghast that O’Malley made the decision to suggest that Myfanwy pronounces her name “Miffany”. What? WHAT?! No. Unacceptable. If you want to call your character Miffany: fine. Do that. But to deliberately mangle a Welsh name is completely out of order and I refused to think of her name as anything other than Myfanwy the entire time reading this book.

I could see what he was doing, but I did feel at times that O’Malley was trying to be diverse and global while writing this book, but sometimes it just did not work. For example, at one point he refers flippantly to “sunning herself on some balcony in Borneo”. Borneo, for those playing at home, is not a country; it is an enormous island shared by three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. I won’t go in detail to the lack of high-rises, the proportion of rainforest, the humidity or the conservative clothing culture. However, O’Malley made a few off-hand remarks about far away places and advantages that some races have to using powers, and it fell a bit flat.

I think that the biggest problem I had with this book was the exposition. So. Much. Exposition. In my notes I wrote “this book is 60% exposition”. The structure of the book is primarily an alternation between Myfanwy’s current thoughts, and the letters that past Myfanwy has left her to read explaining her job and how things work. While this is a perfectly acceptable way to structure the novel, despite supposedly differing significantly in personality, the two Myfanwys are almost indistinguishable in voice. Past Myfanwy also spends most of her time writing at length about different aspects of the Checquy (pronounced mystifyingly and annoyingly as Sheck-Eh). I appreciate O’Malley’s worldbuilding, I do, but there has to be a balance between giving your readers enough information to understand your world and actually propelling the story along.

I think that this book is probably very appealing to a lot of people, and I foresee that the TV series is going to be very popular. It annoyed me on a lot of levels, but it was readable enough and novel enough to get me through.

 

 

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Force of Nature

This book was part of either a Christmas present or birthday present (I can’t quite remember) that I finally got around to reading. I hadn’t heard a lot about this particular story, but the author’s previous novel “The Dry” received a lot of acclaim so I was keen to see what all the fuss was about.

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“Force of Nature” by Jane Harper is a crime thriller about a corporate bonding activity gone wrong. Five women the same company go on a weekend hike together in a fictional Australian mountain range.  Chairwoman Jill, senior staff Alice and Lauren, Bree and her twin sister Bethany. However, when only four return at the end of the weekend, a full-scale search is launched with police, emergency services and volunteers to find missing Alice. Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk arrives at the ranges to assist with the search, but he has a particular interest in Alice’s welfare. She’s a key informant in an investigation he’s conducting, and the story that she was separated from the others suddenly isn’t sounding so convincing.

The first thing to say about this book is that it is actually kind of a sequel to “The Dry” (which I didn’t realise) and although I think it is OK as a standalone novel, there are some character-building aspects to Aaron that I felt like I missed out on a bit started from this book. Nevertheless, Harper does an admirable job of immersing the reader in the wilderness, and I particularly enjoyed how she used torrential rain to set the mood throughout the book. I also liked how she connected the events in the present with Aaron’s past.

However, I found the premise of this book so unbelievable that I simply couldn’t settle into it the entire way through. First of all, no corporate team-building company would ever leave five inexperienced hikers in the wilderness without a radio or a satellite phone for a weekend. It was just completely unrealistic that any company would be insured for that kind of activity without an emergency plan. If someone fell and broke their neck, there was absolutely no mechanism for them to call for help. Basically they had to get from point A to point B, and if they didn’t after 3 days, then the company would come looking for them. The man who runs the Executive Adventures program, Ian Chase, just seems so bumbling and incompetent compared to the incredibly organised and safety-focused people I have met who run programs like Outward Bound in real life. The fact that there was simply no contingency plan really made the premise difficult for me to accept, and unfortunately this ended up tainting the rest of the story.

I can see what Harper was trying to do in exploring the intricacies of female work, family and friend relationships by putting five women in a high-stress situation. This book definitely passes the Beshdel Test. I particularly liked Alice’s backstory and discovering more about what was going on in her personal life. However, Lauren’s and the twins’ stories felt a bit more clunky, and Jill just didn’t really get a fair shake of the stick. Ultimately I was much less interested in the catty, shallow behaviour of the women and far more interested in Aaron’s story, which (not having read the preceding book) was possibly the point.

Ultimately, this book didn’t grip me in the way one wants to be gripped by a thriller. A title like “Force of Nature” is a big one to live up to, and at the end of the day, I would have liked something a bit more hard-hitting, gritty and deep. I did like Aaron quite a lot though, and I am tempted to go and give “The Dry” a crack.

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