The Long Call by Anne Cleeves

How fabulous is this, hey? Anne Cleeves has started a new series and while I am disappointed I won’t get to read any more about Vera Stanhope or Jimmy Perez (the lead characters from her other respective series), it’s been exciting to get to know a new character. In The Long Call, the first book in the Two Rivers series, this lead character and detective is the rather gentle and self-effacing Matthew Venn. A man with an interesting and troubled past, having been raised and then rejected by an evangelical community, Matthew has a tendency to empathise with most people he encounters, even the criminal kind. The hard-bitten, gum-shoe detective he ain’t.

The book opens with Matthew as an outsider at his father’s funeral, a position to which Matthew is, sadly, sort of accustomed, as much as he’s tried to compensate for this as well. When he takes on his first major case in the Two Rivers area, Matthew has to both learn the strengths and weaknesses of his team as well as the area he and his beloved partner have moved into. But just when Matthew thought he could forge ahead personally and professionally, put his difficult past behind him, the killer lurking in the region has other ideas…

This book, like the first book in any good series, is a slow-burn. Beautifully written and constructed, the reader is taken into not only the crime that rocks a community, but the lives of those seeking to solve it, in particular, Matthew and his team. We’re given insights into the personal foibles and ambitions of all involved and it’s so typical of Cleeves that she says so much with so few words. Likewise, the area is brought to life with a few choice phrases, and it leaps off the pages in all its rainy, coastal and cold glory.

A wonderful, lose-yourself-in-an-armchair read. Cannot wait for the next instalment.

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The Girl Who Lived Twice by David Lagercrantz

Ever since The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larson was released, I have adored this series featuring one of the most original and feisty, bad-ass women in crime/thriller fiction, Lisbeth Salander. When David Lagercrantz took over writing the series in the wake of Larson’s death, like many, I was worried about how another writer could replicate and progress Larson’s characters, let alone his vision. Well, Lagercrantz has done a stellar job and his books are page-turners and thrillers par excellence. Up until this book, I also thought that Lagercrantz had kept Larson’s Lisbeth alive and kicking. However, in this latest instalment, there’s a sense in which she’s diminished. No, possibly that’s not the right word. There’s a sense in which her brilliance, her capacity to embrace both her dark and light sides, has weakened and thus this book doesn’t twinkle as brightly in the Salander/Blomkvist universe. However, it is very plot-drive – for better and worse – and it is still a well, written and mostly gripping read.

The novel opens with Lisbeth hiding in Moscow. There to enact vengeance, when push comes to shove, or gun to trigger, she finds herself unable to perform and is forced into the type of hiding on Lisbeth can pull off.

Concerned for Lisbeth’s welfare, back in Stockholm, Mikael Blomkvist is caught up in the death of a homeless man. Sadly not unusual in itself, a persistent coroner has cause to believe the man was murdered and asks Blomkvist to look into his background. Knowing Salander will be unable to resist, Mikael asks for assistance as well. What unfolds is a story of corporate greed, political machinations, ‘fake-news”, Russian cyber “troll-factories,” cover-ups, betrayal and murder.

There were parts of this book I raced through, eagerly anticipating how something was going to be resolved, but other parts were a bit pedestrian and dull by comparison. There are basically two storylines unfolding simultaneously and, frankly, one feels quite contrived (even though it’s interesting) while the other doesn’t quite meet the high standards Larson set and Lagercrantz has, up until this novel, easily met. I am possibly being hyper-critical because this was a good read nonetheless but there’s also a sense in which the Lisbeth we’ve grown to know and love is missing in action for too much of the book. As for Blomkvist, well, he’s in danger of becoming someone who rests on his impressive laurels. Let’s hope Lagercrantz doesn’t do the same.

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All That’s Dead by Stuart McBride

Each new addition to the Logan McRae series by Stuart McBride has become my “reward” book: that is, I set myself certain writing and research tasks and only once they’re finished do I permit myself to read the next installment in the life of Inspector Logan McRae and the motley band of loyal, hilarious, brave, foolhardy and often clever people who work with and, sometimes, against him. As a consequence, I relish the experience and then mourn when it’s over, knowing I have to wait at least a year until once more, I can be, albeit for a brief time, part of this madcap, dangerous world that is policing in Aberdeen, Scotland.

In this book, Logan, Steele, Rennie and co have to pit their wits against some Alt-Right Scottish nationalists who go on a spree, committing terrible atrocities against those they believe have betrayed Scottish independence and fostered more than cordial relations with the Brits. The results are bloody and terrifying and the criminals, though identified early, hard to pin down. As a result, the media make scapegoats of the police, representing the law as buffoons who are about as much use (as one great phrase in the book puts it) as a plasticine bicycle.

Against time and bad will, Logan and the team try to prevent another crime, another grisly death. But just when it seems they have all the answers, more questions surface which throw the entire investigation on its ear.

Filled with fabulous, quirky characters, crackling dialogue (that has you alternately splitting your sides laughing or appreciating the emotional depths of a seemingly simple phrase) and written at a pace that will keep you reading well into the night, this is another splendid addition to one of my all-time favourite crime series. Cannot wait for the next one. 

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Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

I must admit to having some trepidation reading this book as it had come with such heart-felt praise and gushing recommendations. My concern about reading it lay in not wanting to disappoint those who clearly loved the book so much by not feeling the same way. That was one reason. But I had an additional worry. I know Trent Dalton and have for years. Like he did, I work for the Courier Mail (we also share the same publisher) and have watched with admiration and pride as one of the most genuinely lovely people and incredible journalistic and writing talents I know, soared. When I discovered Trent was the author of this book everyone was talking about and then caught up with him at a dinner, I was so excited to read it, but equally nervous as well for the reasons I outline above.

Well, now I have and can I just say that all those heaping praise upon Trent and this book were beyond right in their assessment. But they were also wrong. You see, Boy Swallows Universe isn’t destined to become an Australian classic, it already is one. 

The story of young Eli Bell and his wilfully mute brother, August and their traumatic, violent, disruptive, loving, cruel, imaginative childhood and young adulthood is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Equal parts disturbing, magical, evocative, hope-filled, heart-wrenching and yet beautiful, it’s also utterly enthralling. 

Eli and Gus live with their mum and her boyfriend Lyle in a run-down neighbourhood in Brisbane. Their babysitter is a reformed murderer whose claim to fame, apart from being a killer, is that he managed to escape from the notorious Boggo Road jail. But Slim, as he’s called, is also a man who loves the boys and never, ever condescends to them, but imparts, with his street wisdom, lessons that Eli particularly takes to heart. Stoking the boys’ imaginations and hovering over them like a protective angel, not even Slim can prevent the tragedy and criminal changes that see the boys catapulted into situations that make the reader want to dial Social Services. But this is where Trent comes into his own. He manages to find beauty, humour and often an otherworldliness in the ugliest and saddest of situations. Not only that, but by having Eli and Gus forged in such hot fires and showing what helps them salvage something from these, he reveals the power of story (and the details) to provide an essential and nourishing counter-narrative to reality. 

Not only do you fall in love with Eli, Gus and their sun-filled mother along with other less reputable characters; experience anguish on their behalf and worry about the intentions of the men who orbit around them, but you champion their actions and want to reach into the page and protect their swollen hearts and growing, spectacular minds. 

I don’t want to say too much more except this book is a treasure that will continue to burrow into your heart and head long after the last page. It is realism at its rawest and most magical. It is quintessentially Australian while also managing to be universal. 

Boy may swallow universe, but with this story of resilience, love, hope, vengeance and faith – in humanity’s capacity for goodness, kindness and courage, in the face of terrible misfortune and cruelty – readers will greedily consume it and be left wanting more. 

Simply sensational.

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The Seagull, Vera Stanhope #8 by Ann Cleeves

This latest novel in the Vera Stanhope series, The Seagull, is a ripper. It opens with Vera being forced by her unsupportive boss to deliver and education lecture in a prison. While there, she encounters a former colleague, John Brace, who has been jailed for crimes and corruption. Ill now, Brace tells Vera about a cold case – claiming he didn’t kill the missing man but knows where the body is buried. He will only tell her if she does him a favour.

What unfolds is an investigation that takes the reader into Vera’s past as, along with the detective, we learn more about her father, Hector and the activities he was involved in before his death. Part of the “Gang of Four”, Hector, and three other men, including a mysterious “Prof” would wheel and deal in illegal fauna. The linking factor between people, past and even present, appears to be a former glamorous club called The Seagull. But, as Vera stumbles closer to the truth of what Brace was trying to reveal to her, she discovers the Gang of Four’s activities might also have involved murder.

Once again, Vera and her team, with all their strengths, weaknesses and glimpses into their personal lives are brought to the fore as the case moves along. Characters and setting are wonderfully drawn and the plot is paced nicely. I love the way Cleeves slowly unpeels a person and their history, before she then builds up layers that make them seem so real and very easy to invest in.

I am already looking forward to a new Vera Stanhope novel and frustrated I know I have to wait a while yet!

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