An idiosyncratic, involving mystery, “Heaven, My Home” is the second outing for African-American Texas Ranger Darren Matthews. Battling his own recent murky past, he sets out to solve the mystery of the disappearance of a white boy, son of a jailed Aryan Brotherhood thug. Locke’s tricky plot often seems a sidelight to Darren’s quest, the fraught racial politics everywhere, and wonderful descriptions of Marion County, but I raced through the book, quite caught up in it. Authorial pacing ebbs and flows, and the writing style feels unusual. All in all, a sense of dislocation accompanied my reading but I can recommend the book to lovers of procedural mysteries.
2019 has been a year of benefitting from a number of sage books on focusing and dealing with modern information overload. “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life” is a welcome addition to this congo line. Employing a smooth, helpful prose style and a comprehensive, logical structure, Nir Eyland addresses first the roots of distractibility, highlighting the new triggers of social media and email, before sensibly recommending internal analysis, trigger research, and time blocking as the fundamental steps in taking time back from our distractions. He then offers plenty of useful ways of “hacking back” time, including two that intrigued me: finding online work stint buddies and setting out challenging self-pacts. If you’ve known for ages that something is wrong with how you spend your time, this is the book for you.
A credible attempt at classic near-term sci-fi, “Flip” posits an alternative quantum world into which a neuroscientist is “flipped” by malevolent forces, after which her husband, her daughter, a medic, and Buddhist monks desperately battle to keep her safe. The premise is sound, the action flows, the characters are enriched by capable dialogue, but something is missing in this book. And I think the missing element is a closer focus on the various characters – all come across as cyphers for the admittedly engaging plot. All in all, this is an enjoyable read that feels distinctly empty by book’s end.
“The Lost Man” is Jane Harper’s standalone mystery after her two successful series instalments and it is arguably superior to both of those. Set in the harshness of the Australian outback, struggling farmer Nathan finds his dead brother Cam, and must wrestle with how Cam died. Suspects include his third brother Bub, other family, and local community members. A reader might feel, after the event, that the storyline is familiar (and an astute mystery reader might well cast aside the red herrings to catch the murderer before the end), but Harper exerts wonderful narrative control and an immersive style from the get-go, resulting in a one-sitting classic whodunnit outing. All the characters ring true and the Australian bush functions as a bit player with a strong presence.
In the tradition of Alien, David Koepp, a Jurassic Park screenwriter, entertains with “Cold Storage,” a classic tale of a space-wrought mutation evolving on earth into something terrifying. Koepp’s technical description of the organism that is our villain is fascinating, even if it echoes the creatures from Men In Black. The bioterrorist hero Roberto Diaz tackles the monster twice, decades ago and now, and a race for dominance ensues, with Diaz joined by an entertaining wannabe couple, an ex-prisoner and a single mother. The plotting is straight from the Jurassic playbook, tight and fast, and Koepp brings the organism into terrifying life. I found the narrative style, hopping from point of view to point of view, including from that of the evil blob, to be somewhat distancing, so that even though individual scenes often crackled with acidic humour, the overall effect turned out to be muted. Nonetheless, a rattling yarn indeed.
An engaging modern-day thriller, “Shadow of Doubt” features a young female banker embroiled in terrorism, a deteriorating marriage, and a mysterious legacy, all of it intertwined and gradually accelerating. A fast-paced, likeable read whose tension does not quite match the plot’s gravity, the book whiles away an evening with its diligent, rather gormless heroine and well drawn city and rural locales. An assured debut that hopefully will spawn a series.
“A Cold Trail” is the seventh procedural mystery featuring homicide detective Tracy Crosswhite. Recuperating in her old home town of Cedar Grove, outside her usual bailiwick of Seattle, she and her lawyer husband find their new cases – a brutal murder in her case, local business skullduggery in his – crossing paths, and under the steady hands of author Robert Dugoni, the pace clips along to a complex ending. Much to admire here, from the controlled plotting to the busy locales, though I found the mysteries a tad humdrum and the lead characters interesting but lacking spark. I read it in one sitting and can recommend it as a solid genre read.
Who can forget that ballistic missile of a film made from Rosalie Ham’s debut novel, “The Dressmaker”? Her fourth outing, “The Year of the Farmer,” shares some of the finer aspects of “The Dressmaker,” namely a gorgeous sense of place, larger than life characters who are the same time ordinary folks, and a sense of bigness with emotions. It’s a relaxed read. The underlying topic, the byzantine issue of water rights, is of intrinsic interest to me (probably from a different perspective to the author’s) but quickly grew tiresome, and rapidly shifting character perspectives blunted much sympathy. As a satire, I felt it was too didactic, as a small-town drama, it never acquired its plot legs. Overall, an intriguing but uninvolving story.
Top marks for atmospherics to Krissy Kneen, whose “Wintering” is set in the south of Tasmania, near the famed South Coast Walk, and features eerie, foreboding caves. The partner of cave tour guide Jessica disappears from his car one day, leaving Jessica to seek his traces amidst a local community that appears to know more than she does. Alongside the brooding interiors and coastline, everyone seems charged with portent. For some authors, we’d be talking psychological thriller territory here but Kneen is more ambitious, and this is a gothic, literary effort that works well. I felt the structural plot creaked towards the end but enjoyed the read enormously. Recommended.
Chef and food critic turned smallholding farmer in Tasmania and television explorer of farming, meat, and modern agriculture, Matthew Evans could never not have written “On Eating Meat: The Truth About Its Production and the Ethics of Eating It.” This is a dense, sometimes chaotic, but always fascinating and extremely personal look at the worst and best of modern meat production. Evans decries mass-production, “the animal is a production factor only” beef and chicken farming, writes about his love of pigs, and digs into the nuances of ethical meat eating, as he sees it. Evans’s honesty is impressive. He often describes himself as “conflicted” and describes in vivid language the sadness in killing his farm animals for food. Any reader will find plenty to agree with and plenty to rail against; in my case, I question his analysis concluding that veganism kills as much life as meat eating (though he is correct to decry excessive moral absolutism and grandstanding), yet I applaud his “take no prisoners” judgement that feral cats need to be wiped out. In the end, “On Eating Meat” offers no simplistic rules but asks for honest dialogue: “the place and time for this conversation is, rightly, before we go out to eat.” I highly recommend this book to prod such conversation within yourself. For example, I’m a vegetarian to cut carbon footprint, and I’m sure Evans’s chapter questioning my underlying assumption is wrong but he argues well, using evidence, and I’ll be spending time over the next months working through “On Eating Meat” as carefully as I do the major climate change references.