melissa ginsburg, sunset city (& non-professional protagonists)

Recently I read and loved Sunset City, the grim, Houston-set tale of twenty-two-year-old Charlotte, whose best friend was brutally murdered in a hotel. While the two were intense childhood friends, she hasn’t seen Danielle in a while, after their lives skewed apart due to adulthood and drugs and the wrong type of friends. But recently she and Danielle had made contact, but then, before they could repair their damaged bonds, Danielle is killed. Charlotte searches for the truth, but she’s no detective (though there is one, and he’s mostly there to be attractive). The book does tie up neatly, but it’s not due to any real, deliberate investigation, as much as Charlotte trying to connect with those who Danielle now loved, and getting ridiculously high and endlessly drunk and having some don’t-read-these-parts-on-public-transport sex.

Sunset City is not a style I’m used to, seeing as such a vast amount of crime writing involves alcoholic, bitterly single police officers who sidestep the law gently but with lots of swearing. There are books where the protagonists aren’t professional detectives in any capacity, but have other training that helps, a field of expertise in medical or science backgrounds. The only real talent Charlotte has here – not that I’m implying she’s stupid, more just unfocused – is that she will throw herself into situations with abandon, and they carry her where she needs to be. It seems like lazy storytelling, but the story itself is a heady read, like a literary trip in the most psychedelic of senses. It’s tight, taut, breathless writing, and I enjoyed it. I felt for the character, her broken past, her unsure future, even as I found her lifestyle totally incompatible with my worldview. (Sure, let’s drink a mountain of booze and then get in your car and go drive around with a stranger, why not?)

I do find non-professional main characters, in general, to be an enjoyable foray into how we everyday folk would deal with any kind of criminal situation. You can’t just strut up to the relatives of the victim and ask questions – but you can try. Doors won’t open for you, so you find another way. Sometimes you stumble into answers. Sometimes they stumble into you. And it turns out that it can work–but you’ve really gotta have everything else down pat first: your immersive writing; your dark, neon landscape; your relatable (or at least readable) characters.

Do you prefer your main characters to have investigative expertise on their side? Or does it not matter to you? I can’t say for sure that I do have a preference – I think a lot of my favourite novels still do involve actual detectives – but I’d love to know your thoughts.

steve p vincent, state of emergency

Well, I’m exhausted. I was all, “You know, I guess I’ll read a little bit more of the new Steve P Vincent. And a little more.” *gets popcorn* “Well, I can’t stop now.” *gets wine* “Well, I may as well finish it.” *tablet runs out of battery* “It’s fine, I’ll just read it right next to the wall while it charges.” Upshot is, it’s late, I’m a bit drunk, and I’ve just finished State of Emergency and definitely need a lie down afterwards.

In the first Jack Emery book, Australian reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Emery managed to save the world from a war between China and the USA, in a way that was both action-movie excellent-ridiculous and also kind of realistic, because Vincent has studied political science while I have studied Dwayne Johnson movies for all of my knowledge. This, the second Emery book, is just as gleeful to read—Vincent is more than happy to turn society completely upside down and create a boisterous new world order. A lot of crime thrillers play under the radar in a way that makes you imagine it could all be happening right now, while Vincent’s version of the world is absolutely not happening right now, but ever so alarmingly convincing that it could. And this escalation of reality is totally liberating to read, and super fun.

The USA has been under siege by a series of disastrous terrorist attacks when Richard Hall, the man in charge of FEMA, the States’ emergency resources arm, convinces the president to call a state of emergency and hand over leadership of much of the country to him. Hall is a man who thinks the only way to a Good America is through tight restrictions—curfew, food limits, state guard everywhere—and when the Americans push back, all hell breaks loose. It’s a cacophony of voices, from Emery, who’s mostly trying to stay out of trouble after book one left him emotionally bereft; to Celeste, who conjures such conflicting emotions in Emery that he chose reporting in Syria over trying to deal with his feels; to Sergeant Callum Watkins of the state guard, who is our eyes at the ground level as people begin with hope in Hall’s path and then slowly realise that life is not the same; to the underground resistance that is trying to pursue Jack for his contacts, reach and fame. (He’s won a second Pulitzer inbetween books one and two. Yes, I’m jealous, what of it?)

This is deliriously fast-paced, bloody and unflinching. In a Jack Emery book you can never be assured of the survival of anyone he knows; Vincent doesn’t pull punches with good guys dying, bravely or not. Plans go wrong. Heroes are outnumbered. Bad guys are smug. But Emery never backs down.

From the beginning I was pleased with the number of women populating the book, in high positions (including President of the United States) and everywhere else. They were all over the place, just being normal people, and it’s absolutely refreshing. When you’re a lady sometimes reading a more action-oriented book, you realise women are mostly eye candy, all described only as megababes who are only described according to their level of sexiness. Or there are so few of them that the entirety of the female race seems distilled into one character, who could be beautiful or hideous or a villain. If you have enough women in a book, they just become people. Some are lovely. Some are assholes. It’s like that’s the real world or something, who knows? There is a sprinkling of sexual assault, however, be warned. One other thing: it’s also nice to see America get saved by a non-American. We’ve all watched enough movies where Tom Cruise single-handedly saves Japan while the audience groans to be pleased when America needs help.

In conclusion: don’t start reading it at 9pm unless you have the next day off.

international review: walter kirn, blood will out

In 1998, Walter Kirn is waiting to become a father and up for a noble distraction: driving a paralysed Gordon setter named Shelby from his home state of Montana to New York City. There, Shelby would meet the man who had so desperately wanted to adopt her online: Clark Rockefeller, a name with more pedigree than even the pooch. Kirn, a journalist and writer—later he would publish the novel Up in the Air, which would then be made into a George Clooney movie—handed over the dog and, without quite noticing it, handed himself over alongside her. He had a nose for interesting people and Clark, who had such a relaxed attitude to wealth that he let his dogs lick his original Rothko paintings, was enthralling. He was connected, enigmatic, and any wild speculations he had about the doomed direction the world was heading in seemed alarmingly like they could come true. Because if anyone knew, wouldn’t he?

A decade later, Clark Rockefeller abducted his young daughter during a supervised visit. By the time he was found, so too were his secrets: Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter was no Rockefeller, no pure-blood. And he was also the prime suspect of the 1985 murder of his neighbour, John Sohus, dug up from the ground of the property they both shared.

Having spent the intervening years listening to Clark with mute appreciation, Kirn was well-placed—and humiliated—to tell the story of a fraud who was never short of a lie to tell, and who was so convincing that even his errors would never be brought up by his friends, or his unrealistic tales of classified businesses second-guessed. One memorable moment has Clark hand a frustrated Kirn George Bush’s phone number to help him with a problem; Kirn, of course, never makes the call, despite Clark insisting he “Call George”. It’s this ability that saw Clark sustain his ruse for years, with those he married and those he befriended—but silenced in front of a jury of his peers, he is not the same force.

I genuinely enjoy true crime books where the author places themselves firmly within the events. Yes, it can show bias, but as I’ve always enjoyed fiction more than non-fiction I am much more interested in true crime when there is a personal perspective, and at least you are aware of any skewed opinions as long as the author fulfills the inherent promise of the idea by being honest. I can’t give many examples because I am no expert in the genre, but I have at least read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which this is likened to, and that did the job just beautifully. I did enjoy Kirn’s taut writing and personal honesty about his motives – heck, he likes fame – but this isn’t really the same, though it is probably not Kirn’s fault that people want to connect the two together. I did feel that Kirn talked a lot about his and Clark’s relationship in a kind of abstract way rather than making it feel real and personal, but then, their years-long friendship often did not seem real and personal, just the way not every friend we have is our pinkie-swearing blood-brother best friend forever. Sometimes there was distance in this book where I wanted up-close. But he did not cheapen any of the crimes with overzealous description, which was nice at least for me. I don’t wish to sound overly critical; I just wish I hadn’t listened to those screaming about the new Truman Capote, or relished the Amy Tan quote on the cover I had (I think One Hundred Secret Senses is just glorious), and taken it as it was: a good book, exactly the type of true crime that I liked, and one hell of a story.

steve p vincent, the foundation

Politics is not my forte, let’s just get that clear. In a perfect world, I would be King of Everywhere, using popcorn for currency instead of money and getting asylum seekers out of prison while filling the now-empty cells with people who are jerks to shop assistants. I guess I’ve worried that political thrillers could overwhelm me with smart-talking about Congress/Parliament etc, especially when someone with an actual degree in Political Science (i.e. Steve P Vincent) is the author. But lo! It turns out it’s possible to know your shit and not baffle idiot readers who can’t tell their Abbotts from their Costellos (yes, you can use that joke back in 2007 if you’d like), and craft a roaring political thriller that is unnerving in its description of how the world would go to war.

Jack Emery is a journalist who wakes at the start of the book with a hefty hangover and more than a little bitterness over his soon-to-be-ex-wife and her usurping of his job. When Jack finally gets himself up (as he lay on the ground feeling poorly, I did enjoy the line: “His voice was raspy, and he considered calling for a crime scene unit to stencil some chalk around him, haul him off and call it even”) and stumbles into work, Erin gets the job he desperately wants: a gig in China to cover the World Trade Organization Conference in Shanghai. Jack couldn’t be more enraged or freshly inebriated until word comes out that Shanghai has been the centre of a terrorist attack—and that the wife he just served divorce papers in a petulant tantrum was at ground zero. From there, he finds himself tangled in a vast political web that sends him to an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, a Chinese prison, and into the path of the world’s most dangerous woman. Michelle Dominique is a true villain: member of far-right-wing “political group” (read: batshit crazy assassins) The Foundation for a New America, crafter of a nefarious plan to grab hold of one of the world’s most read media outlets, mastermind behind catastrophic terrorist attacks, happy to stick a pen in someone’s eye, and—oh crap—running for Congress.

Almost every scene drips (or explodes) with tension. It’s the type of ebook that could almost do with being viewed in a popcorn-scented cinema for reading instead of on your iPad on the tram—it’s far too thrilling for public transport, but then, at least it’d wake you up on your commute home from work. From Michelle manipulating everyone and everything with an expert touch; to Chen, the double-crossed bomber who bombed his own country to seek vengeance against family wrongs; to absolutely-not-Rupert-Murdoch newspaper mogul Ernest McDowell, fresh off the back of some hacking accusations and a ripe target; to Jack Emery, a man who is always in the wrong place at the wrong time—this book is ripe with characters you’ll hate, or love to hate, or be surprised by your swinging emotions towards. Who expected to feel bad for McDowell’s broken heart? Not me, but then I’m always a sucker for sad people in books. Even worse is when I dropped the ball on hating Chen—a terrorist!—because he loves his wife and kids. Authors just have no qualms in toying with readers’ emotions, do they? Jeez.

There is not much of Jack’s background on display here, apart from that he’s Australian-born, and that he’s won a Pulitzer for his work in Afghanistan – but as an everyday-type protagonist (I mean, who doesn’t have a Pulitzer! I use mine for doorstops) he doesn’t need an extensive backstory to explain his motivations. You’re on his side as he does his job, tries to help out his country, and suffers unspeakable torture without bravely throwing quips around like James Bond.

Handily, there are some light moments—Jack is exactly the type of smartass I enjoy in thrillers, and everyone who ends up in a dramatic office meeting hates on modern furnishings (“Ernest wondered how many of his tax dollars were paying for the office of Senator Patrick Mahoney, Democrat for Massachusetts. The office looked as if it had been painted by a drunk spinning around on a chair and then furnished by a child.”) But, mostly, The Foundation really is intense. In case you’ve ever wondered what World War Three beginning would be like, you couldn’t really hope for more visceral terror than Emery listening to it start via radio in a helicopter out in the sea in the middle of a war between China and the United States. Missiles fly around him as their craft tries to make it to a US ship in the middle of the South China sea, and I was almost in a panic myself about it. The politics themselves feel legitimate: China vs USA isn’t immediately fuelled by nuclear bombs, but a strengthening of defences, attempts at peace, and countries scrambling to pick a side in a superpower head-on collision.

I almost wrote “this is an explosive political thriller” but surely that’s on every blurb, right? This is a jet-setting, alarming, bang-pow-kaboom read full of metaphorical and literal bloodshed, political machinations you’ll hope desperately will never become reality, and late-night giant-popcorn-wielding funsies. The Foundation is solid. You can use that joke too. Sorry.

The Foundation is available here from today!