Author, Book review, Croatia, Fiction, literary fiction, Little, Brown, New York, Publisher, Sara Nović, Setting, war, Yugoslavia

‘Girl at War’ by Sara Nović

Fiction – Kindle edition; Little, Brown; 336 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

Sara Nović’s debut novel, Girl at War, has the dubious honour of making me cry not once but twice.

This deeply affecting story is about a 10-year-old Croatian girl, Ana Juric, who is caught up in the Yugoslavian civil war of the early 1990s.

After her parents are brutally slaughtered, she endures a short stint as a “child soldier”, before her godfather arranges to get her out of the country. Smuggled into the United States, she is adopted by an Italian-American family, where her life looks set to be a happy one, but ten years on, haunted by what she experienced, she returns to her homeland to make peace with what happened.

Idyllic childhood disrupted by war

The book follows a non-linear timeline, so when we first meet Ana she is living in Zagreb with her working-class parents and baby sister. She is a happy-go-lucky tomboy, hanging out with her best friend Luka, when the war breaks out and Yugoslavia divides itself along religious and ethnic lines.

In school, we’d been taught to ignore distinguishing ethnic factors, though it was easy enough to discern someone’s ancestry by their last name. Instead we were trained to regurgitate pan-Slavic slogans: “Bratstvo i Jedinstvo!” Brotherhood and Unity. But now it seemed the differences between us might be important after all. Luka’s family was originally from Bosnia, a mixed state, a confusing third category. Serbs wrote in Cyrillic and Croats in the Latin alphabet, but in Bosnia they used both, the spoken differences even more minute. I wondered if there was a special brand of Bosnian cigarettes, too, and whether Luka’s father smoked those.

As the bombs and gunfights and air raids begin to dominate everyday life, we experience the claustrophobia, confusion and fear from a child’s perspective. Ana can see the destruction all around her and then come home and see it being broadcast on TV.

As a side effect of modern warfare, we had the peculiar privilege of watching the destruction of our country on television.

The book then jumps forward by 10 years. Ana is now living in New York, where she’s undertaking a degree in English literature, but we have no idea how she got there or what has happened to her in the intervening decade. Some of the gaps are filled in by a speech she is invited to make at the UN.

“There’s no such thing as a child soldier in Croatia,” I declared as the next slide flashed—two teenage girls sporting camouflage and scuff-marked assault rifles. “There is only a child with a gun.”

And this:

We were not like the children of Sierra Leone who, a continent away, were fighting their own battles that same year; we weren’t kidnapped and spoon-fed narcotics until we were numbed enough to kill, though now that it was over I sometimes wished for the excuse. We took no orders, sniped at the JNA from blown-out windows of our own accord, then in the next moment played cards and had footraces. And though I had learned to expel weapons from my everyday thoughts, speaking of them now I felt something I wasn’t expecting—longing. As jarring as the guns were to the pale crowd before me, for many of us they were synonymous with youth, coated in the same lacquer of nostalgia that glosses anyone’s childhood.

Hidden trauma

As an adult, Ana is deeply traumatised, perhaps suffering some form of PTSD, because she never sleeps and when she does, she experiences distressing night terrors. She passes as an American, not a Croat, so never tells anyone about her past. It is buried deep within. Not even her boyfriend knows her ethnic background.

In America, I’d learned quickly what it was okay to talk about and what I should keep to myself. “It’s terrible what happened there,” people would say when I let slip my home country and explained that it was the one next to Bosnia. They’d heard about Bosnia; the Olympics had been there in ’84.

But keeping up this pretence is exhausting. And the advent of 9/11 and the American’s “War on Terror” brings up all kinds of memories and conflicting emotions.

The country was at war, but for most people the war was more an idea than an experience, and I felt something between anger and shame that Americans—that I—could sometimes ignore its impact for days at a time. In Croatia, life in wartime had meant a loss of control, war holding sway over every thought and movement, even while you slept. It did not allow for forgetting. But America’s war did not constrain me; it did not cut my water or shrink my food supply. There was no threat of takeover with tanks or foot soldiers or cluster bombs, not here.

Ana begins to realise that she needs to confront her traumatic past in order to get on with her life. She wants to know what happened to her friend Luka and his parents, for instance, and so, using her savings, and in defiance of her adopted family’s wishes, she goes back to her homeland to find answers to those questions.

Her trip is detailed in the final section of the book. It’s a painful return, but it allows Ana to rediscover the good things (as well as the bad) that have shaped her identity and it gives us, the reader, the opportunity to find out how she was smuggled out of the country in a daring operation that so many of her compatriots would never have been able to achieve.

Girl at War is a powerful story about grief, exile and war — and the trauma that endures long after hostilities have ceased.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Keigo Higashino, Little, Brown, Publisher, Setting

‘Newcomer’ by Keigo Higashino

Fiction – Kindle edition; Little Brown Book Group; 353 pages; 2018. Translated from the Japanese by Giles Murray.

Keigo Higashino is a Japanese crime writer who likes to spin his tales in a completely different way to most crime writers. He basically takes the rules of the genre, rips them up and throws them away — and then does things completely on his own terms.

Whodunnit with an unusual structure

Newcomer, which is set in Tokyo, is a whodunnit but the narrative is structured in an unusual way: each phase of the police investigation into the homicide of a 40-something woman is told as if it’s a standalone short story. With each new story, or chapter, we learn something new about the case as the list of suspects grows longer and longer.

The investigation is led by Detective Kyochiro Kaga, a sharp-minded, highly experienced policeman who has just been transferred to the Tokyo Police Department and who was first introduced to readers in Higashino’s previous novel Malice. (Newcomer is billed as book 2 in the Kyochiro Kaga series but you don’t need to have read the first to enjoy this one.)

As his investigation into the murder of divorcee Mineko Mitsui proceeds, more and more potential suspects enter the fray to the point where you wonder whether he is ever going to be able to weed out the real culprit.

The evocative setting — the Nihonbashi area of Tokyo, which is dominated by family-run shops and all-night bars, and is, I believe, one of the original areas of the city — lends an olde-worlde charm to the tale as Kaga slowly but surely traces a series of items found in the dead woman’s home back to the shops in which they were purchased.

His logical and methodical inquiry eventually allows him to rule out several suspects, and the denouement comes in the form of a final chapter that reveals who did it, how they did it and why.

A bit of a plod

Regretfully, I didn’t find this book as exciting as previous Higashino novels I have read, and for the most part, I found it a little dull and plodding. I kept wondering how he was going to tie up all the loose ends, and by the time he did so, I’d become bored by the storyline. It definitely lacks tension.

But it’s an intriguing read in terms of characterisation, scene-setting and plotting. Higashino wields his pen carefully, giving us a rather charming, calm and sensible hero, who uses his brain and his wits to put all the clues together without fuss or agenda. In many ways, Kaga might be a little too nice to be a police detective!

Newcomer — the title refers to Kaga being the new man in the police department — is an unconventional mix of cosy crime and modern-day police procedural. It’s an unconventional mystery full of red herrings, subtle reveals and a suspect list so long the book comes with a dramatis personae right upfront. It might be for you if you’re a crime reader looking for something a little on the unusual side.

This is my 2nd book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it on Kindle on 7 February 2021.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Jane Harper, Little, Brown, Publisher, Setting

‘The Lost Man’ by Jane Harper

The Lost Man

Fiction – hardcover; Little, Brown; 384 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Having read Jane Harper’s previous two novels — The Dry and Force of Nature — both of which I loved, I was super excited to hear there was a third in the offing and managed to secure myself a review copy via NetGalley.

The Lost Man is not part of the Aaron Falk police series so it can be read as a standalone (though, to be fair, they can all be read as standalones, but I would always recommend starting with The Dry first).

It’s set in the Far North Queensland outback and revolves around a trio of brothers, one of whom dies in mysterious circumstances. Essentially it’s a murder mystery, but it’s not a police procedural. Instead, the main “sleuth” — for want of a better word — is Nathan, the older brother, who tries to piece together how his younger brother, Cameron, came to be found on top of the Stockman’s Grave on the border of both their vast cattle properties. Cameron had died from dehydration, but why had he abandoned his vehicle in the heat of the day and why had he visited the grave?

This sounds like an intriguing puzzle to solve, right? I thought it was to begin with, but there’s something about this book that just didn’t work for me. It’s not the mystery, nor the plotting, which is very good and moves along at a reasonable clip. It’s clear the family — three generations all living under the one roof — has a lot of closely kept secrets ready to be exposed and this gives the novel a readerly hook. It’s the flat, clichéd writing — all tell and no show — that ruined it for me.

Stereotypes and clichés

The back stories of the two older brothers are nicely fleshed out, but as characters they are two-dimensional. Subsidiary characters, such as Liz, the widowed matriarch of the family, and Xander, Nathan’s teenage son, are even more thinly drawn.

It doesn’t help that the setting and the livelihoods being described here don’t feel authentic (it’s all so painfully white and there’s not a single mention of indigenous culture or people). And there’s far too much over reliance on worn out tropes — of men not talking about their feelings, of the outback being hot and inhospitable, of women being trapped in abusive domestic situations.

There’s also a tedious romantic theme running throughout — of the exotic European woman who marries the wrong Australian brother — that also lends the story a Mills and Boon flavour.

I know this probably sounds harsh, but I was almost ready to abandon the book about a third of the way in, but kept reading in the hope it might get better. It does pick up slightly towards the end when the pieces of the mystery — all of which I guessed pretty early on — began to fall into place.

Going by other reviews I’ve seen, I’m seriously out of step with common opinion, making me wonder if I even read the same novel.

If you’re looking for a brilliant evocation of outback life, of what it’s like to work in a remote location, struggling with drought and threats of repossession, hunt out Stephen Orr’s brilliant and much overlooked The Hands instead. If you just want an intriguing mystery set in a kind of half-imagined outback, then read this one.

The Lost Man was published in Australia in late October, but won’t be available in the UK until next February 2019 (although you can purchase the Kindle edition if you are that way inclined).

This is my 19th book for #AWW2018 — way more than the 10 that I planned to read.

Anita Shreve, Book review, Fiction, general, Little, Brown, USA

‘The Stars are Fire’ by Anita Shreve

The stars are fire by Anita Shreve

Fiction – Kindle edition; Little, Brown; 256 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

The Stars Are Fire is typical Anita Shreve fare: a simple story about a woman trapped by circumstance and societal expectations who must find a way to seek happiness against the odds.

This might sound clichéd or even naff, but in Shreve’s capable hands it’s not, for Shreve is a terrific storyteller and this novel — her 19th — features all the things I love about her work: strong female characters traversing moral minefields and all told in a fast-paced, economical yet elegant prose style.

Summer fire risk

The story is set on the coast of Maine in 1947 during an unusually hot summer. Grace Holland is married to a quantity surveyor, Gene, with whom she has a troubled relationship: his brooding silences and bullying bedtime practices make her desperately unhappy, but what is she to do? The sexual revolution hasn’t happened yet, she has two young children and a third on the way, and she’s never worked outside the home so is entirely reliant on her husband for financial support.

When wildfires break out further along the coast, Gene heads off to help fight them with his colleagues. But when the wind unexpectedly changes and sweeps the fire back towards the Holland’s neighbourhood, Grace finds herself in mortal danger. Grabbing the children, she flees to the beach, where they spend the night buried in the sand to protect themselves from the deadly flames.

This is where the story takes a tragic turn: the Holland’s house is wiped out in the fire, Grace loses her unborn baby and Gene never returns, but whether he has died in the fire or taken the opportunity to do a runner isn’t clear.

Dramatic story

Okay, so this all sounds rather dramatic, doesn’t it? Domestic abuse. Tick. A community tragedy. Tick. A missing husband. Tick. A dead baby. Tick. A home burned to the ground. Tick.

And things for Grace and her children get far worse before they get better.

But the story isn’t without hope, because over the next few months Grace painstakingly builds a new life for herself without her husband’s support. She learns to drive a car, lands herself a new job and finds herself falling in love with a new man.

Yet Grace’s new-found happiness is tested to the limit in many different ways  and it’s when she least expects it that it threatens to come crumbling down around her feet.

Superb storytelling

As ever, Shreve’s storytelling is on fire in this book (pun fully intended). The narrative burns with a fierce intensity (sorry, I couldn’t resist) and all the characters, including Grace’s bullying husband, are drawn with enormous sympathy.

And while the plot machinations are entirely predictable (if not downright obvious), I found myself swept up in Grace’s life — I was cheering her on even when I knew I was being emotionally manipulated by the quietly sentimental story that unfolds over 250 pages.

The Stars Are Fire — due for publication in the UK on 2 May — probably won’t set your world alight (sorry!), but it is perfect escapist fiction, the kind that mixes suspense with romance, tragedy and human frailty, and keeps you wholly absorbed the entire time you’re reading it. It’s a fine novel, one that is sure to impress existing fans and perhaps garner the author a bevy of new ones.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Jane Harper, Little, Brown, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper

The Dry

Fiction – Kindle edition; Little, Brown Book Group; 352 pages; 2016.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a crime novel and been completely transfixed from the first page. But that’s what happened when I opened Jane Harper’s The Dry, a book I had not heard anything about and had only stumbled upon by accident when I was looking for Australian reads to download onto my Kindle before heading to Greece for a week.

The book, which is set in the fictional country town of Kiewarra in rural Australia — about 500km north-west of Melbourne — is the first by Harper, a British-born journalist now based in Melbourne (she writes for the tabloid newspaper Herald-Sun), and the story itself could have been lifted from the headlines: a murder-suicide of a man, his wife and young son, found shot dead in a farmhouse. The only survivor — and witness — is a baby.

But the case isn’t clear-cut.  Amid the worst drought to ravage Australia in a century, the farm, like all others in the area, had been struggling financially. Luke Hadler’s mother doesn’t believe her son was capable of killing himself, nor his loved ones, and suspects that he may have been murdered by a debt collector. The police in Clyde, the nearest big town with a fully staffed cop shop, think otherwise and have closed the case.

Enter Aaron Falk, a federal police officer specialising in white-collar crime, who grew up in the town but left under a cloud when he was 16. Luke was his best friend at high school and the pair kept in touch. When he returns for the funeral, Mrs Hadler asks him to look into the case for her — even if he isn’t “that sort of police officer”.

Working under the radar with the newly appointed local sergeant, Greg Raco, the pair’s unofficial investigation reveals some disturbing facts that suggest Luke may have not pulled the trigger on his wife and child after all. His own death also looks suspicious. But how to prove it?

Running in tandem with this storyline is a darker one involving Falk’s own past, which fleshes out why he fled town for the city, dragging his father in tow, two decades earlier. Through the clever use of flashbacks Harper does a good job of revealing small nuggets of information that force the reader to constantly reassess their opinion, not just of Falk but of Hadler as well. Are either of them reliable? And just because Falk’s a cop, should we regard him as trustworthy?

A claustrophobic portrait

Harper’s portrayal of small town life played out against a backdrop of ongoing severe drought is an authentic and claustrophobic one. The community, which revolves around the school and the pub, is riven by poverty and personal tensions, and rumour and gossip abound. Anyone who’s lived in a small community will recognise the types of people and behaviours presented here.

The characterisation is richly drawn: the simmering tensions of people at their wit’s end is deftly depicted, and the town’s local “ratbags” — who have grudges to bear and like to solve problems with their fists — never strays into caricature. The people and the unpleasant atmosphere in which they live feels believable.

And for a story that is so fast-paced and tightly plotted, Harper hasn’t skipped on detail: her prose moves along at a clip but she has a keen eye for landscape, atmosphere and little things that matter:

The porch door that used to be yellow was now an insipid shade of blue, he noted with something like indignation. It had pockmarks where the paint was peeling. He could see flashes of yellow underneath, gaping like fatty scars. The wooden steps where he’d sat fiddling with toys and footy cards now sagged with age. Underneath, a beer can nestled in the flaxen grass.

Quite frankly, The Dry, is an astonishing debut. It’s an exceptional crime novel, one of the best I’ve read in years. That I failed to guess the “solution” (I’ve read so many crime books over the years I usually spot them long before the ending) is testament to her skill. Even the denouement, usually the weakest link in a crime novel because, well, the author has to wrap the story up somehow, is deftly handed and quite a surprise. Colour me impressed.

Last year The Dry won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. I can see why.

This is my 41st book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 27th for #AWW2016.

Anita Shreve, Author, Book review, Fiction, France, historical fiction, literary fiction, Little, Brown, London, Publisher, Setting, USA, war

‘The Lives of Stella Bain’ by Anita Shreve


Fiction – Kindle edition; Little, Brown Book Group; 272 pages; 2013.

I’ve read a lot of Anita Shreve in my time (12 books in total and all reviewed here), but it’s been a while since I last dipped into one of her novels — for no other reason than too many titles by other authors have been competing for my time. So, after recently finishing Anne Tyler’s rather marvellous A Spool of Blue ThreadI was in the mood for something similar and Shreve immediately sprang to mind.

I like Shreve’s work because it mixes journalistic realism with great storytelling: she tends to eschew literary flourishes for simple, yet elegant, prose. Her female characters are always strongly drawn. They’re often ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, which test them on all kinds of levels, whether that be physical, emotional or psychological. And she’s not afraid to explore moral or ethical dilemmas, or make her characters do unexpected — and sometimes unwise — things. She’s also very skilled at creating the intimate details of families.

A woman with amnesia

The Lives of Stella Bain, published a couple of years ago, is the author’s 18th novel. It’s set during World War One and tells the story of Stella Bain, an American who volunteers to work in the makeshift hospitals on the battlefields of France.

One day she wakes up in a hospital bed with no memory of who she is or why she’s there. She thinks her name is Stella Bain, but she cannot be sure, and she knows that she can drive an ambulance and is an exceptional artist. Everything else, however, is a mystery.

When given some leave, she heads to London convinced that the clue to her identity lies with the Admiralty. But not long after her arrival she begins to feel overwrought. She’s taken in by a young woman, Lily Bridge, who is married to Doctor Augustus Bridge, a surgeon who specialises in cranial surgery. He is also experimenting with “talk therapy” to help his patients.

This is all rather fortuitous for Stella, because Dr Bridge is able to help her, over quite a long period of time, to recover her past. When she finally recalls her true identity, she heads back to the US to re-establish contact with her family…

Far from predictable

This might all sound rather straightforward, or even predictable, but Shreve throws in a few curveballs by making Stella’s past history a little dubious — she once had an affair, for instance — and there are questions over her reasons for fleeing the States and heading to France long before the US had even joined the war. What is she running from — and why?

I’m not going to give away the answer to that here, obviously, but long-time Shreve fans may be interested to know that “Stella” is a character from one of Shreve’s earlier novels — the historical drama All He Ever Wanted — which adds an extra dimension to the story. Of course, it’s not necessary to have read that book, but it does provide a rather nice a-ha-penny-dropping moment if you have.

While the story could be viewed as being about a woman with amnesia, it actually goes a lot deeper than that: it’s about love and war; shell shock and emotional damage; psychotherapy and the fragile relationships between doctors and patients; what it’s like to work on the battlefields helping people who perhaps cannot be helped; and the importance of identity to our lives.  And mid-way through it turns into a rather intriguing court case that turns Stella’s story into a fight for something more important than herself.

All in all, I found this book a real treat. Yes, it’s too reliant on coincidence; yes, it occasionally veers worryingly close to sentimentality; and yes, the present tense narrative can be a little wearing. But on the whole it’s a well crafted story about a plucky woman refusing to give up her search for meaning when the odds are so clearly stacked against her. It’s also a fascinating insight into the effects of shell shock on a non-combatant, a subject I’ve not come across in fiction before.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Keigo Higashino, Little, Brown, Publisher, Setting

‘Malice’ by Keigo Higashino


Fiction – paperback; Little, Brown; 281 pages; 2014. Translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith with Elye Alexander. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If you think crime novels are generally formulaic whodunits, then let me introduce you to Japanese writer Keigo Higashino.

Higashino does not follow the normal conventions of the genre. In his cult sensation novel, The Devotion of Suspect X — one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read — the reader knows who committed the crime from the outset, but not how it was carried out. His follow-up novel, Salvation of a Saint, presented a similar conundrum.

But in Higashino’s latest crime novel, Malice, he takes it a step further: the book is not merely a howdunit, but a whydunit.

Professional rivals?

Malice tells the story of three men: two professional rivals, one of whom murders the other, and the police detective who investigates the crime.

Kunihiko Hidaka is the victim. A widower and bestselling author, he has recently remarried and is about to relocate to Canada to embark on a new life. His killer is an old childhood friend, Osamu Nonoguchi, a former teacher turned struggling writer, who strangles him to death on the eve of his departure.

The crime is investigated by Police Detective Kyochiro Kaga, who suspects Nonoguchi from the start but struggles to find a motive for the crime. Was Nonoguchi so jealous of Hidaka’s commercial success that he wanted to kill him? And why does Nonoguchi keep hinting that the death of Hidaka’s first wife may not have been accidental? How does Hidaka’s new wife, Rie, fit into the scheme of things?

This not-what-it-first-seems detective puzzle initially throws up more questions than answers, for the crime was committed in a locked room within a locked house, so how did the killer get inside? As the investigation unfolds it transforms into a fast-paced cat-and-mouse game between detective Kaga and his chief suspect, Nonoguchi, both of whom take it in turns to narrate their version of events in alternate chapters. Because they know each other well — they both taught in the same school a decade earlier — their shared history adds an extra dimension and level of intrigue to the story.

What follows is a dizzying array of twists and turns, so that just when you think you might have it figured out, a new fact or piece of information comes to light that turns everything else on its head. It is this steady drip-feed of information that keeps the reader turning the pages and guessing all the way to the end.

Plain prose

As per usual, Higashino’s prose is stripped back right to the bare bones. It can feel leaden and monotonous in places, but this is not the kind of book you read for its literary flourishes. This is a book that’s all about plotting — expertly done, as always — and character.

As a police procedural Malice is meticulous in its detail; as a psychological thriller, it pushes all the right buttons; and as a kind of tongue-in-cheek satire on literary circles and the writing life, it gives pause for thought — how many authors would do absolutely anything, including murder, to make the bestseller list?

I wouldn’t necessarily rank this one on the same level as The Devotion of Suspect X, but as a tightly written, difficult-to-guess, don’t-take-anything-on-face-value crime novel, Malice is a terrific — and totally addictive — read.


Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Keigo Higashino, Little, Brown, Publisher, Setting

‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino


Fiction – paperback; Little, Brown; 374 pages; 2011. Translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith, with Elye J. Alexander. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

To what lengths would you go to cover up a murder? For maths teacher Ishigami — “Suspect X” of the title — the answer is absolutely everything. This is despite the fact that he is innocent of the crime in question. His motivation is nothing more than love — and an obsession with mathematical puzzles.

Cult sensation

In this extraordinary crime thriller, which has been a major sensation in its native Japan and turned into a cult film, we know from the outset who has committed the crime, how they did it and who has helped cover it up. But what we don’t know is the detailed steps Ishigami undertakes to protect the real murderer.

According to Kishitani’s report, the body had been left in a sorry state. It had been stripped of clothes, shoes, even socks. The face had been smashed — like a split melon, the young detective had said, which was more than enough to make Kusanagi queasy. The fingers had been burned, too, completely destroying any fingerprints. The corpse was male. Marks around the neck indicated he had been strangled. There were no other wounds apparent on the rest of the body.

And therein lies the mystery of The Devotion of Suspect X, one of the best plotted crime novels I’ve ever read. How did Ishigami move the body? What is the bicycle doing near it? And how is it possible for him to always be one step ahead of the police?

The story is effectively one giant riddle, but it’s an intelligent riddle. If we understand that to solve a crime you must find the clues and then join them together to create a likely scenario, then it follows that to create the perfect crime you must work backwards and mix real clues in with red herrings so that it cannot be solved.

This is what Ishigami, a mathematician who gave up a promising academic career to teach maths to high school students, does: he treats the crime as a mathematical problem that only a genius could solve. But his one-time rival, the university physicist Yukawa, who unofficially helps Detective Kusanagi of the Tokyo Police with the investigation, may be the only one smart enough to figure it all out.

Intelligent plotting and a fast-paced narrative

What I loved about the story — aside from the wonderful characters, the detached prose style and the evocative Tokyo setting — was the intelligence of the plotting and the way in which the tension increases the further you get into the story. Yasuko, the woman who committed the crime, is told to simply follow Ishigami’s instructions. While she does this blindly, her nervousness is palpable throughout and you know that it won’t be long before she puts a foot wrong and the police are on to her.

And then there’s the competitive element with Yukawa, the only man intelligent enough to figure out what Ishigiami is up to: will he solve the case before the police?

With such a taut narrative it’s hard not to keep turning the pages.

But while it might be easy to dismiss The Devotion of Suspect X as nothing more than a clever puzzle to be solved, the author explores the repercussions of the crime on the people most closely involved in it. He makes them flesh-and-blood real, with foibles, flaws and fears — and at times you don’t know whether you should feel pity or condemnation for them.

The real success of the novel, however, lies in the impossible-to-guess climax. I found myself completely in awe of the way in which Keigo Higashino drew everything together so neatly and still managed to provide an utterly unexpected ending, completely out of left-field.

Is it any wonder more than two million copies of this book have been sold in Japan alone: it is a masterpiece of authorial restraint, concept and plotting. More please.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Little, Brown, New York, Pete Hamill, Publisher, Setting

‘The Gift’ by Pete Hamill


Fiction – hardcover; Little, Brown; 153 pages; 2005.

Coming in at just over 150 pages, Pete Hamill’s The Gift is a quick-to-read novella set in Brooklyn, New York in the 1950s. The Americans are mired in a war with Korea, and Pete, the first person narrator, is a teenage sailor on leave for the Christmas holidays. It’s a bittersweet return, for as much as he’s happy to see his family again, there are two heartaches he must deal with: the father that he feels does not love him and the girlfriend who has replaced him for another.

In typical Hamill style, the writing is eloquent and the narrative appealing, but having just read his memoir, A Drinking Life, it’s plain to see that this story is actually thinly veiled autobiography. Indeed, The Gift, originally published in 1973, was Hamill’s first novel, and he claims to have written it for his father, a man he wanted to impress in order to win his approval and love.

Taking that on board, and noting that all the characters have the same names as Hamill’s real life family — his mother Anne, his father Billy and so on — it almost feels voyeuristic to read this. It comes across as a kind of love letter to his dad, an Irish immigrant, fond of the drink and handy with his fists, which, at times, threatens to cross the line officially known as schmaltz. The twee cover of a Brooklyn brownstone adorned in Christmas lights doesn’t particularly help.

But, in short, this is a lovely heartfelt book that showcases Hamill’s ear for dialogue, his flair for nostalgia, and his uncanny ability to chart the innermost workings of the human heart with honesty and candour.

Anita Shreve, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Little, Brown, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Testimony’ by Anita Shreve


Fiction – hardcover; Little, Brown; 320  pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Reading a new Anita Shreve novel is always a delicious experience, not least because she’s an author with an uncanny ability to spin an entertaining story out of an often simple premise. But what I like most about this prolific American author is her refusal to stick to a formula. While her novels may share similar themes — usually love, loss and family relationships in a New England setting — she plays around with narrative structure so no two books are alike.

In her latest, Testimony, she tells the story of a sex scandal at a private school in Vermont from the viewpoint of some 24 different characters. It sounds crazy to have so many voices in the mix, but somehow, in Shreve’s capable hands, the structure works without losing any narrative drive. But given the story is such a cracking one it would be almost impossible not to convey a sense of urgency and excitement in the telling of it.

The book opens with Mike Bordwin, the headmaster of Avery Academy, watching a video given to him by one of his administrative staff. The footage shows three male students from the school’s basketball team having drunken sex with a much younger pupil. While Mike is shocked and repulsed, he is also desperate to contain the outfall so that it does not tarnish the school’s sterling reputation. But we, the readers, are told at the outset that the explicit video produces …

… something very like radiation sickness throughout the school, reducing the value of an Avery education, destroying at least two marriages […], ruining the futures of three students, and, most horrifying of all, resulting in a death.

As Mike launches an in-house investigation and gets at least two of the culprits — the upstanding Rob Leicht and the less likable “ringleader” James Robles — to sign written confessions, the girl’s outraged parents call the police. Meanwhile the third culprit, Silas Quinney, a promising scholarship student with a talent for basketball, goes missing.

When a local newspaper reporter gets wind of the unfortunate events, Avery Academy suddenly attracts the kinds of unsavoury headlines that destroy reputations and ruin lives.

But, as ever with a Shreve novel, everything is not quite what it might seem. A steady drip, drip of information, delivered by different characters — including some of the parents, other teachers, the students involved and police — allows the reader to build up a picture of what really happened that fateful night. There are certain revelations which occur late in the book that gave this reviewer at least pause for thought. (As an aside, I’d caution you against reading the product description on because it gives away some of these crucial plot spoilers — thankfully I read it after I’d finished the book.)

While Testimony doesn’t attempt to draw any moral conclusion about the scandal, nor does it attribute blame to any one party, it does throw up some interesting questions about the sexual conduct of teenagers (or, as one character puts it, “I thought it odd that no one at school thought to mention to any student that it was actually illegal in the state of Vermont for a senior boy to have intercourse with a freshman girl”) and underage drinking. But it does show very clearly how “a single action can cause a life to veer off in a direction it was never meant to go” .

The social issues here, while important, aren’t examined in any great detail, because the author is more interested in analysing how ordinary people react when thrust into extraordinary situations. For that reason alone, Anita Shreve fans will find much to like in this book and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll race through it in a day or two, desperate to find out what happens in the end.