“The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair” by Joel Dicker (MacLehose Press)

DickerJ-TruthAboutTheHarryQuebertAffairUKA gripping and absorbing, slightly flawed thriller

August 30, 1975. The day of the disappearance. The day a small New Hampshire town lost its innocence.

That summer Harry Quebert fell in love with fifteen-year-old Nola Kellergan. Thirty-three years later, her body is dug up from his yard along with a manuscript copy of his career-defining novel. Quebert is the only suspect.

Marcus Goldman – Quebert’s most gifted protégé – throws off his writer’s block to clear his mentor’s name. Solving the case and penning a new bestseller soon blur together. As his book begins to take on a life of its own, the nation is gripped by the mystery of ‘The Girl Who Touched the Heart of America’. But with Nola, in death as in life, nothing is ever as it seems.

This is not an easy book to review. It has been on my radar for a while, and I’ve been eager to read it ever since I saw it mention on (I think) The Bookseller. I would say it mostly lived up to my expectations. It is expansive, brilliant, absorbing, briskly-paced, but also flawed and at times frustrating, even aggravating. A confounding novel to review. Despite the issues I had with certain elements of the novel and story, it was utterly gripping, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

First of all, I very much enjoyed reading it – I was always eager to get back to it, when life forced me to stop reading (sleep, meetings, etc.). Dicker has written an engaging thriller, one that brings a decades-old disappearance back into the spotlight, as a beloved member of a small town community – the titular Harry Quebert – is accused of two shocking, heinous acts: continuing an affair with a fifteen year-old girl, and also her murder. What follows is an investigation by the accused’s protégé (of sorts), in an attempt to clear his name and salvage his reputation. Along the way, things get very messy indeed. Threats and revelations abound, which keeps readers guessing all the way through – the truth is only revealed in the final 10% of the novel (I read it as an eARC). I really liked the way Dicker keeps throwing out red herrings, and also that Marcus’s investigation does one hell of a lot of damage along the way: relationships are shattered, secrets (related and not) are brought into the light, and the competing agendas at work tear the community apart.

Speaking of these competing agendas: there are times when Dicker’s character come across as cartoonish, and not in a good way. For example, Marcus’s editor/publisher is rather unrealistic – as if every commercial consideration that any publisher would need to take into account is exaggerated and overblown. He is an awful person, and there’s no reason to disbelieve the existence of such characters, but he does certain things that seem so stupid. Considering he’s able to offer $2,000,000 dollar advances, he comes across as singularly devoid of the emotional intelligence to be a high-powered, successful publisher in New York. The publishing aspects of the novel were, actually, the most lacking in verisimilitude, which was a real pity.

Dicker’s writing is, for the main, excellent and the translation is superb, too. The pacing is superb, and I was absolutely captivated by the narrative and investigation. At the same time, there were instances when the dialogue – especially that featuring Marcus’s editor, Nola and select other characters – appears melodramatic and just not very good. At the risk of sounding condescending or unfair, I can’t help but wonder if this is an instance of lost-in-translation?

There were times when the investigation – official and Marcus’s amateurish actions – veered off in strange ways. Partly, this was to allow for the frequent upending of their attempts to get to the bottom of things. For the main, it worked very well, but there were certainly times when I became frustrated. Without shedding too much light on particulars, some of the switcheroos felt forced. In addition, some of the characters are morons – especially when it comes to the writing of the book-within-the-book. Marcus and his editors commit some astonishing failures and cock-ups, one that didn’t ring true at all. One in particular, very near the end, is an unforgivable oversight that I just can’t see happening in real life – something that could so easily have been rectified over the course of the investigation. Frustrating moments like this robbed the novel of some of its impact.

This review is, I recognise, rather vague on the details. This is because, despite this flaws – and some might consider them huge – I could not stop reading. In terms of sheer enjoyment, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a while. Given how picky I can be, and how easy gaffs and inconsistencies can ruin a novel for me, I think that’s saying something. It is not surprising to me that this has been such a success.

If the goal of any novel should be to entertain, be thought-provoking, and get the reader thinking, this this novel succeeds on every level. That is has some shortcomings is made almost irrelevant by just how good the rest of it is.

Gripping and absorbing, this is well worth reading. Definitely recommended, but be warned that there are some niggles.

“Iron Night” by M.L. Brennan (Roc)

BrennanML-GV2-IronNightA second, fine mess Fortitude Scott has got himself into…

Underachieving film theory graduate and vampire Fortitude Scott may be waiting tables at a snooty restaurant run by a tyrannical chef who hates him, but the other parts of his life finally seem to be stabilizing. He’s learning how to rule the Scott family territory, hanging out more with his shapeshifting friend Suzume Hollis, and has actually found a decent roommate for once.

Until he finds his roommate’s dead body.

The Scott family cover-up machine swings into gear, but Fort is the only person trying to figure out who (or what) actually killed his friend. His hunt for a murderer leads to a creature that scares even his sociopathic family, and puts them all in deadly peril.

Keeping secrets, killing monsters, and still having to make it to work on time? Sometimes being a vampire really sucks.

The sequel to Generation V, in Iron Night, we get more of the same – which is by no means a bad thing. We get to see Fort embracing his vampire heritage a little more. Since he started going through his physical changes, he appears to have accepted that he can’t escape what he is, and as a result has stopped rebelling as much as he used to. Iron Night is a solid follow-up, complete with great character development. Continue reading

“Con Law” by Mark Gimenez (Sphere)

Gimenez-ConLawAnother great Texan political thriller from Gimenez

John Bookman – “Book” to his friends – is a tenured professor at the University of Texas School of Law. He’s thirty-five, handsome and unmarried. He teaches Constitutional Law, reduces senators to blithering fools on political talk shows, and is often mentioned as a future Supreme Court nominee.

But Book is also famous for something more unusual. He likes to take on lost causes and win. Consequently, when he arrives at the law school each Monday morning, hundreds of letters await him, letters from desperate Americans around the country seeking his help. Every now and then, one letter captures his attention and Book feels compelled to act.

In the first of a thrilling new series from the author of international bestsellers The Colour of Law and Accused, Book investigates a murder in the corrupt world of deepest, darkest Texas.

I’m a big fan of Gimenez’s novels. In the early years of his career, he was (too) often compared to John Grisham (another of my favourite authors – and I will admit that’s why I first tried Gimenez’s novels). Personally, I think he carved out an authorial identity all his own far quicker than some other critics. From The Perk onwards, at least, he has been producing some highly addictive, well-crafted thrillers. Con Law, the first in a new series featuring Book, is another excellent example of the author firing on all cylinders. I blitzed through this, and can’t wait for the next book.

Set in Texas, Gimenez crams in a lot of political and social commentary into his novels. As with his previous novel, The Governor’s Wife, Con Law is heavy on the political and social commentary. But, far from being a screed or polemic, the author lets all of his characters have their say. Unlike some writers, who caricature those who don’t agree with them for comic relief, Gimenez offers levity through nostalgia and Nadine, Book’s new intern who has some very strange ideas and habits. Also unlike The Governor’s Wife, this new novel feels far more focused – there is no mid-way shift in style or sub-genre. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of Gimenez’s novel thus far, but Con Law felt particularly polished and confident.

The plot is fast-paced, and there are a number of twists and turns, as Book and his intern get to know the people and local politics of Marja. The social divisions, the tensions, and more all come crashing together, stirred up during their investigation. Not everyone comes out unscathed. I’m not really sure how to talk more about the plot without ruining things, so all you need to know is that this is fast-paced and on-the-edge-of-your-seat gripping.

Texas is a fascinating state: its politics, society, and culture are often quite different from other states, even its neighbours. Through the story, the author covers a lot of ground: the state of academia, Texas Republicans and their stranglehold on politics, corporate law in Texas (the easy condemning of land is particularly important, here), the generally conservative temperament and politics of Texans, and how it butts up against transplanted liberals (in Austin, in Marja). Central to Book’s investigation is also fracking, which has become a politically charged issue not only in Texas and the US, but in any country/region with natural gas and oil deposits. Gimenez handles it all very well, and in a deft and fair manner – nobody is made out to be a cartoon, nobody is “right” or “wrong” in their positions, instead we see every side of the arguments, presented as is. It isn’t difficult to ascertain the author’s own mind, of course, but he is not preaching. Given Book’s profession, we also get a couple of scenes set in the classroom, discussing hot-button Supreme Court decisions (Roe v. Wade and Obamacare, of course), and I’m pleased to say, despite devouring a considerable amount of news coverage on those decisions, Gimenez still presented a couple of arguments and interesting tidbits that surprised me. Very pleasant surprise, too.

The characters are well-rounded and quite fun to read about. The working relationship between Book and Nadine is often amusing – despite being relatively young, he finds some of Nadine’s habits confounding. Sometimes she comes across just a little cartoonish, and her lack of certain general knowledge didn’t ring quite true. Nevertheless, it’s easy to forgive this minor niggle, as Gimenez’s writing and plot just pull you along.

Academia, politics, jobs, fracking, social disruption, communities… Con Law touches upon pretty much everything. As a politics and thriller junkie, it felt almost tailor-made for my tastes, and exceeded my high expectations. On the surface, it’s a great story of small-town Texas life and justice. But it also has depth, is intelligent and is expertly crafted. One of his best, I’m glad this is going to be a series. I can’t wait for the next book.

Highly recommended for all fans of thrillers.

Also by Mark Gimenez: The Color of Law, The Abduction, The Perk, The Common Lawyer, The Accused, The Governor’s Wide