June 2020 reads

Another couple of weeks have passed and the mercury in Sydney has fallen. I’m glad to have gotten some reading done. Since my last catalogue, I’ve dealt with Harry Hole number 5 and breezed through Anh Do’s memoir. Michael Connelly’s Fair Warning represents my latest addition. This past fortnight, I’ve tackled two thriller giants while slaying an award-winning bio. In chronological order, here is the list:

The Devil’s Star (Nesbo). This marks my third read of the popular crime series. The novel opens with a backstory about an apartment haunted by its past. A bricklayer named Andersen constructed the flat over a century ago. His ancestors were from Scotland. The site becomes the scene of a murder. Regardless, Detective Harry Hole is at the end of the line. Thanks to his vices and insubordination, his days are numbered. He initially wants nothing to do with the case, as his adversary, Tom Waaler, is heading the investigation. As the bodies pile up, the force believes that they are amid a serial killer. As the book maintains, this is a rare occurrence in Norway. There is a lengthy briefing among detectives as they try to dissect the murderer.  

Harry sees this as his way of going out in style. He keeps his vices and doubts in check and dedicates himself to solving the case. Meanwhile, the book’s title derives from the five-pointed star that the killer uses. This mark slips Harry in the first few crime scenes. Yet after a particularly resonant dream, he puts it together. He is also determined to catch Waaler as he believes the latter is responsible for his colleague’s death. The killer’s identity remains a mystery for most of the text. Harry is out for justice, ditto the matador. The team does not realise that slayer is in their midst, that he is doing this to spite a loved one. He’s hitting two birds at once.

Hole has a strong team, despite his flaws. His two trusted allies include his boss, Moller, and Oystein, a childhood friend. This ensures that he is able to move forward in spite of the obstacles. However, he has a love-hate relationship with Rakel, who he met in The Redbreast. His flakiness and apathy get in the way and his personal life suffers. However, his quick thinking proves invaluable for the case. Near the end of the novel, Hole is once again in a bind. His own workmates are against him as he tries to clear the case. Much like Harry Bosch, he has his own way of tackling things. The ending is pure Nesbo and only one party will remain standing. Furthermore, the conclusion justifies the opening salvo (apartment). The text comes full circle. One thing I noticed about Nesbo is that he likes to give a little background on things. Whether it’s the apartment, Waaler’s family history, or a sidenote on Jim Beam, he remembers to provide his faithful with context.

Rating: 4.55/5

The Happiest Refugee (Anh Do). I first heard about Anh’s biography many years ago. His memoir was received well enough that this became part of the student curriculum. I finally perused his work in early June. Anh is a great storyteller. He relates his tale with uncanny attention to detail. The whole thing is silky smooth and reads like a regular adventure novel. His prose too is timeless, and I could easily see this book being appreciated epochs later. Furthermore, he wrote this on his own, unlike others who hired a collaborator. The spacing inside chapters is well-balanced, with many breaks and sections.

Anh Do tells an incredible true story. He starts off when his parents met in Vietnam, just after the War. The hostilities took their toll on both his parents’ families and set the stage for an escape. Since his father facilitated the show-and-go, Anh had always admired his bravery. Later on, his dad, Lee, admitted that he was as scared as everybody else. His brethren’s journey was perilous. Firstly, they had to fit forty people into a small boat. Secondly, pirates robbed them twice. They awaited their faith in Malaysia before finally making it to Sydney. Throughout the book, Anh references his father’s wisdom – even though the latter left them when he was in Year 7.

They got all their clothes from the Vinnies op shop upon arrival. Money was always tight with Anh, his brother Khoa, and sister Tram. However, this did not stop them from lending a helping hand. Whether family or not, they welcomed others and did their bit. Anh’s mum is a devout Catholic, hence they did their primary studies in a Catholic school. After this, Anh spent six years in a private, all-boys school. While there, Anh once scored twenty-four points against D-level dribblers. All while wearing dodgy, worn-out shoes. He also tried cricket, with lesser success. One of his teachers convinced him that he could both write and act. He studied Law at uni and got offered a job at a big firm. He then realised that his heart belonged to stand-up. He met the love of his life at uni, although they came from very different backgrounds. They have three sons together.

The book has some anecdotes, highlighting Anh’s good fortune and the selfless people he met. For instance, his friend Phil lent him textbooks in high school. The late comedian Dave Grant likewise took him under his wing. Anh comes from a big family, his Dad one of ten children while his mother has seven siblings. The book foregrounds Anh’s perspective as a Vietnamese immigrant trying to make a name for himself. He flies the flag for us dreamers, the ideal torchbearer. Anh started out small and had hurdles. He was on Deal or No Deal, the first time I saw him. He became one of a handful to win the top prize, which went to a couple in need. After transitioning to TV, he finally bought a house for his mum. Heightened suspense is the book’s one flaw. There are a few cliff-hangers and revelations which make you want to finish it all. To quote Lee Do, ‘There’s only two times in life: there’s only now and there’s too late.’

Rating: 4.82/5

Fair Warning (Connelly). This is book 3 in the Jack McEvoy series. I read The Poet (1996) last year and The Scarecrow (2009) in April. Nice seeing Connelly returning to this series after an extended hiatus. The book takes its title from McEvoy’s current role. This instalment opens with a smash when McEvoy is accused of murdering a woman. He had a one-night stand with Tina and the five-ohs allege that he had been cyberstalking her. His ensuing actions further raises suspicions. As the body count rises and crosses state lines, McEvoy makes it his mission to find the matador. He uses his reporter skills to uncover the truth even as he’s accused of meddling.

His findings lead him to genetics, a very pertinent issue that is not regulated enough. He is able to connect the dots between the killings and stay ahead of the investigation. Through the saga, he is always wary of the scoop. Jack is very protective of his story, knowing the magnitude fully well. Though he encounters obstacles, he works in tandem with Emily, his co-worker. He also gets help from Myron, his boss. Later, he approaches ex-FBI agent Rachel Walling, his former flame. The latter contacts the FBI in turn, as the case becomes a matter of national consequence. Ironically, Fair Warning is the name of ‘a real news site.’ The author is one of the board members. Moreover, the protagonist’s podcast (Murder Beat) seems like a pun on the author’s version (Murder Book). Finally, there is a real Myron Levin – the editor of Fair Warning.  

The novel is a real page-turner, with twists and subplots that keep you hooked. Like his other material, this one pays homage to LA and is very well-written and researched. After all these years, Connelly is still writing at the top of his game. Seeing him take on key social issues is lovely. Like Scarecrow, he also paints a vivid caricature of the postmodern journalist. In the age of new media and fake news, Jack and company enlighten us about news in the big city. Meanwhile, just as sweet is his penchant for decisive endgames. Although this one’s conclusion was classic Connelly, the main thing is that it was a happy end result. The book’s styling was quite similar to The Scarecrow, offering the viewpoints of various characters. I’ve seen Connelly adapt this approach more and more in recent releases. Fair Warning has once again figured on the Times list. Becoming a Times bestseller is the pinnacle of authorial success, but to Michael Connelly, it’s just another day in the office.

Rating: 4.85/5    

That’s been the list for the first two weeks and change of winter. I’ve managed three titles so far, the usual two novels and one nonfiction read. That’s three different writers for three books. I admit that I had to winnow the Anh review quite a bit. I’ll soon get cracking on the sixth Will Trent book. Sydney may be amid a freeze, with snow even forecast in the ski fields. In line with the lifting of restrictions, travellers have booked in droves for the upcoming snow season. Meanwhile, I’ll be back in a bit to share even more reads.

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