Best holiday reads for 2019/2020
Sisters in Crime asked convenors and speakers at its 2019 events what they would recommend for holiday reads and this is what they said:
Kirsten Alexander (author)
Tana French, The Trespasser (Viking Press, 2016): This book will be familiar to many of you, but it was new to me. And I’d recommend it over the more recent meandering door-stopper, The Wych Elm (though French offers a blistering portrait of entitlement taken to extremes in it). Don’t be fooled – as the detectives Conray and Moran initially are – by the straightforward case that forms the core of The Trespasser. A woman in her apartment dies from a head wound. Her table is set for two. Whatever assumptions you’re making, however reasonable, are wrong. The victim was involved in a previous investigation and these two detectives weren’t assigned the case by accident. French’s control of structure and pace offer a masterclass for would-be crime writers, a treat for readers.
Toni Jordan, The Fragments (Text Publishing, 2018): I’m a fan so this is not an objective recommendation! But The Fragments is my favourite Jordan novel. This literary mystery toggles between 1930s’ New York and 1980s’ Brisbane, and explores ideas of authenticity, identity and obsession, as well as touching on some dark moments in world history and the character’s personal lives. The story is deliciously clever, revolving around the death of a reclusive writer, the charred remains of her second manuscript, and the intriguing possibility that another truth is about to be told. Storylines past and present are equally compelling, and I absolutely did not predict where the story was going to land.
Joanna Baker (author)
Tana French. All of it. Starting with In the Woods (Penguin, 2007). Maybe I’m not the only one to be late to catch up with this author. She’s a revelation. Psychological subtlety, rich characterisation, compelling mystery, exquisite writing. Page 1 of her first book In the Woods – with imperilled kids running wild and summer exploding on the tongue and tingling on the skin – well my skin was tingling too. It’s a feeling I haven’t had for a while, and with six compelling mysteries in the Dublin murder squad series … can’t wait for the holidays.
Agatha Christie, Endless Night (Collins Crime Club, 1967; Harper Collins, 2007) Hope it’s not a big yawn to nominate an Agatha Christie? Surely every crime reader’s summer should include at least one? This late-career book is original, chilling, and completely enthralling with Christie’s trademark misdirection and her use of the uncanny taken to new heights. Immerse yourself in it. And don’t read the snooty Guardian review, which is full of shameless spoilers.
J M Green, Shoot Through (Scribe Publishing, 2019): Jen manages to bring all things contemporary to her latest (and sadly the last) of her Stella Hardy series. This time Stella has her arm twisted to investigate – who killed who and why – behind the so-called security of Her Majesty’s prison. This is a rollicking tale and will readily fill your day as you recline with your favourite beverage.
Aiofe Clifford, Second Sight (Simon & Schuster, 2018): Eliza returns to her childhood home in the aftermath of a bushfire. Her father is dying, her sister is unwelcoming and the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of a childhood friend surface, again.
Sherryl Clark (author)
Cara Hunter, In the Dark (Penguin UK, 2018): A woman and child are found in a cellar – just when you think it’s a typical abduction story, it begins a series of very intriguing twists and turns. Always surprising, and I loved discovering a new author and series to read.
Laura Wilson, A Capital Crime (Quercus UK, 2010): It’s winter, 1950 in a dingy part of London; John Davies confesses to strangling his wife and baby daughter and is convicted, but who really did it? Loved the historical setting, and the detective Stratton, but also the tie-in with a notorious murderer of the time.
Tana French, The Secret Place (Viking Press, 2014): I just keep coming back to her books and always love the mystery and intrigue.
Jennifer Ashley, Death Below Stairs (Penguin Random House, 2018): I seem to be drawn to authors and crimes which involve cooking! I always love historical novels and am well through this series now with their quirky characters and interesting dishes.
Caroline de Costa (author)
Cathy McLennan, Saltwater – An epic fight for justice in the tropics (University of Queensland Press, 2014)
An extraordinary account of a murder case involving young Aboriginal children, written by the lawyer who helped defend them, this is a damning story of racism and disadvantage in rural Australia.
(Caroline is so busy she only had time to nominate one book…)
Kelly Gardiner (author)
Krissy Kneen, Wintering (Text Publishing, 2018): I very much enjoyed this strange and evocative Tasmanian Gothic book in which you never quite know what’s happening and nor does the protagonist. Unsettling and gripping.
Dervla McTiernan, The Rúin (HarperCollins, 2018): There are many good reasons that this book won this year’s Davitt Awards – it’s spooky, and fast-paced, and forces you to care about characters in every direction. A ripping yarn.
V M Whitworth, The Bone Thief (Ebury Press, 2012): First in a short series featuring Wulfgar, a young priest in training in Anglo Saxon England. And, of course, our unlikely hero is sent on an impossible and secret mission from Mercia into scary (and not Christian) Viking England. Great history that infuses the book but it isn’t heavy reading, just excellent writing with real characters, and a suspenseful plot. I finished this book and immediately bought the next in the series, The Traitor’s Pit (Ebury Press, 2013).
Sue Cox, The Man on the Washing Machine (Minotaur Books, 2015): Sue was introduced to me on Facebook by a mutual friend who said she thought I’d like her and “Oh by the way she’s just won the 2014 First Crime Novel Award from Minotaur”. That was always going to endear her to me! The book is a mystery set in Sue’s beloved San Francisco. It’s a quirky, off-beat mystery, and a bit different in a nice way. The central character is a woman with secrets (of course) who finds her new life invaded by a worrying number of dead bodies, which threaten to destroy her hard-won peace. And, of course, the police won’t believe her so she has to solve the crime herself.
Olga Tokarzuk, Drive your plow over the bones of the dead (Text Publishing, 2018): Translation of wonderful Polish thriller and dark feminist comedy about an eccentric 60 year schoolteacher living in a remote village. Her dogs disappear and then someone is murdering the men. Who’s responsible?
Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, She said: Breaking the sexual harassment story that helped ignite a movement (Bloomsbury, 2019): The reporters who broke the story on Harvey Weinstein describe the challenging and meticulous process in convincing those women to go public, along with Christine Blasey Ford who testified against US Supreme Court nominee Kavanagh. So many victims, so little justice.
Emma Viskic, Darkness for Light (Echo, 2019): I’ve just finished this book, Emma’s third. Caleb Zelic is back and, despite vowing to make good decisions, he finds himself in a desperate situation with his old partner, Frankie. Tense and full of twists and turns, it is a perfect holiday read.
Attica Locke, Heaven My Home (Serpent’s Tail, 2019): I am keen to read this follow-up to Bluebird, Bluebird. Locke writes with great insight and passion about racism and what it is like to live as a black person in America.
Susan Hurley (author)
Louise Penny, The Beautiful Mystery (Hachette and Hachette Audio, 2012): The clever, loving, compassionate Inspector Armand Gamache is the protagonist of Louise Penny’s 15 murder mystery novels set in Quebec. The Beautiful Mystery, one of her best, takes place in a monastery at the end of a lake where the monks’ chanting is sublime, but, of course, evil lurks. The audiobook is fabulous.
Susan Orlean, The Library Book (Simon & Schuster, 2019): A love letter to libraries, this is creative non-fiction at its best. The story is woven around the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library which destroyed 400,000 books. A heinous crime, but was it arson?
J M Green, Shoot Through (Scribe Publishing, 2019): This year, I loved two gutsy crime fighting heroines. J M Green’s lefty social worker Stella Hardy this time takes on cattle duffers, private prisons and her own deadbeat brother.
Katherine Kovacic, Painting in the Shadows (Allen & Unwin, 2019): Katherine’s cool intellectual art historian Alex Clayton is my other heroine who, in this book, unravels a murder mystery involving forged paintings.
Kylie Kaden (author)
Delia Owens, Where the Crawdad Sing (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018): An exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming of age story and a surprising tale of possible murder. I’d never pick this based on the premise – a young girl surviving alone in the marshlands of the North Carolina coast in the 60s, but I guarantee that Kya will crawl into your heart and never leave.
Sally Hepworth, The Mother-in-Law (Pan Macmillan Australia, 2019): This book by acclaimed Australian author, Sally Hepworth, is a mystery more than a straight crime – a twisty, compelling novel about one woman’s complicated relationship with her mother-in-law that ends in murder. The matriarch of a loving family is found dead, leaving a suicide note. But not all is as it seems in this page turning, insightful novel about the trickiest of relationships.
Karina Kilmore-Barrymore (author)
Harriet Tyce, Blood Orange (Hachette, 2019): It’s hard to find a character to like in this book until their weaknesses are revealed. Behind the big-noting, drunken, high flying bravado of the London legal profession is a truly messed-up world. The insight is shocking as we follow barrister Alison through her first murder, her career on the rise.
Petronella McGovern, Six Minutes (Allen & Unwin, 2019): Hours of reading will fly by, as you race through this debut novel trying to guess and second guess who the baddy is. The plotting and weaving is so clever that very quickly you just happily surrender to the author and go along for the ride.
Jennifer Lane (author)
Joyce Carol Oates, My Life as a Rat (Harper Collins, 2019): This deeply disturbing tale is narrated by a young girl who is exiled from her family after she reveals a horrific secret. This was the first book I’d read by Joyce Carol Oates – after my friend raved about it – and it was my favourite novel of the year.
Helen Garner, Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law (Picador, 2004). Garner’s balanced account of the murder of Joe Cinque by his girlfriend is true crime writing at its best. I love anything Helen Garner writes, but this book was especially compelling – I read it in one sitting (admittedly I was sitting on a plane, but still…)
Petronella McGovern (author)
Jesse Blackadder Sixty Seconds, (Harper Collins, 2017): A family tragedy leads to questions of blame, guilt and criminal negligence. This haunting story set in lush, subtropical Murwillumbah explores how parents Finn and Bridget, and their teenage son come to terms with their grief and loss while under the scrutiny of friends, the police and media. Beautifully written, heartbreaking and hopeful.
Sarah Bailey, The Dark Lake, (Allen and Unwin, 2017): The first book in the series featuring Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock. When Gemma investigates the murder of an old class mate in her small rural town, she is forced to scrutinise her own actions in the past. A psychological police procedural with a complex and flawed protagonist, moving between two timelines and containing many secrets.
Janet Lee, The Killing of Louisa (UQP, 2018): Historical literary fiction. This careful and thoroughly researched reconstruction of the last days of a woman facing the death penalty in 1888 New South Wales is compelling reading. Was shortlisted for 2019 Davitts.
Chloe Hooper, The Arsonist (Penguin Random House, 2018): As Australia burns it is timely that everyone should read this detailed account of fire in Australia and the exploration of inside the mind of a man who set a blaze Gippsland in 2009. Winner 2019 Davitt (Non-fiction).
Loretta Smith, A Spanner in the Works: The extraordinary story of Alice Anderson and Australia’s first all-girl garage (Hachette, 2019): After devouring this book in one sitting, I think it’s criminal that entrepreneur and inventor Alice Anderson isn’t better known – she should be on our currency! Loretta’s telling of Alice’s life story (including unravelling the mysterious circumstances of her tragic death at just 29 years old) reads like an adventure novel, engaging, exciting and insightful and you’ll be left feeling inspired by this incredible young woman.
Sarah Thornton, Lapse (Text Publishing, 2019): A fantastic debut, simmering with tension, conflict and so many plot twists your head will spin! Clementine, the kick-ass but severely flawed protagonist, will have you cheering her on whilst simultaneously rolling your eyes at her life choices, as she tries to uncover why her star football play quit just before the town’s first final in 50 years.
Carmel Reilly (author)
J M Green, Shoot Through (Scribe Publishing, 2019): Sadly, this is the final novel in Jenny Green’s Stella Hardy trilogy. It’s a smart, pacey read, with an engaging protagonist, a nice amount of social commentary and generous dollops of both sly and dry humour.
Sherryl Clark, Trust Me I’m Dead (Verve Books, 2019): Sherryl’s impressive first foray into adult crime takes us on a wild ride around Melbourne as her nuggetty lead, Judi Westerholme, searches for both the living and the dead—discovering a chunk of herself along the way.
Natalie Conyer, Present Tense (Clan Destine Press, 2019): This debut novel has everything from the get-go – a dead body on page one, taut writing, well-drawn characters and a complex and compelling plot about post-apartheid South Africa. Oh, and politics!! I am buying five copies as presents.
J M Allsopp, Death by Tradition: Fiji Islands Mysteries 2 (Coconut Press): Police detective and former Rugby star, DI Joe Horseman, and his resourceful partner DS Susie Singh are called on to investigate the murder of a young activist in the highlands of Fiji. I enjoyed every minute – fine writing, fascinating plot and so many insights into life on one of our nearest neighbours, and even a bit of romance. This series is self-published but cries out to taken up by a mainstream publisher.
Emma Viskic (author)
Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister the Serial Killer (Allen & Unwin, 2018): Nigerian writer Braithwaite has written a fun, darkly hilarious story about sibling rivalries and loyalties. When her sister starts ‘accidentally’ killing suitors, Korede is left to clean up the mess.
Dervla McTiernan, The Rúin (HarperCollins, 2018): An atmospheric story with great characters and unexpected twists. When a body surfaces in the river, detective Cormac Reilly is thrown back into a cold case that’s haunted him his entire career.
Joanna Baker, The Slipping Place (Impact Press, 2018): This year one of my happiest discoveries was author Joanna Baker. I recommend her crime novel for adult readers, The Slipping Place, set in contemporary Hobart. (See my Q&A https://www.sistersincrime.org.au/a-murder-mystery-about-mystery-itself-qa-with-c/with Joanna on the Sisters in Crime website for a preview.) I’m now planning to catch up on Joanna’s YA writing. First there’s the Davitt-award-winning novel Devastation Road, recently reissued, and then its sequel, The Elsinore Vanish, just released.
J M Green, Shoot Through (Scribe Publishing, 2019): And a big thank you to J M (Jenny) Green for her Stella Hardy novels. The third and final in the series was published this year. Stella has such a strong social awareness and conscience when it comes to everyday life in Melbourne’s western suburbs and the CBD places of power. She’s witty too. I’m looking forward to whatever writing J M gives us next.