Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Out of the slump

Craig every second Tuesday

Kia ora and gidday everyone,

Have you ever had a bit of a reading slump, where you've gone a fair while without finishing a novel, where life or circumstance or mood just means that you're out of sorts, reading wise? (Though a 'fair while' may be different for all of us - days for some could seem like a drought, while months for others may be common.) 

I've been a very keen reader since I was a little kid growing up in the Top of the South Island of New Zealand, I've usually had a book or three in my backpack as I travelled across the world as an adult, and there are often weeks when I read several novels (I probably average 1-3 books a week in general). 

But there are also times when I've randomly gone weeks without reading/finishing a novel. I'm not sure if it's a COVID thing, but during the pandemic I've noticed my reading has come in fits and starts too - a bit feast or famine.

Even the best baseball players go through slumps - are readers the same?

It's been a bit of the latter lately, at least in terms of crime novels. I've still been reading regularly to Miss Seven, and I've devoured quite a few short stories, and a novel or two. But I'm tracking to have read far fewer than my usual 80-100+ crime novels this year (not including awards judging etc), for whatever reason. In baseball terms, I almost feel like I'm in a bit of a slump. Or at least, I was. Because like a ballplayer, sometime you just need that one timely hit, that one exquisite pop off the bat for a home run rather than a fly out to the warning track, to be back in the groove. 

I may have found that over the weekend, having my first 'read an entire book in an afternoon/day' experience in quite a while. And that led to reading three novels in 3-4 days. Slump broken, perhaps? I thought I'd share with you those three novels - all of which are new/upcoming 2022 releases, all of which I'd recommend to crime lovers. 

This is the book that broke me out of my (mini) slump: EVERYONE IN MY FAMILY HAS KILLED SOMEONE by Australian author and standup comic Benjamin Stevenson. I'd heard good whispers about this novel, Stevenson's third - it was published in Australia and New Zealand earlier this year, comes out in the UK in hardcover in August, and will be published in hardcover in the United States in January 2023. 

I tore through it in less than 24 hours, despite having quite a few things to do that day, I kept finding myself returning to it for mini-breaks that got longer and longer. 

In EVERYONE IN MY FAMILY HAS KILLED SOMEONE, Ernest ‘Ernie’ Cunningham is a struggling author of crime writing ‘how-to’ guides who can’t avoid the call to a snowy mountain resort for a ‘modern family’ reunion to mark the release of his brother Michael from prison. It’s a tension-filled weekend from the start. So far, so Agatha Christie. It’s a stressful situation not least because Michael is now with Ernie’s wife, many in the family blame Ernie for Michael being in prison, and as the title says, everyone in the Cunningham family has killed someone. So when a body is uncovered in the snow, seemingly burned despite the icy surrounds, suspects aren’t thin on the ground.

It's clear Stevenson is having plenty of fun with this novel - it's like a love letter to mystery writing which outlines, follows, and plays with traditional tropes. At the start he outlines Ronald Knox’s famous ‘Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction’ from the late 1920s (Knox was a member of the Detection Club, alongside the likes of Agatha Christie and GK Chesterton). Our narrator Ernie even tells us from the start that there will be many deaths, and on what pages they’ll occur. Having tied his own hands a little, Stevenson then performs some brilliant sleight of hand and storytelling – giving the readers far more information than usual, but still managing to surprise and delight. 

Well worth a look. And as I say, Stevenson's book was a bit of a slump-buster for me, because after having a 'one day read' for the first time in quite a while, I did it again the following day, then again the day after that... 

I'd imagine quite a few of you reading are familiar with Atlanta author Karin Slaughter (given she's sold 40 million plus books across 120 countries). She's arguably one of the modern Queens of Thriller writing over the past couple of decades. I've read and really enjoyed several of Karin's novels over the years, from her Grant County and Will Trent series to standalones including COP TOWN, which is on my list of best crime novels of the past decade. 

Ahead of catching up with Karin when she's in London next week, I dove into her upcoming thriller GIRL, FORGOTTEN, which revisits the daughter-mother duo Andrea and Laura Oliver from Karin's 2018 novel PIECE OF HER, which was recently made into a hit Netflix series starring Toni Collette (as the mother Laura). Now Andrea is a newly graduated US Marshall. Her first assignment is to protect Esther Vaughn, a Reagan-appointed federal judge who’s been getting death threats. Secretly, Andrea’s also given a mission to solve the 40-year-old murder of the judge’s pregnant teenage daughter Emily - some powerful people hope it'll keep Andrea's father, the dangerous cult leader Nick Harp, in prison. Karin spins another fabulous yarn - again, I tore through it in a day - as we learn more about Andrea Oliver, a fascinating heroine. There are some fabulous new characters too, such as Andrea's eccentric new US Marshall mentor Catfish Bible. Back to back home runs on the reading front. 

Feeling I was on the verge of a bit of a reading hot streak now, I picked up THE WRONG WOMAN by Maori storyteller JP Pomare from my TBR mountain range. I've really enjoyed all of JP's first four thrillers - he's an excellent writer and one of the most exciting new voices to emerge in recent years - so was confident that this could be another great read. I wasn't wrong. Once again, I tore through this novel in less than 24 hours. 

After kick-starting his career with four superb thrillers set in Australia and New Zealand, Melbourne-based JP ventures into small-town America with this new novel - out in Australia/New Zealand in late July and in the UK in August. Reid is a private eye offered good money by an insurance company to investigate a crash which put the driver, Eshana Stiles, in a coma and killed her professor husband. One problem: it happened in Reid’s hometown of Manson, a place to which he swore to his former boss, the Chief of Police, he’d never return. 

With two missing students and plenty of rumours and secrets muddying the waters, Reid has to dig for the truth while trying to lay low - there are plenty of people from his old life he doesn't want to run into. JP does a terrific job with tension and atmosphere, bouncing between past and present and multiple perspectives and crafting a cracking tale imbued with great characterisation, plus freshness and unpredictability. A top shelf thriller writer. 

So, after a wee slump, three books in a row that were one-day reads, effectively. Excellent.

Will the hot streak continue? We'll have to see. Next up: DIRT TOWN by Hayley Scrivenor. 

What books have you been reading lately? How has the pandemic affected your reading - are you doing more now to escape the news etc, or is all that's going on on the world making it harder for you to read (or write)? Or like me do you kind of bounce between those poles? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. 

Until next time. Ka kite anō.

Whakataukī of the fortnight: 
Inspired by Zoe and her 'word of the week', I'll be ending my fortnightly posts by sharing a whakataukī (Māori proverb), a pithy and poetic thought to mull on as we go through life.

Kāore te kūmara e kōrero mō tōna ake reka 
(The kūmara doesn't speak of its own sweetness)

The kūmara is a sweet-potato like vegetable (from a different family to potatoes and yams) that's been cultivated in New Zealand for more than 1,000 years

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