Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Getting the reading fire roaring, again...


Expectant, the fifth novel in a terrific, CWA Dagger-shortlisted series starring headstrong young female Detective Sam Shephard, is among my recent great reads

Craig, every second Tuesday. 

Kia ora and gidday everyone.

Have you ever been in a reading funk? I've been a lifelong reader, loving books and stories since my earliest childhood memories. Growing up in New Zealand I spent a fair bit of time outdoors and playing various sports, but I also loved curling up with a good book - whether on a rainy day, on the couch in the evening, or in bed at night. 

I devoured books from Asterix to Agatha Christie, from CS Lewis to Roald Dahl to JRR Tolkien and so much more. 

That's continued throughout my life. There are times where I've read a lot more than others, but I've always read. Even when having a very busy job, or at law school, or travelling around the world, a novel has never been far from my reach. Recently however, to end 2022 and begin 2023, I was in a bit of a reading funk. I hadn't stopped reading as such - like I said, I've always read - but I was glacial. A small handful of novels read in a couple of months, rather than multiple books a week like usual. There was a lot going on personally that played a part. Even the books I really enjoyed were taking days or weeks to get through, rather than tearing through them in a day or two like usual. 

A love of reading is passed from generation to generation in my family

I just wasn't reading for sustained periods of time, for various reasons. I knew (hoped) I'd shake it off at some point, and that point thankfully arrived in last month when I picked up a novel I needed to read for an upcoming interview for a magazine article. I just couldn't put it down. I tore through it in hours. Back to my old self. 

The next day I started another crime novel I'd been looking forward to, and that was done by the following day. Two more that week. I was back! Even though I was just as busy, or busier, with work and family stuff than I had been during my protracted reading funk, I was really loving reading again and making time for that rather than mindlessly whiling time away with re-runs, YouTube videos, or other 'not have to think too much' decompressions. 

So today I thought I'd showcase some of the new books I've devoured in recent weeks - each gripped me from start to finish in a day or two - starting with the one that hauled me back to my usual reading self. Thanks Liz Nugent! 

STRANGE SALLY DIAMOND: released last week in the UK and Commonwealth, the fifth novel from star Irish storyteller Liz Nugent is a real cracker, introducing us to a beguiling, unusual 'heroine' as the gateway to a disturbing yet riveting tale. Nugent has shown with her past novels (eg LYING IN WAIT, OUR LITTLE CRUELTIES) that she has a masterful touch for dysfunctional families and memorable main characters - along with killer first lines and twisting storylines - but in her latest psychological she throws in a twist: the protagonist is actually kinda likable! 

Sally Diamond is a ‘socially deficient’ lady in her 40s whose neurodivergence and occasional extreme outbursts could be nurture or nature. After an appalling childhood she can't recall, she's led perhaps a too-sheltered teenage and adulthood thanks to her ex-psychiatrist father. The man she cremates at home following his terminal illness, drawing all kinds of attention from the police, local villagers, and someone very dangerous who remembers Sally's childhood. Nugent takes readers on quite a ride, using a full palette of emotions. STRANGE SALLY DIAMOND is dark, and funny. It's got hope, and despair. It traverses some of the worst that humanity can offer (TW for pedophilia, sexual abuse, etc) - though we're usually not 'in the room' for that, just knowing it has happened - while smoothly telling a fascinating story about an unforgettable character. 

OZARK DOGS by Eli Cranor: the next day, I dived into an advance copy of this upcoming novel (out in April in USA and UK etc), one of my most highly-anticipated reads of the year. This too was devoured in <24 hours. 

Cranor, a former QB and high school football coach, produced for me arguably the best debut crime novel of last year with DON'T KNOW TOUGH, an extraordinary tale with evocative prose and the jagged voice of abused teenage football star Billy Lowe. So I had high expectations going on, while wondering how Cranor could match his first effort.

Somehow, he may have even exceeded it.  Jeremiah Fitzjurls is an old man with violence scratching at his soul; a Vietnam sniper with a Bronze Star, an armoury full of weapons, and too many bad memories. His days are spent crushing cars at his junkyard and trying to protect his beloved granddaughter Joanna from sins new and old. His son, Joanna’s father, is in prison for murder. Their town doesn’t forget, and neither have the Ledfords, a vicious concoction of white supremacists and meth dealers. So when Joanna disappears after Homecoming, a violent reckoning is coming, unless Craven County Sheriff Mona McNabb can stop it.

OZARK DOGS is the kind of book that burrows beneath your skin. Cranor’s crafted a gritty, epic tale of family burdens and long shadows cast by past misdeeds. Terrible people or good people making terrible choices; the awful impact may be the same. Superb.

THE TWYFORD CODE by Janice Hallett: The next day I began my third in book in half a week - unheard of in recent times, but lovely to get back to that kind of reading habit. Having heard great things about Janice Hallett's debut THE APPEAL, an epistolary take on classic puzzle-style murder mysteries, I was curious to try THE TWYFORD CODE, which came out in the UK last year and was published in the United States in January.

THE TWYFORD CODE continues Hallett's  ‘found documents’ approach; this time readers are given semi-accurate transcripts of audio recordings aging ex-con Steven Smith has made on an old iPhone given to him by his estranged son. Looking for redemption, or perhaps just purpose, Steven tries to find out what happened to his remedial English teacher forty years before. Miss Isles vanished after an unauthorised field trip to the countryside haunts of Edith Twyford, a forgotten children’s author whose old-fashioned mysteries may have contained a secret code to solve a real mystery, along with their racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Was Miss Isles disappearance linked to the Twyford Code? Shadowy figures seem determined to stop Steven, who cajoles some old classmates into the hunt, with mixed success, and is joined by young librarian Lucy for what becomes a dangerous mission entwined with wartime secrets and London gangs. But how much can we believe?

Hallett deftly keeps readers guessing throughout an entertaining tale that's an original, intricate mystery. A few pacing issues, perhaps, and at times the conceit threatens to overwhelm the story or our connection to characters, but Hallett brings it all together brilliantly at the end. A very good read.

Four further great reads I tore through in a day or two recently

I also ripped through EVERYBODY KNOWS by Jordan Harper, an extraordinary LA-set noir tale, that same week I'd read STRANGE SALLY DIAMOND. Four books in a week, that's more like the old Craig! Since then I've read several other novels, and seem to be out of my reading funk. For now, at least. Other highly recommended new books I tore through and loved: I WILL FIND YOU by Harlan Coben, DON'T FEAR THE REAPER by Stephen Graham Jones, and EXPECTANT by Vanda Symon, aka 'the modern Queen of New Zealand Crime'. 

Have you ever found yourself in a reading funk? How'd you get out of it? Was it a particular book that helped get you back on track? Do you have go-to-authors that can re-light your reading fire? Let me know 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. 

Ahakoa he iti he pounamu
(Although it is small it is a treasure)


  1. Can't say I've thought of myself as having reading funks - but then by your high standards I'm always in a reading funk!

  2. Welcome back from Funkville, Craig! I was just visiting there myself, when lo and behold I received my moderator assignment for LCC and read four novels in a week... quickly followed by a return to normalcy via two I'd been meaning to read for a month. Though as Michael intimated, your normal ain't mine. :)

    1. Enjoy LCC Jeff! I've heard fabulous things about that festival/conference, and hope to get over there one day.