Consider this list of can’t-put-down-books your winter reading list. From biographies to thrillers, you’re sure to find your next best read.
1. The Paris Affair by Pip Drysdale
Genre: Thriller, Mystery
The third novel from Australian author Pip Drysdale probably isn’t the best advert for a holiday in Paris (remember overseas holidays?). Obviously there’s good food, fashion and the unmistakable je ne sais quoi of the City of Love. But a killer is stalking the streets of Paris and he has Pip’s protagonist, journalist Harper Brown, in his sights.
Let’s rewind: love hasn’t been kind to Harper, who wasted years supporting a man who dumped her as soon as he got his big musical break. Heartbroken, Harper moves from London to Paris for a gig as an arts journalist on the kind of hip magazine most lifestyle journos would trade a lung to work for.
What Harper really wants to be is an investigative journalist, but when she gets involved with an American artist, she limbo dances under the rule that journalists are supposed to cover the news, not create it – and almost doesn’t make it to the other side.
Did I also mention Harper’s been so hardened by her breakup that she plays a game with men, hooking them in and then dumping them (her record is three minutes)? If that sounds a bit like the recent excellent film Promising Young Woman, it is. It’s also a strategy that works well until it puts Harper in the murderer’s path.
This is a twisty thriller that gets inside the mind of a woman trying to negotiate the enormous speed bumps in her way. Does Harper make some silly decisions? Is she her worst enemy? Do you sometimes want to slap her? Yes, yes and yes.
But hang in there, dear reader, because Pip’s crisply written thriller is worth the effort. When Harper realises she’s caught the attention of some incredibly dodgy characters who’ll stop at nothing to protect their secrets, she has to pull off the ultimate one-two punch: stopping the murderer and landing the scoop of the year.
The Parisian setting may charm readers starved of overseas adventures, as will the chapters headed in French. But Harper’s Paris is one of shadows, dimly lit alleys and dangerous characters. Highly recommended.
(Simon & Schuster, RRP $35)
2. Kamala’s Way by Dan Morain
If you breathed a big, fat sigh of relief on January 21, then have I got a book for you. The first biography of Kamala (there will be more) uncovers the remarkable woman who made history by becoming the first woman, first African American and first Indian American to serve as Vice President of the United States. Journalist Dan Morain has done the hard mahi and this book is simply inspiring.
3. Everything Changes by Stephanie Johnson
Genre: General Fiction
No one familiar with this Kiwi writer’s novels, plays or short stories will approach her latest work expecting a dull time. Stephanie really outdoes herself this time with a dysfunctional family who leave Auckland to turn a Northland motel into a luxury retreat. There’s a pregnant daughter back from LA, a dog who’s just eaten the neighbour’s $1000 cat and a rich American determined to kill himself at their retreat. Brilliant
(Penguin Random House, RRP $36)
4. Loud by Tana Douglas
If you’ve ever wanted to know what goes on behind the scenes with some of the world’s biggest rock bands, Tana Douglas is here to tell you. At 15, the Australian became the world’s first female roadie when she took a job with AC/DC. Working and playing with Iggy Pop, Elton John, INXS, Pearl Jam and The Who gave her lots of juicy fodder for this extraordinary autobiography
(HarperCollins, RRP $35)
5. Who is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews
Genre: Thriller, Mystery
“I didn’t see that coming,” is something you’ll say often while reading this debut novel that features so many twists and turns you could end up feeling carsick. The identity theft trope has been successfully worked over before in thrillers such as The Talented Mr Ripley and Catch Me If You Can, but this tale of two protagonists locked in a deadly game of self-invention is quite the story.
Florence Darrow wants to be a writer. Not just any writer – a famous one. Except she’s doing everything but writing: floating through life, working in a low-level publishing job she hates and having sex with her married boss. When a bad decision sees Florence sacked from her job, she takes on a role as assistant to “Maud Dixon”, a celebrated but anonymous novelist (think Elena Ferrante and you’re in the ballpark).
For Florence, it’s Christmas to the power of 10: living in the country with Helen (the real Maud), learning about life and writing from someone who, although not much older than her, is talented, worldly and so damn cool. Sooner or later you know it’s going to go horribly wrong, and when the pair travel to Morocco on a supposed research trip for Helen’s next novel, it does. Florence wakes up in the hospital after a terrible car crash, Helen is missing, presumed dead, and Florence has the bonkers idea of taking over not only Helen’s but also Maud’s identity.
But is Helen really dead? And what in bejesus is she running from? Hello, one-way ticket to madness. Alexandra, an American journalist and fashion copywriter, stirs a clever pot of mystery and intrigue in this good old-fashioned psychological thriller that will keep you up all night. As Florence tries to figure out how and why she’s been played, while reinventing herself as Maud, Alexandra turns the bats*** crazy tap on full, but in a way that never feels forced (and that works). It’s dark, funny and incredibly clever. Did I mention the backdrop is mostly a lush Moroccan setting? That’s a big, fat yes from me!
(Hachette, RRP $34.99)
6. Ash Mountain by Helen Fitzgerald
Fran is a sassy Aussie chick, a single mother from Ash Mountain who returns from the city to care for her dying father. Nothing much has changed in the small rural town and reintegration is tough. But then terrible secrets from Fran’s past come to light, her even sassier daughter gives her a hard time and an out-of-control bushfire is hurtling their way. The ending will take your breath away.
(Affirm Press, RRP $29.99)
7. The Women And The Girls by Laura Bloom
Genre: General Fiction
It’s 1977 and one in three Australian women are taking tranquillisers to get though their tedious suburban days. Sydneysiders Libby, Carol and Anna couldn’t be more different, but they form a bond thanks to their problematic husbands. Because it’s the ’70s, there’s thick blue eyeshadow, ABBA and women on the cusp of the kind of freedom we take for granted. This book is like having a good old natter with your feminist mum.
(Allen & Unwin, RRP $32.99)
8. The Chanel Sisters by Judithe Little
Even if you don’t know your Coco from your Chanel, you’ll enjoy this novel about the sisters who changed fashion forever. It tracks their early days at an orphanage to the glamour of Paris as they drag themselves out of poverty and class restrictions. I’m a sucker for stories about women beating the odds, so this beautiful piece of historical fiction was so far up my alley, it was blocking traffic
9. Everything Is Beautiful by Eleanor Ray
Genre: Comedy, General Fiction
One of the great joys of being a book reviewer is getting to read all day and calling it work. When it’s a book as charming as this debut novel from British author Eleanor Ray, that’s an even better day at the office.
Eleanor’s protagonist Amy Ashton has always danced to the beat of her own drum. It would surprise precisely no one that she’s somewhere on the spectrum. She’s also, to be honest, a bit of a mess, working a job in finance she hates – a job that was supposed to be temporary while she established herself as an artist. A decade later, she’s still there.
Still, it helps to blunt the edges of the traumatic event that still slices through her life: 11 years ago, her boyfriend Tim and best friend Chantel disappeared on the same day. As Amy’s already fragile mental state spins out of control, she starts to collect things that remind her of what she had, things most people would throw away, like broken cups, empty wine bottles and key rings.
It doesn’t take long for her house to resemble the kind of places that regularly feature on those creepily fascinating TV shows about hoarders. Even when a neighbour calls the council, complaining of mice coming from her house, Amy can’t be shocked into reality. It doesn’t help that, work aside, she barely leaves the house. Because what if Tim and Chantel come back?
But then a family moves in next door, Amy discovers a long buried mystery and her tightly packed life quickly unpacks itself. London-based Eleanor was apparently inspired to write this book by the bits and bobs her toddler likes to collect, from twigs to empty water bottles.
I’m not sure how she got from there to here, but she made such a success of it she scored a six-figure book deal. Maybe it’s because she never judges her characters and her clever words positively hum with the takeaway message that however rubbish things may seem, there’s always hope. You’ll be lucky to make it to the end without shedding a tear.
(Hachette, RRP $34.99)
10. Win by Harlan Coben
A friend looked at me as though I’d suffered a blow to the head when I told her I’d never read a Harlan Coben novel. “But he’s written 34 books and sold 75 million so far!” she shrieked. Not only did I miss the prolific author’s boat but, it turns out, I wasn’t even at the dock.
Thankfully, you don’t have to have read any of Harlan’s previous works to be able to enjoy Win, the latest thriller from the American writer. All you need to know is that the protagonist Win – or Windsor Horne Lockwood III, if you prefer his full name – was the sidekick from Harlan’s 11-book series about former basketball player Myron Bolitar; this time around, Win finally makes it to leading man status.
Win, we learn, is incredibly wealthy and had a rough childhood. He’s also no stranger to a bit of vigilante-style violence. The plot turns on the classic don’t-messwith-the-good-guys trope: an unidentified elderly man has been found dead in one of Manhattan’s most prestigious buildings. Win is approached by the FBI to help them identify the deceased.
He can’t – but he recognises a Vermeer painting on the man’s wall that was stolen from Win’s family home 20 years ago. And a suitcase with Win’s initials on it. The story takes a dive into even murkier waters when the dead man is identified as the leader of a radical 1960s group responsible for the death of seven people years ago. Creepily, he’s also connected to the abduction and rape of Win’s cousin.
Just when you think you’ve got a handle on the many arcs of this stylish narrative, along comes another strand about the family butler and a mansion’s secret room. Making sense of it all is one of Harlan’s many gifts. This is the perfect fireside read, a slick, gripping tale that swoops in and out of all manner of places, cleverly woven together by the master storyteller.
It’s a good place as any to start on your Harlan Coben pilgrimage, if you haven’t already. And then, like me, to cue up his back-catalogue for the coming winter.
(Penguin Random House, RRP $37)