Cliffhangers, hungry sea and slippery slopes


Cliffhangers, hungry sea and slippery slopes

Books editor DEBORAH STEINMAIR escapes heatwaves, wars and misery by being caught up in other people's impossible, unlivable, alarming crises.


THIS past week I read four books whose covers are predominantly blue and bright yellow — the colours of domestic noir. This genre is popping up on the market more and more because dark suburban thrillers sell like hot cakes — the kind of story that writers like Agatha Christie first started telling.

The mercury is rising alarmingly and the world has been turned upside-down. It's become impossible to watch the news about runaway wildfires, gangs and muti killings locally, and hungry, bomb-scarred civilians in Gaza and Ukraine. Children. With green or brown eyes. Degraded, abandoned, mutilated. We need escape and sometimes the dark is comforting; experiencing another's misery, dead-end streets and heartbreaking harm. And then closing the book.

These thrillers are getting better and better; characterisations are razor-sharp, storylines elegant and streamlined. The reader is kept guessing.

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This search party is a clusterfuck. Everything remotely possible goes awry when a group of old friends hold a weekend reunion on a remote farm in Cornwall. Old grievances and petrified grudges are aired, pressure builds and violence flares. It is told in retrospect, from several points of view. The details of that terrible weekend mostly come out under police questioning. Someone is dead and until the end the reader wonders who. And who was responsible — or was there more than one perpetrator?

The farm and the glamping campground belong to Max and Annie, who have moved to the countryside from London, mostly for the sake of their previously abused adopted son Kip, who struggles with a host of demons. Their friend Dominique, a TV star and attention-grabber, shows up with his much younger second wife, the two children from his first marriage and one from his second. There's an incident between the kids and he assaults Kip. There's also the good-natured hippie Jim and his wife Suze with their blonde offspring and Kira with her younger boyfriend and baby, whose paternity is unknown. Animosities deepen and tempers flare. Two of the daughters disappear. A storm rages and they are cut off from the outside world. Everything is wet and flooded, the sharp cliffs above the tumultuous sea slippery as soap.

It's a nightmarish weekend culminating in catharsis. The reader continues to flip pages anxiously.

The Search Party by Hannah Richell was published by Simon & Schuster and costs R400 at Exclusive Books.

Kerneels alerted me to this novel, which scared the living daylights out of him. I wasn't scared because I believe in ghosts. Supernatural twists and turns occur when a group of people are thrown together in a remote mansion as therapy in their mourning process. Something is seriously wrong with the owners, the reader surmises.

The protagonist, Blue, had an unconventional childhood. Her mother and stepfather employed her from an early age as a tarot reader, with her sixth sense and ability to communicate with dead people. After her mother's death, she is lost and in a dead-end street. As in the first book, a group of disparate people are thrown together in an inhospitable environment and are cut off from the outside world by stormy weather. As in the first book, a person dies of unnatural causes and the reader plays detective alongside the characters. It's atmospheric and hypnotic.

The Grief House by Rebecca Thorne was published by Bloomsbury and costs R475 at Exclusive Books.

The third book is completely different, more literary. The narrator is also eccentric with many skeletons in her closet and ghosts in her attic, but she is a theatre critic in New York. I used to be a theatre critic in Cape Town and could identify deeply with her descriptions of the moment when the lights dim and one surrenders to the magic of theatre; wholeheartedly willing to be overwhelmed. Often, however, you are not overwhelmed. Vivian Parry is a poison pen whose reviews create animosity in the theatre community. Because she loves theatre so passionately and expects so much from it, her disappointment leads to bitchiness and she doesn't hesitate to tear apart players and productions.

Then the boundaries between theatre and reality blur and her own life turns into a pitch-dark drama. She tries to remain upright with the help of copious amounts of booze, pills and casual sex. She has to play detective and unravel life-threatening mysteries. The author herself is a theatre critic and knows the stages of Manhattan. It captivated me.

Here in the Dark by Alexis Soloski was published by Bloomsbury and costs R475 at Exclusive Books.

The fourth book I could take or leave. It's a debut novel and too juvenile for my old and jaded sensibility. This kind of book I finish reading because I want to get to the denouement, and find it always holds a hand full of surprises.

Margot chooses a university far from her controlling parents and the town where she grew up and where her best friend died. Here, she falls in with the cool crowd, especially a death-defying rebel named Lucy who reminds her of her deceased friend. She lives in a commune with three girls and things start to derail. Yes, someone dies and Lucy goes missing. And is Margot the innocent child she presents to the reader? The past unfolds alongside the present. Read it on an idle weekend.

Only if You're Lucky by Stacy Willingham was published by HarperCollins and costs R400 at Exclusive Books.

What are we listening to?

Leonard Cohen sings Seems So Long Ago, Nancy:

♦ VWB ♦

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