The Good Father by Noah Hawley: review by Toni Whitmont

It always seems a great shame to me how there will sometimes be a sudden rash of fiction published with similar themes. What generally follows is that the biggest marketing budget wins, at least until word of mouth takes over from the machine, and the true readers’ favourite starts to tick over as a backlist perennial.

This time two years ago there was a tussle going on between Mr Rosenblum’s List and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and somehow the two books seemed to meld in the minds of the public. Mandy Sayer was just one of several Australian authors whose books about wartime Sydney, lost and found love with an American soldier (in Sayer’s case called Love in the Time of Lunacy) had to battle it out on the shelves around the middle of last year. Last month we were presented with Wonder, The Cartographer and Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, all of which purport to speak in an authentic child’s voice and all of which are really very good, although having read all three, I do think Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend is clearly the strongest.

It is rather unfortunate then that both Defending Jacob and The Good Father are coming out within a month of each other. Both are about the relationship between a father and his son. Both revolve around whether or not the son has committed an unspeakable crime. Both are supposed to be excellent.

I haven’t read William Landay’s Defending Jacob but within two weeks of its US publication, it was topping the NY Times charts and it certainly has had some very good reviews, most of which focus on it being a legal thriller in the vein of Scott Turow.

I have read Noah Hawley’s The Good Father which will be published in April but I can tell you that this is no legal thriller. It is all together a different beast.

The book opens with notes from a police report. They describe a young man purchasing a Trojan 9 mm gun. The gun is used to shoot and kill the Democrat nominee to the US presidency. There is photographic evidence of a young man holding the gun seconds after it went off, executing its deadly mission with perfect accuracy. The report goes on to describe the life of the young man as he drifted across the US over the previous 18 months – a “hobo losing himself in the great American absence”. The man was 20 years old. The report concludes, and its reader muses over its contents. The prologue ends:

“Who was this boy and how did he become a man in a motel room fondling bullets? What made him ditch his comfortable life and embrace an act of barbarity? I have read the reports. I have watched the footage, but the answer continues to elude me. More than anything else, I want to know. I am his father, you see. He is my son.”

The Good Father is told through the eyes of Dr Paul Allen. Dr Allen is a respected and established rheumatologist. He is happy, leading a quite domestic life with his twin twelve year olds and his second wife. Their world is shattered while watching the evening news as Paul’s 20 year old son from his first marriage, Danny, now apparently known as Carter Allen Cash, is accused of murdering the most high profile candidate in America at a presidential election rally.

What follows is an exploration of fatherhood, of self, of loyalty, of obligation, of identity and perhaps, of the limits of unconditional love. There are wonderful insights into family, into connection and disconnection, and what it is like to watch someone decide to simply slip away from their moorings. Allen is convinced that Danny is innocent although that is looking less and less likely as the book goes on. What is interesting is that he examines the evidence with the same razor sharp deduction that he has to use in his medical practice as a diagnostician. He tests the evidence, he weighs each theory, he discounts neither the obvious, nor the outlandish explanation. But the closer he comes to Danny, the closer he comes to an ugly truth, a truth about himself as a father.

Noah Hawley

While Dr Allen continues to champion the cause of his son, he jeopardises both his marriage and his career. He has become a pariah – the father of the boy who killed America’s hope. He is torn between loyalty to his firstborn, with whom he has had less and less contact over the years, and loyalty to his fiercely loving twins.

Noah Hawley uses a surgeon’s precision to slice away at identity until Dr Allen is laid bare, no longer sure of who he  is or what he stands for. He piles twist upon twist so the reader is constantly on edge, constantly questioning the nature of truth and the nature of reality. And he ratchets up the tension until the very last page.

Comparisons will be made with Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, but there are some obvious differences. What is most interesting about the The Good Father is that it takes the male perspective, and Danny certainly came into the world loved and wanted.

Along the way, Dr Allen looks to other American assassins and/or cult leaders – Sirhan Sirhan, Lee Harvey Oswald, unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Branch Davidian David Koresh – for answers as to whether Danny could be guilty or not. These ponderings are both informative and fascinating.

This is an intense psychological novel told from the points of view of both the guilt ridden father and the meandering, ruminative son. This all adds up to create an intensely powerful book that is gripping from start to finish, and is beautifully written. It offers a fascinating, absorbing and intimate portrayal of a successful, intelligent and fundamentally good man who is forced to re-examine his whole behaviour as a father in the light of one dreadful action. It also is a startling depiction of what happens in adolescence when a child becomes a lost soul.

The Good Father is available to order from Booktopia here.

Bernie McGill, author of The Butterfly Cabinet, answers Ten Terrifying Questions

The Booktopia Book Guru asks

Bernie McGill

author of The Butterfly Cabinet

Ten Terrifying Questions


 1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

I was born in the parish of Lavey in County Derry, Northern Ireland, the youngest of ten children. I went to Primary School there, Secondary in the nearby town of Maghera and to Queen’s University in Belfast to study English and Italian. As part of my studies, I spent a year working in a school in Italy from 1987-88. When I’d finished my undergraduate studies, I completed an Continue reading

Rebecca James author of Beautiful Malice answers Ten Terrifying Questions

Struggling writers all over the world take down your pictures of J.K. Rowling – we have a new poster girl for you – Rebecca James… Who?

Good question. The very same question people asked in 1997 when the name J.K. Rowling was mentioned. Who?

In November 2009 The Sydney Morning Herald published an article about a woman in Armidale, NSW whose novel Beautiful Malice, had started “a worldwide bidding war which has pushed advances on her manuscript past $1 million and led the The Wall Street Journal to wonder if she is the next J.K. Rowling.”

That woman was Rebecca James and Beautiful Malice “has been sold in more than 20 countries and is scheduled to be translated into at least 13 languages. Not bad for a book that was initially rejected by every literary agency in Australia.”

I love that bit.

The article continues… “The Wall Street Journal described how the book sparked a frenzy among publishers at the recent Frankfurt Book Fair and called it ”a sexy psychological thriller”, a ”brilliantly plotted page-turner” and ”Stephenie Meyer … without the vampires”.

What is Beautiful Malice about?

“Set in Sydney, James’s novel depicts the relationship between Katherine, a solitary girl whose sister was brutally murdered, and gorgeous fun-loving Alice, who befriends her. Alice’s influence is transformative, but as Katherine emerges from her grief, she discovers her new best friend can be chilling as well as charming.” (Click here for the full SMH article)

BEAUTIFUL MALICE will be available from 1st May 2010  (pre-order here$19.95 SAVE 20% 


The story of Rebecca James is wonderful – it is a  rags-to-riches story which will warm the hearts of Continue reading

FEATURE: So Much for That by Lionel Shriver – what is a human life worth? A Review By Kylie Ladd

Sharp-eyed followers of our Ten Terrifying Questions will know that Kylie Ladd, author of After the Fall, is an unabashed Lionel Shriver fan so she was the perfect person to be a guest reviewer for Shriver’s stunning new novel, So Much for That.

Kylie is currently packing her life into boxes for a move to the tropical north of Western Australia. On the strength of her review, I am going to have to ask her to fish out my copy of So Much for That and return it. Shriver is famous for her harrowing, psychologically astute tales and this one sounds like her typical Rubik’s Cube take on modern times. Can’t wait!

Now, over to Kylie to tell you all about it.

Lionel Shriver has long been a favourite author of mine, and thus I have to confess that I didn’t come to her latest novel, So Much for That, as objectively as a reviewer probably should. We Need To Talk About Kevin, which was feted worldwide and won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005, is one of the most intriguing, complex and sometimes downright scary books I have ever read, a sophisticated study of the psychology of both a teenage mass-murderer and of motherhood. Shriver’s follow-up, The Post-Birthday World, would also make it into my personal top twenty, if only for its cunning parallel narratives exploring the divergent paths our lives can take following one central choice.

All that said however, I must admit the premise of So Much for That initially left me quite cold. Shepherd Knacker is a middle-aged American man dreaming of what he calls the Afterlife, where he will ditch his job along with his middle-class comforts and responsibilities, to live self-sufficiently on a small island off the coast of Africa. Shepherd has been planning his escape for at least the last decade, and as the novel opens, he is packing his bags, determined to leave whether his wife Glynis and son Zach decide to come with him or not.

Then Glynis, unaware of his plan, arrives home to announce that Continue reading

Ian McEwan’s Solar and a taste of 2010


How often do you pick up a new book and find yourself needing to reach for the dictionary before you have finished the first page? I am not talking technical or scientific books here. I am talking your average novel. OK, not your average novel if you are reading Clive Cussler or Katie Fforde, but your average novel if you are reading something that might be considered more literary, something that is unlikely to be found in the discount department store’s sale bin.

There is nothing I like more than being introduced to a new word. Having been a complete dag and studied Latin, I harbour a secret regret that I never studied Greek. If I had, I most certainly would have known the meaning of anhedonia which occurs, rather magnificently, on line seven of page one of Ian McEwan’s forthcoming new novel Solar,  whose  world-wide release is March. A few pages further I found dysmorphia, one of those words whose usage is not quite common enough for one to remain on top of its meaning.

McEwan’s Solar is billed as “masterly”. Ostensibly about climate change, it recounts the tale of a Nobel prize-winning physicist whose best work is behind him. A serial adulterer in a collapsing fifth marriage, he finds himself, for once, the betrayed rather than the betrayer. From my point of view, 30 pages in, the signs are good. A smattering of tricky words, a backstory that is compelling, a marvellous anti-hero, the pen of McEwan. Review heaven.

So what else can we look forward to this year, in the area euphemistically called “quality fiction”?

Here is a taste of what is to come. Looks like it is going to be a good year between the covers!

From Yann Martel (The Life of Pi) – Beatrice and Virgil (April)

From Lionel Shriver (We Need to Talk About Kevin) – So Much for That (April)

From Martin AmisThe Pregnant Widow (February)

From Marcus Zuzak (The Book Thief) – Bridge of Clay (September)

From Don DelilloPoint Omega (March)

So Much For That : When you can’t judge a book by its cover

OK, so what do you do when you have five uncorrected proofs of five books all of which will be published in this country over the next several months? How do you choose which to go with?

Their covers are virtually blank – so no clues there. All five authors are unknown to me – three are debut writers, one normally writes comic books (none of which I have read) and the other is usually spoken of in hushed tones reserved for those writers who are a cut above everyone else. You can’t ask the publishers’ opinions. They can spin all of them.  According to their proponents, they are all edgy/new/quirky/a welcome return to form/introducing a brand new audience/generating a huge amount of interest overseas etc etc.

My only option is to go in blind. Read the first few pages and then select the one that for what ever idiosyncratic reason, has the most promise for me. Not that I am complaining of course, but pity the poor author whose fate is determined by their opening paragraph.

Here is what I happened to be dealing with today:

From Love Machine by Clinton Caward (Feb 2010).

It was almost four in the morning when I picked her up and carried her to the cement steps near the fire exit. She sat on my lap and I lit a cigarette. Her little arm looped around my next, the chubby fingers with yellow nail polish appearing on my other shoulder. Her mascara was tacky and she had tiny, point breasts, and what she showed me under her skirt looked delicate but slightly mangled. Life had not been as kind to her as it could have been but still she’d survived and made the most out of what she had. Kissing her forehead, I held the camera at arms length and photographed us.

From So Much For That by Lionel Shriver (April 2010).

What do you pack for the rest of your life? On research trips – he and Glynis had never called them vacations – Shep had always packed too much, covering for every contingency: Rain gear and galoshes, a sweater on the off chance that the weather in Peurto Escondido was unseasonably cold. In the face of infinite contingencies, his impulse was to take nothing.

From Going Bovine by Libba Bray (Feb 2010)

The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World. I’m sixteen now, so you can imagine that’s left me with quite a few days of major suckage.

From Peter and Max Fables by Bill Willingham (Feb 2010)

For most of his long years, Peter Piper wanted nothing more than  to live a life of peace and safety in some remote  cozy cottage, married to his childhood sweetheart, who grew into the only woman he could ever love. Which is pretty much what happened. But there were complications along the way, as there often are, because few love stories are allowed to be just that and nothing else.

From The Kingdom of Ohio by Matthew Flaming (Jan 2010)

Whether beautiful or terrible, the past is always a ruin. When I look back on my childhood, my earliest memories seem like artifacts from a lost civilization: half-understood fragments behind museum glass. I remember the spherical alcohol lamp that glowed like a tiny ghost, ringed with dancing blue flames, which hung over the dining-room table of the house where I grew up. I remember the sweet, oily smell of coal smoke, and the creaking of horse-drawn carriages on the dirt road outside. Most of all I remember the summer twilight over the mountains and how, on certain evenings, just before the sun sank below the horizon, it cast rays so luminous and golden that they felt like a solid, envoloping cloak into which a small boy could simply disappear. An intensity no light today seems to match.

By the way, I did read a bit further with Love Machine whose protagonist Spencer works in a Kings Cross sex shop and who has a thing about taking pics of himself with rubber dolls (eg she of the chubby fingers and yellow nail polish). However, so far it is a toss up between Peter and Max and So Much for That.

You however can make your own choices. I’ve hunted down the covers where they are available to you can at least look at them. And you can pre-order all but So Much for That. Contact me directly if you are interested in the Lionel Shriver and I will make sure your name goes on the list in another month or two.


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