Review: What If It’s Us by Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli

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Who better than Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera to excavate the emotional turmoil of two adolescents as they seek to make the most of their summer romance? Honest and hilarious, unflinching and unapologetic, What If It’s Us is a heart-warming, heart-wrenching, and altogether life affirming tale about young love.

When Ben and Arthur cross paths in a New York Post Office and fail to swap contact information, both regret the missed opportunity. Ben — a Puerto Rican, Catholic, and native New Yorker — is recovering from a recent breakup with a friend-turned-boyfriend, and embarrassed about attending summer school, which his ex is, of course, also attending; thanks, universe. Arthur is a white, Jewish, Broadway–loving guy with ADHD who has never been kissed, but is a true romantic and heart — and only in New York for the summer. So there’s a lot to suggest a romance between the two wouldn’t work out, never mind the fact they’ve little to go on in order to find each other again. But that’s exactly what they do.

What If It’s Us plays out like most summer romance stories. Some readers will be able to chart its plot, from beginning to end, expecting the highs and lows of Ben and Arthur’s blossoming relationship. But the book shines because of its characters; their honest depictions, their realness; and not just the protagonists, but their families and friends, too. The narrative snaps back and forth between Ben and Arthur’s perspectives, the sharp, economical, witty prose — chock-full of pop-culture references, obviously — making it a real page-turner. And of course, Silvera and Albertalli aren’t afraid to deep-dive into some heavy themes and explore the complexities of relationships, both romantic and platonic.

This is a wonderful novel; touching, funny and big-hearted. You’d expect nothing less from Silvera and Albertalli on their own. Combined, they’re inimitable.

Reviewed by Simon McDonald

Review: In A House of Lies by Ian Rankin

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Vintage Rankin — top-notch police procedure  merged with deft characterisation. Simon McDonald reviews the new John Rebus thriller.

Having conjured twenty-two novels worth of exploits for the irascible and incomparable John Rebus over the last thirty years, it would seem entirely reasonable for Ian Rankin to begin repeating himself, or for his series to start running out of steam. Indeed, even Rebus references the “managed decline” of his post-retirement life in In a House of Lies, and his treatment of the Saab that’s been as much an ever-present in these books as Rebus himself.  But even as Rebus gradually succumbs to a lifetime of bad habits — not just the drinking and smoking, but integrating himself into trouble, and his recurrent dalliances with vigilantism — Rankin’s novels go from strength to strength as he shows a greater willingness to dive deeper into the moral ambiguity of his protagonist. Rebus was always an anti-hero — hard as nails, roguish; but always convinced of his own moral code — but as he faces us to his own morality, with the burden of empty years spent ruminating on his actions, Rankin paints a powerful portrait of a man lacking the assuredness that defined him.

Rebus’s ‘old school’ methods are thrust back into the spotlight when the skeletal remains of a private investigator are discovered more than a decade after the man’s disappearance — in a location that was, apparently, searched during the initial investigation. Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke is part of the new inquiry, tasked with combing through the mistakes of the original case; while Malcolm Fox, formerly of Professional Standards, has the job of specifically looking for misdemeanours, of which there were evidently many — several of which can be tied back to Rebus’s nemesis, the wily, power-hungry crime boss, ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty.

Rankin’s insight into character and motive is as keen as ever. He deftly cuts between his three primary leads as they follow wonderfully woven, unspooled threads that eventually tie together. As always, the resolution is incredibly satisfying, but is almost besides the point: we’re here for the characters, especially Rebus, whose wit remains as razor-sharp as ever. In A House of Lies encapsulates precisely why Rankin is the grandmaster of the genre, and why Rebus remains one of its most iconic and complex creations.

Review: A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

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Compelling and unnerving in equal measure, A Ladder to the Sky probes the toxicity inherent in naked ambition and the depravity one man will embrace in order to achieve literary acclaim. Disturbing yet seductive, John Boyne has crafted one of the best books of 2018, says our bookseller Simon McDonald.

John Boyne’s new novel begins with successful novelist Erich Ackermann describing his beguiling relationship with the handsome (but enigmatic) young would-be writer named Maurice Swift, who over the course of many months, teases information from Ackermann about his early life in Nazi Germany, and the awful secret he has kept hidden for his entire life. These revelations are fictionalised — though just barely — in Swift’s debut novel, Two Germans, which receives critical acclaim, and much publicity when he willingly exposes the basis for his book, which effectively destroy’s Ackermann’s career, making him a pariah, and sends him into hiding until the day he dies.

A Ladder to the Sky then flashes forward, various periods of time narrated by different voices (including Swift’s wife Edith, and in the final section of the book, Maurice himself). We quickly learn that, although Swift is a gifted writer — a concocter of great sentences — he has no imagination for fiction. His prose lacks heart, and quite simply, he is unable to conjure a single original idea. This shortcoming infuriates Swift, who is determined to win the Prize, and become a literary legend, no matter what it takes. And Swift is willing to do anything to accomplish his goal, including two particularly heinous acts, which will chill readers to the bone. Indeed, as the novel continues, Boyne excruciatingly dangles the possibility that Swift will never get his comeuppance; that this man, warped and demented by toxic ambition, will achieve everything he has ever hoped for while those he uses as mere stepping stones to his path of greatness are left so suffer. Some fade to obscurity; others suffer far worse fates.  And the ending, when it comes, is absolutely perfect.

A Ladder to the Sky haunted me for days after I’d finished it. As much as I loathed the amoral Maurice Swift, a part of me couldn’t help but admire his sheer cunning and determination to succeed regardless of his failings. There were moments — fleeting as they were — when I understood (but never respected or agreed with, just to be clear!) his arguments for appropriating other people’s stories; and Boyne’s insights into literary life make for enthralling reading, peppering an otherwise dark tale with moments of genuine levity.

In a year of some tremendous fiction — Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance, and Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, to name just three of the greats — John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky deserves a place among the very best books of 2018. It might even be my favourite.

Review: The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

Simon McDonald reviews R.O. Kwon's The Incendiaries.

Some books, more than others, require a prolonged period of marination. More often than not, I can immediately distil my initial thoughts about a book into a couple of blithe sentences.  But in the case of R.O. Kwon’s stirring debut novel The Incendiaries, I had to think. I needed a period of proper deliberation. Because there’s a lot to unpack here. It is a book bigger than the sum of its parts. Tragic and cutting, Kwon’s debut left me whiplashed.

The Incendiaries deals with religious fervour and faith warped into something toxic — something dangerousand violent — when Phoebe Lin is drawn into a religious group lead by the enigmatic John Leal as a result of her traumatic past and battle with depression. Will Kendall is our primary narrator in this book that focuses on three young Korean Americans; Will, who has just transferred from Bible College to Edwards University, a lapsed evangelical struggling to fill the hole in his soul where his seemingly incorruptible faith once resided. He is uncertain of his place in the world, but finds much-needed solace in his burgeoning romance with Phoebe — which makes its corruption as a result of Edwards dropout Leal, and his extremist cult, all the more heartbreaking.

The Incendiaries begins explosively — quite literally — and then winds back the clock, detailing the events that engendered such a cataclysmic moment. With searing prose, Kwon chronicles Will and Phoebe’s ill-fated search for meaning and belonging, demonstrating the almost sheer impossibility of completely knowing someone. Charged with breathless momentum, the burning intensity of its prose makes The Incendiaries a glorious one-sitting read — and one that will haunt you.

Indigenous Literacy Day - Wednesday 5th September

With Indigenous Literacy Day on the horizon, Anna Low discusses the work the ILF does and why it's so important. 

Wednesday the 5th of September is Indigenous Literacy Day and we will be donating 10% of our sales for the day to the ILF. Over the past few years the Potts Point Bookshop has donated more than $20,000 to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation and we are really proud to be supporting their work.

Established by Brisbane bookseller Suzy Wilson, the ILF has become the book industry charity that supports Indigenous children in Australia’s remote communities get access to books and the resources to learn to read in English and in their first languages. 

There is much talk of closing the gap but how do we actually do this?  In remote communities only 1 in 4 children can read and write at the most basic level.  How do you learn to read if the books aren’t in your language or as in many communities there are no books.  The ILF provides culturally appropriate books to communities via play groups, health centres and schools to give Indigenous children the resources to learn to read.

Providing the books is just one part of the story.  The Book Buzz program has been developed to help instil the pre-literacy skills that a child needs before starting school.  It started with a playgroup in Warburton and this program is now being expanded to many other communities.  Many of the books are firm favourites in any household but they have been translated into the local languages so that the kids are learning in their first language.  Storytime is extremely popular at the playgroups and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

The ILF travels over 50,000 kilometres a year to many remote communities like the Tiwi Islands, Tjuntjuntjara in the heart of the desert and to the Torres Strait Islands in Queensland to work with Elders and the community to write and publish books.  So far they have been able to publish over 70 books in 11 home languages.  The goal is to publish books in home languages for children right across Australia.  It is hard to put into words the sense of pride that is shared by the entire community when a book that they have worked on is launched. 

On Indigenous Literacy Day this year, the ILF will be launching a series of board books written in Kriol, including Moli det bigibigi (Molly the Pig!).  I will be one of the lucky ones at the Opera House seeing these books being read for to the public for the first time.

We are not the only ones that think the ILF is a great organisation.  Dame Quentin Bryce is the Patron and  Justine Clarke, Andy Griffiths, Deborah Cheetham, Alison Lester, Josh Pyke and David Malouf are some of the ILF’s Ambassadors.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have been a Board Member of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation since 2016 and a long time supporter since 2007.

We have a selection of the ILF books in the shop for you to buy. If you would like to look at some of the translated books, we have a selection in the shop that you are welcome to come and look at.

All our gold coin donations for gift wrapping are given to the ILF.

Advance Review: Greenlight by Benjamin Stevenson

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With a plot that blasts along faster than a speeding bullet, and more hairpin turns than an alpine highway, Greenlight is one hell of a debut, and one of the year’s best thrillers. Seriously, says our bookseller Simon McDonald, this one will leave you breathless.

Jack Quick is the producer of a true-crime documentary interested in unravelling the murder of Eliza Dacey, in what was originally considered a slam-dunk case despite the circumstantial evidence that convicted Curtis Wade, who was already a pariah in the small town of Birravale, which is famed for its wineries. Jack’s series has turned the tide on the public’s perception of Wade — he is the victim of a biased police force, they scream — but just as Jack’s set to wrap on the finale, he uncovers a piece of evidence that points to Wade’s guilt, the broadcasting of which would ruin his show.

Understanding the potential repercussions of whatever he decides, Jack disposes of the evidence, thus delivering the final episode of his show proposing that Curtis is innocent. That, he thinks, will be the end of that. But when Curtis is released from prison, and soon after, a new victim is found bearing similarities to Eliza’s murder, Jack is forced to deal with the consequences head-on: his actions might’ve helped free a killer. And so, Jack makes it his personal mission to expose the truth.

Australian crime fiction is currently rife with small-town-murder plots, but Greenlightfeels particularly original thanks to its protagonist. By the nature of his profession, Jack Quick is naturally egotistical —  his job is not simply to tell stories, but to shape them, and form narratives that are compelling, not necessarily honest. But he’s also seriously damaged from a particular childhood experience, and suffers from bulimia, which is an eating disorder I wouldn’t dream of pairing up with the hero of a whodunnit, but works effectively here. Stevenson’s story, too, is packed with red-herrings and stunning revelations; readers will be white-knuckled grasping their copies of his debut as he deviously weaves a web of suspicion around the many characters before revealing the killer in the jaw-dropping climax.

Greenlight will have you biting your nails down to the quick as you desperately turn its pages. In a year boasting several impressive debuts, Benjamin Stevenson’s ranks highly among them. Put simply, Greenlight is a knockout.

Greenlight is published by Penguin Random House on September 3rd 2018.