Review: The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan


Simon McDonald reviews Dervla McTiernan's debut crime novel The Ruin.

In Dervla McTiernan’s debut The Ruin, an elaborate plot and vivid setting serves as mere backdrop for showcasing her greater talent: creating unforgettable, emotionally textured characters, DI Cormac Reilly chief among them, and putting them through the emotional wringer. When you think of The Ruin, think fast, furiously-paced crime solving laced with social implications that are as frightening as any chase or shootout ever put to paper. McTiernan has set the pace for every other crime writer this year.

The book opens twenty years in the past when, on his first week on the job, young Garda Cormac Reilly is called to a dilapidated country house. There he finds two neglected children, fifteen-year-old Maude and five-year-old Jack. Upstairs, their mother Hilaria lies dead as a result of a heroin overdose. Jack is pushed into foster care, Maude disappears, and Reilly moves on; up the career ladder and eventually away from Galway to Dublin.

Presently Reilly is back in the town he thought he’d forgotten, assigned to working cold cases  at a new police station which is populated by some suspicious characters, who are more than willing to make their resentment of him known. When Jack is discovered dead as the result of a suicide at the same time Maude returns from decades away, Reilly is encouraged to delve back into the case that’s haunted him in the intervening years, tasked with finding a link between Hilaria’s death and her son’s.

This is a story of human frailties, violence and betrayal; of accepting the consequences of choices made, and managing their ripples in the future. McTiernan’s debut is assured, elegantly crafted and utterly compelling. DI Cormac Reilly’s second case can’t come soon enough.

Review: The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn


Our 'King of Crime' Simon McDonald reviews A.J. Finn's New York Times bestseller The Woman in the Window.

With The Woman in the Window, A.J. Finn has concocted a Hitchcockian brand of domestic noir whose pacing forces us to reexamine our casual use of the word compulsive. Finn has put the rest of the thriller-writing world on notice: he’s going to be around for a while.

It has been ten months since the title character, Anna Fox, last left her home. She lives alone in an expensive family home in uptown Manhattan, whiling away the hours by gazing through her window, spying on her neighbours, watching old black-and-white movies, playing chess, and chatting on an online forum. A glass of merlot is usually never too far from her hand as she goes about these pursuits. In fact, drinking wine should really be considered an activity of its own; so, too, her casual pill-popping of her many prescribed drugs.

Anna is not a recluse by choice. She is agoraphobic — a ruthless anxiety disorder — as a result of a traumatic event in her not-too-distant past. As a child psychologist, she recognises her symptoms, knows how debilitating they are; but she is powerless to overcome her own personal psychosis. Her heavy consumption of alcohol inoculates Anna from dealing with her reality; separated from her husband and daughter, a ghost anchored in the land of the living.

Her sedate daily routine is interrupted when the Russell family move in next door: Paul and Jane, and their son Ethan. Anna forms an immediate and unlikely comradeship with the teenage boy, who seems like he needs a friend as he exposes his father’s violent tendencies. Jane, who also visits, is more obscure in her observations of Paul, but Anna still gets the sense this is a family on tenterhooks. Her worst fears are confirmed when, through her binoculars, she witnesses what she perceives to be an act of violence. The police’s investigation is perfunctory at best, Anna the very definition of an unreliable witness; so she continues to gaze upon the Russell house, desperate to prove what she saw while imprisoned in her own home.

The Woman in the Window literally interrupted my professional and personal life. Once in, I simply had to stay in, and stick with it to the end. Finn’s debut is a supercharged domestic noir in the tradition of Paula Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train, Renee Knight’s Disclaimer and, of course, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. The elegant prose and its blistering pace keep the heart of the novel beating even when some revelations prove predictable. The book never strays too far from convention, but its pedal-to-the-floor narrative drive propels it above and beyond its kin. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.

Our Top 10 Bestsellers of January 2018

Michael Wolff's explosive examination of the Trump White House continued to dominate our bestseller list in January, while Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach was the favoured beach read over the summer break.  

  1. Fire & Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff
  2. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
  3. Sydney in Photos by Tim Denoodle
  4. A New England Affair by Steven Carroll
  5. The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet
  6. The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992 by Tina Brown
  7. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
  8. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
  9. Tin Man by Sarah Winman
  10. The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

Mick Herron Returns with Two New Books!

Mick Herron has published two books this month; a standalone thriller titled This Is What Happened and the fifth entry in the Jackson Lamb series, London Rules. Our bookseller Simon McDonald reviews both.


This Is What Happened by Mick Herron

When discussing his film Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock explained to Francois Truffaut that he “was directing the viewers… I was playing them, like an organ.” Which is precisely what Mick Herron does in This Is What Happened, shrewdly manipulating the reader, keeping them in suspense right up until the nail-biting finish. What seems at the start to be another in Herron’s long line of successful spy novels seamlessly transforms into an ingenious and intense psychological thriller that what will surely stand as one of the finest thrillers of 2018.

Twenty-six-year-old mail room employee Maggie Barnes is hiding in the lavatories of a 27-story London office building in the middle of the night. She has been recruited by MI5 agent Harvey Wells to upload spyware on the company’s computer network from a USB drive. She is untrained, totally inexperienced, and a nervous wreck; but she is empowered by her mission for Queen and Country, feels good to be doing something meaningful, having found herself isolated in the bustling metropolis of England’s capital. But her mission goes sideways, fast, just as readers would expect, and we are trained, based on years of reading the genre, to assume that her escape from the clutches of this “evil corporation” will be the book’s focus. Which is precisely when Herron pulls the rug out from readers’ feet.

This Is What Happened is not an espionage novel. It is a pared-down, sumptuous, enthralling, propulsive masterclass of suspense with a hard-boiled heart. It’s Hitchcockian, dark and menacing, and intricately-plotted. The kind of book you’ll blow through in a single night.

More information...

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London Rules by Mick Herron

London Rules — the fifth book in the Jackson Lamb series — epitomises precisely why Mick Herron’s espionage novels are the new hallmarks of the genre. It is a rousing, provocative — and genuinely funny, at times — political thriller with a  labyrinthine plot that, despite its villains remaining little more than sketches, excels thanks to its large, diverse cast of ‘Slow Horses’ whose personal travails and tribulations add depth to protagonists who are often little more than stock cardboard cutouts.

New readers are welcomed into the world of Slough House, where failed (dubbed incompetent) MI-5 agents are deposited to waste their days, twiddling their thumbs, doing mind-numbing busy work, but it’s readers who’ve been with these characters since Slow Horses who’ll get maximum enjoyment from London Rules. By now, the Slow Horses are entangled in a thick continuity soup, and each book in the series serves as an episodic interlude into their lives, the spotlight shared between various characters. This time around the balance is fairly even, which makes the story’s unravelling all the more nerve-wracking, because Herron has displayed a willingness to kill off characters before, and given the vastness of the cast he’s working with, one can’t help but feel it’s only a matter of time before further reductions are made.

London Rules deals with various plot threads that eventually, quite brilliantly, tie together. While Slow Horse Roddy Ho is targeted for assassination, a string of bizarre, seemingly random terrorist attacks rock the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, Regent’s Park’s First Desk, Claude Whelan, is struggling to protect the hapless prime minister from the MP who orchestrated the Brexit vote, who has his sights set on Number Ten; not to mention the MP’s wife, a tabloid columnist, who’s obliterating Whelan in print; then there’s the soon-to-be mayor of London the Prime Minister has allied himsel with, who has a dark, potentially devastating secret. Poor Whelan, dealing with all of this, while his own deputy, Lady Di Taverner, watches on, waiting for him to stumble. And while these machinations are certainly intriguing and propulsive, it’s how River Cartwright, Catherine Standish, JK Coe and all the others are managing the stresses of their personal lives, and the consequences of their previous missions, that prove the ultimate page-turning factor.

Mick Herron’s novels sit comfortably somewhere between le Carré and Bond: meticulously plotted, deliberately paced, fun, and not overly deep. London Rules is a terrific yarn filled with tension and surprises right to the end. Every instalment in this series is a pleasure to read.

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Review: Redemption Point by Candice Fox

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Candice Fox, arguably Australia’s finest crime writer, has penned another taut and seductive thriller with Redemption Point.

Reviewed by Simon McDonald

Redemption Point, the standalone sequel to 2017’s Crimson Lake, is meticulously plotted and magically propulsive, and shows precisely why Fox is the poster-woman of Australian crime fiction.

When former NSW Police Detective Ted Conkaffey was wrongly accused of abducting thirteen-year-old Claire Bingley, he disappeared to the steamy, croc-infested wetlands of Crimson Lake in Queensland, where he met the brilliant, but slightly deranged, Amanda Pharrell; an accused and convicted murderer operating as a private detective.

Following the events of Crimson Lake, Conkaffey and Pharrell,  now investigative partners, are called to a roadside hovel called Barking Frog Inn, where the bodies of two young bartenders have been found, apparently victims of a robbery gone wrong. Hired by the father of one of the victims, Conkaffey and Pharrell ignore the warnings of the local cops and insert themselves into the investigation. But Ted’s attention is quickly diverted elsewhere when the father of Claire Bingley — the young girl he supposedly abducted — arrives in town seeking vengeance.

With precision and clarity, Fox unravels two disparate, but equally unsettling and compelling investigations. Ted Conkaffey and Amanda Pharrell are wonderfully epic heroes; tough, taciturn, yet vulnerable, and bolstered by a colourful supporting cast, whose aspirations and intentions are shrouded in mystery, purposefully enigmatic until Fox chooses to unveil their true natures. She merges a labyrinthine plot, deft characterisation and top-notch police procedure into a gut-wrenching, wickedly-addictive page-turner. There is no author writing today more capable of producing such well-assembled time bombs that demand reading long past bedtime. Seriously, those final hundred pages need to be swallowed in a single gulp.

Redemption Point by Candice Fox is available now.

Our Top 10 Bestsellers of the Week

Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House rocketed to the top of our bestseller list last week, with two new releases, The Woman in the Window and The Immortalists, making their mark on readers. Longtime favourite Manhattan Beach continues to be adored by readers, too.

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  1. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff
  2. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
  3. Sydney in Photos by Tim Denoodle
  4. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
  5. The Barefoot Investor by Scott Pape
  6. The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst
  7. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
  8. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
  9. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
  10. The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn




Review: The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin


Simon McDonald reviews Chloe Benjamin's 'The Immortalists'.

New York, 1969. The Gold children – Varya, thirteen; Daniel, eleven; Klara, nine; and Simon, seven – visit a psychic in a grimy tenement building on the Lower East Side. Rumour has it she can predict the future; actually proclaim the date you will die. Which is both a terrifying and alluring prospect for the siblings; ultimately one too tempting to ignore. So they divvy up their allowance and make the trip. Find their way to the psychic’s door. Knock. One by one, the Gold children enter the psychic’s den. One by one, they learn their fate. And then live with this knowledge, festering in the back of their minds, a countdown to their own personal doomsday.

Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists asks readers to consider how they would live with a clock ticking inside their head, counting down to a hypothetical irreversible endpoint. Would you live life to the fullest? Intentionally partake in hazardous activities, placated by the assurance your time hasn’t yet come? Or would you live a sheltered life? Protect yourself, cocoon yourself, saddled with this unwanted burden. Perhaps you’d reject the prophecy entirely; just live your life the way you want to, balanced between carefree and considered, as most of us do. The Gold children are fine projections of possible responses to such a scenario, with very different mindsets and responses to their fates.

The Immortalists is split into four sections, each focusing on a different sibling, but various secondary characters weave through these episodes, some in a more contrived fashion than others, in an attempt to accentuate the drama. Despite a couple of instances of events tying together a little too coincidentally, Benjamin’s novel is never anything short of compelling, and these minor flaws are completely overrun by the richness of its characters. The subtleties of their differing stances as they wrestle with the magnitude of knowing the date of their death is exceptional. Ultimately, while the ‘ticking clock’ element of the tale adds narrative impetus, readers’ emotional investment is garnered from their hope that the Gold’s fractured relationships can be healed before it’s too late.

The Immortalists is the kind of brilliant novel that swallows you whole, forces you to live in its world even when you’re not turning its pages. A meditation on predestination and guilt, this family saga might’ve landed in bookstores in January, but it’s one readers will be thinking about until the end of the year. I expect to see it on several ‘best of’ lists.

Buy the book here...

Review: Peach by Emma Glass

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Simon McDonald reviews Peach, which marks the arrival of a visionary new voice.

Emma Glass’s Peach is an emotionally raw and wrenching debut about a young woman’s struggles in the aftermath of her rape. Lyrically crafted, it’s a book that lures you in with its poetic paragraphs, then steals the breath from your lungs with its gritty portrayal of a shattered human psyche.

When we are introduced to Peach, a college student, she is stumbling home in the dark after an apparent sexual assault. In excruciating detail, using clipped prose, Glass describes Peach stopping to be sick, the blood leaking from between her legs, and the scraping of her knuckles along a wall. 

Glass controls the pace expertly, lulling readers with her poetry, then viscerally detailing the cold, horrible reality of Peach’s situation. In the pages that follow, we meet the important people in her life largely, oblivious to her anguish; her doting boyfriend, Green; her creepily sex-obsessed parents; her infant brother. Understandably unhinged by her ordeal, struggling to come to terms with her assault, Peach starts to see the people around her as food, her attacker Lincoln in particular, who she envisions as a sausage, greasy and fat. With her stress burgeoning rather than subsiding, Peach decides to take matters into her own hands, before Lincoln can destroy the life she knows. The result is as surreal as it is horrific.

With Peach, Emma Glass has created an unsettling work of fiction. It is utterly mesmerising and bold, and haunting.