Book Reviews

Review: The Rip by Mark Brandi

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Simon McDonald is convinced that under the hood of Mark Brandi’s novels thrums a noir engine.

Wimmera and The Rip —  both intoxicating, unsettling masterpieces — feature characters plummeting inexorably towards obliteration, induced perhaps by events outside their control, but perpetuated by their own actions. One bad choice begets another in the hopes to solve or rectify the first. It starts as a gradual slide, then progresses into a nosedive from which there is no return. To use Otto Penzler’s words: the protagonists of Wimmera and The Rip are “entangled in the web of their own doom.”

We’re attracted to such stories because its human nature to ruminate on the bad decisions people make, and avow to avoid walking that same path. We witness their mistakes so we don’t have to make them ourselves.

Or so we hope.

With sparse, yet beautiful prose, Mark Brandi portrays destitution and addiction with neither voyeurism or judgement; instead he paints a devastating portrait of two people (and a dog) running the long marathon of struggle and survival on the streets of Melbourne. But on the streets, interpersonal relationships are just as likely to open you up to salvation as damnation. Which is precisely the case when Anton — our narrator’s companion — welcomes Steve into their lives.

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Sure, Steve’s got an apartment they can crash in, and he’s got access to drugs; but there’s something wrong with the guy. Prone to fits of violence, not to mention the strong smell — like vinegar, but stronger — wafting from behind his padlocked door. Staying in this apartment, with a temperamental stranger for a flatmate, and Anton forced back into a life of crime to maintain the creature comforts of their new home, is a gamble; if it doesn’t pay off, the consequences are catastrophic. But when the alternative is life back on the streets, maybe it’s worth it; maybe it’s acceptable to close your eyes to the incongruities of the apartment, and Steve’s violent tendencies, and just accept and enjoy the daily hit that briefly whitewashes reality. When you can’t afford your next meal, can you really afford to take the moral high ground?

This is a story of real life: of human frailties and violence. It is chilling and completely credible as it speeds towards a dark inevitability. It is an incredible step forward for a writer of commanding gifts, who seems poised on the threshold of even greater accomplishment.

Review: Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly

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An excellent police procedural in its own right, and a definitive novel in the Harry Bosch series. This is crime writing at its very best, says our bookseller Simon McDonald.

Dark Sacred Night and the last handful of Michael Connelly’s novels —  Two Kinds of TruthThe Late Show, and The Wrong Side of Goodbye — were clearly influenced by the superb Bosch television series. Which is not the derisive comment you might think it is; far from it, in fact. As necessitated by the medium, every season of the Bosch TV series merges various plot elements from two or three of Connelly’s books into one cohesive narrative; Bosch might be working more than one case, for example, and these two plots twist around each other like the double helix of a DNA strand. Connelly has adopted this technique with his last few books to great effect, and has ensured the recent Bosch novels, and the first Renée Ballard thriller The Late Show have felt very different to his earlier output. As exemplified by Dark Sacred Night, Connelly’s work is tauter  — leaner and meaner — than it ever has been. And it’s great. It’s not that he’s reinvented his style or storytelling devices; rather, he’s just completely reinvigorated his writing. And it takes a very good writer indeed to modify a formula that’s garnered critical acclaim and landed places on bestseller lists worldwide for so long.

When Connelly introduced Renée Ballard in The Late Show, most readers would’ve assumed it was only a matter of time before she crossed paths with Harry Bosch. Few would’ve thought we’d witness that so soon. When Ballard meets Bosch, late one night during another graveyard shift, he’s rifling through an old filing cabinet, desperate for information on a cold case that’s sunk its teeth into him. Bosch is investigating the death of fifteen-year-old Daisy Clayton, a runaway who was brutally murdered almost a decade ago, whose mother he met  — as did readers — in Two Kinds of Truth. Ballard is initially suspicious of Bosch, but it quickly becomes clear: they’re both driven by the same desire for justice. So, still not entirely bonded, they agree to assist each other: Bosch on the outside, Ballard on the inside.

Meanwhile, Ballard is repeatedly distracted from the Clayton case by various callouts on her midnight shift. Most of these serve as momentary distractions, offering cool insights and anecdotes into Ballard’s history, and life in the LAPD. Bosch, too, can’t give the case his all: still attached in a part-time capacity to the San Fernadno Police Department, he is ready to serve a warrant on his prime suspect in the murder of veteran gang member Cristobel Vega. But things immediately go south, and Bosch finds himself facing the wrath of the Varrio San Fer 13, one of the oldest and deadliest gangs in the San Fernando Valley.

Dark Sacred Night is Connelly in fine form. It’s very rare when the thirty-second book by an author leaves you desperate for the next one, but Connelly delivers every time. The first Ballard & Bosch novel is  a multilayered and multifaceted mystery, chock-full of moments of heart-pounding suspense, and a conclusion that rocks Bosch’s world to its core. Hours after I’ve put the book down, I’m still recovering from its reverberations. Michael Connelly —  the proven master of the genre — continues to astound.

Reivew: The Lost Man by Jane Harper

Set in the unforgiving landscape of the Queensland outback, The Lost Man is a cracking page-turner  that explores the psychology of abuse and the desire for retribution. Simon McDonald reviews Jane Harper’s stunning new crime novel.

The Dry was a transcendent work for Australian crime fiction, ushering in a new Golden Age for the genre. Its sequel, Force of Nature, vindicated those early accolades, proving that Jane Harper has the ability to produce relentlessly fast-paced and beautifully structured mysteries that fully exploit the harsh Australian landscape. Delightfully, The Lost Man amply fulfils the promise of its predecessors and sets the bar even higher. The intimate betrayals that pockmark The Lost Man are nothing short of devastating.

Anyone who read The Dry will recall its scintillating opening salvo: blowflies buzzing around the corpses of the Hadler family. It hooked you immediately; compelled you to turn its pages, to understand how this moment came to pass. The beginning of The Lost Man is just as gripping —  Cameron Bright, baking under the Queensland desert sun, crawling desperately to catch the shadow cast from the stockman’s grave, a long-standing manmade landmark; the only one for miles. When we next see Cameron, he’s dead; stared down upon by his two brothers, whose anguish over his death is overridden by a desire to know how this happened. Men and women in their line of work are survivors: they have to be. Conditioned to the tempestuous weather, accustomed to the isolation, it seems unlikely Cameron found himself alone in the middle of nowhere by accident. So was it suicide? Or did something — or someone — lead Cameron to the stockman’s grave?

Jane Harper is brilliant at pulling away the surface of her characters to expose their deeper — and often ugly — layers. In scrutinising the weeks and months prior to Cameron’s death, each member of the Bright family are forced examine the underlying toxicity that exists between them, and confront their own demons. The visceral fears and hatreds lurking below the surface of every member of the Bright family are adroitly exposed, and demonstrate that anyone has the capacity to be a monster.

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.

Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

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Sayaka Murata’s English-language debut is a fun, smart, riveting, and ultimately profound novel about social conformism and work culture says our bookseller Simon McDonald

Keiko Furukura is 36-years-old, and has worked in the same Tokyo-based Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart since she was 18. This makes her an anomaly and a social outcast. While her contemporaries have long since moved into corporate jobs and started families, Keiko has become strangely attached — assimilated, almost — to the shop and its needs, and finds solace in its sameness, and the monotony of her function as one of its workers.

Keiki is not attuned to the rules that govern regular social interactions, completely oblivious to societal norms most take for granted, so replicates the mannerisms and speech patterns of her colleagues. Keiko accepts her outsider status —  it’s not a choice, it’s just who she is — but when confronted by her sister, who worries about her unorthodox lifestyle, Keiko deliberates over her capacity to change in order to adhere to entrenched standards, and in the form of fellow outcast Shiraha, might have a way to attune to normalcy. The question for readers is: should she?

Convenience Store Woman is not a nuanced take-down of societal expectations —  don’t worry about finding the subtext, the author’s message is clear —  but its brevity, and genuine laugh-out-loud moments make it a joyous one-sitting read. Ginny Tapley Takemori’s translation is delectable, too. I can see this book being a great read for book clubs; in fewer than 200 pages, Sayaka Murata gives readers plenty to marinate over; not just Keiko’s intended conformity, but our own role in how we respond to those who deviate from long-standing presumptions.

A book that makes you think, and feel, and laugh; you can’t ask for much more.

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