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: 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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Review: Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

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A hugely satisfying evocation about the complexities of family life, Clock Dance is wise, humane and always insightful says our bookseller Simon McDonald.

One of the things I love most about Anne Tyler’s fiction is that she never lets styletriumph over substance; the understated simplicity of her writing is artistry of the highest order. Her prose is assured, warm and graceful; never ostentatious. You sinkinto an Anne Tyler novel; it envelopes you, and you don’t realise how deep you’ve dived into her world, how invested you are in her characters, until something snaps you back to cold, hard reality, and you realise from the placement of your bookmark  that you’re nearing the end of your time with this incredible storyteller. Clock Dance is a novel to savour; equally enjoyed in the moment, and upon reflection.

Willa Drake is inherently placatory. The defining moments of her life — when she was eleven and her mother disappeared; being proposed to at twenty-one; and the accident that made her a widow at forty-one — weren’t instigated by her, but by others. At 61, when Clock Dance launches into its core, we understand Willa has not necessarily lived an unhappy life, just a bittersweet one; a life tinged with occasional regrets. When she receives a phone call telling her that her son Sean’s ex-girlfriend has been shot and needs her help, Willa drops everything and flies across the country, despite her second husband Peter’s dismay. It’s this decision — made entirely herself, uncoloured by the opinions of outsiders — that forces Willa to scrutinise her life, and the people in it, and contemplate change.

Clock Dance is an intimate and tender tale of marriage, family and home. Achingly observant and endearing funny, Anne Tyler brilliantly explores a woman’s steps towards reshaping her own destiny and choosing her own path. The book brims with insights that sum up entire relationships. I haven’t been so moved and in love with a book and its characters for a very long time.

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Review: Firefly by Henry Porter

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Eight years after writing The Dying Light, Henry Porter returns with a fast-moving, intelligent thriller that proves his writing and the appeal of his characters are as fresh as ever. Simon McDonald reviews Firefly.

Henry Porter deserves to be revered among the greats of spy fiction. Readers of Charles Cumming, Mick Herron and, yes, even the grandmaster himself, John le Carré, will bask in Porter’s backlist — the Robert Harland series in particular —  and his latest, Firefly, will surely be remembered as one of 2018’s great espionage novels.

Firefly introduces Luc Samson, a former MI6 agent, now private eye and missing persons expert. Fluent in Arabic thanks to his Lebanese heritage, Samson was booted from the Secret Intelligence Service because of his gambling habit, which he assures himself — and others — is calculated and measured, despite the size of the bets. But he’s the best man for the operation MI6 has planned, and so Samson is brought back in from the cold, tasked with locating a thirteen-year-old refugee, codenamed Firefly, who has made his way from Syria to Greece, and soon the mountains of  Macedonia. He possesses vital intelligence relating to an ISIS terror cell, and details of their plans; which means they’re hunting young Naji Touma, too.

On a rudimentary level, this is a chase novel: two competing forces hunting down a young boy who, at the age of thirteen, has already witnessed too much death and devastation. The narrative bounces between Samson’s perspective and Naji’s, and deliciously details their near-misses and the boy’s encounters with danger. It’s proper white-knuckle stuff for the most part, and only once threatens to jump the shark, when Naji and a new friend, Ifkar, are confronted by a bear. Thankfully most of the skirmishes are more grounded than this example, and Naji’s desperate, hopeless struggle to survive is what truly makes the book thrum, and gives it heart.

The action bristles and the characters seduce: Firefly is an intricate, layered thriller that delves into the Syrian refugee crisis. Brilliantly set up, tautly executed, and brutally human, Porter’s latest is as engrossing and well-crafted a thriller as you are likely to read this year.

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Review: Head On by John Scalzi

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This long-awaited second book in John Scalzi’s ‘Lock In’ series is a murder mystery set in a robot fighting league. And yes, it’s worth the wait, says our bookseller Simon McDonald

Years back, John Scalzi released the novella Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome, which detailed– in the oral history format contemporaneously brought into fashion by World War Z — the onset of a flu-like virus that swept the globe, eventually known as Haden’s Syndrome, which is a devastating meningitis-like disease that leaves its victims “locked inside” their body, able to interact with others only virtually or via sophisticated robots known as “threeps.” Then in 2014 came the first book in the series, Lock In, which introduced Rookie FBI agent and Haden survivor Chris Vance (whose gender is never specified in the text, thus ingeniously leading the publisher to release two versions of the audiobook), and their new partner, Leslie Van. Now Vance and Van are back in Head On, which works perfectly as a standalone sci-fi detective-thriller, but adds much to the world Scalzi began building almost half a decade ago.

When promising Hilketa player Duane Chapman inexplicably dies during a game intended to recruit new investors for the sport, and a high-level league official commits suicide soon afterwards, Vance and Van are brought into the investigation. Hilketa is a violent sport — and that’s putting it mildly, by the way — played by Haden-piloted threeps. The objective of the game is to rip the head off a designated threep and carry it to the goal. Yeah; it’s brutal.

Scazli is less concerned with the mystery — it’s fairly obvious at the midway point who the killer is — but untangling the means and motivations of the killer. The author doesn’t shy away from commentating on prejudice against minorities, disability rights, and the way in which government funding can be taken advantage of, but it never dulls the hilarious banter, or grinds the bullet-fast plot. It’s delicate balance, and Scazli nails it.

Head On is an engaging mix of real-world politics and near-future policing. Filled with detail and imagination, paced with action and witty dialogue,  Scalzi takes his readers on a white-knuckle ride but never leaves them for dead. This is science fiction at its absolute best.

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Review: Almost Love by Louise O’Neill

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Simon McDonald on Louise O'Neill's raw and powerful Almost Love.

Almost Love follows a young woman named Sarah who falls in love fast — and hard — for a man twenty years her senior, and starts sacrificing her career, friendships, and relationships to be with him.

We have all been there, or witnessed it: a relationship destined for failure from the very start. The writing is on the wall; sometimes we’re the friend who knows this, but can’t — for the sake of the friendship — reveal our concern — and most of us have been the protagonist, invested in a romantic relationship going nowhere, certainly not the direction we want it to, but hopeful — so damn hopeful! — that our inner fears won’t be realised, that our gut instinct is wrong. We know from the very start that Sarah’s relationship with Matthew is fated to end badly, but we know what it’s like, to be in love, to think we’ve found the person who gets us, who appreciates us; or been so blinded by our own desires, our fantasy of What Could Be, that we overlook our partner’s failings. Hope overrides reality; the belief that we can change things, set a new path. Sarah is all of us, and bearing witness to her razing of everything meaningful in her life, and the erosion of her confidence, is truly agonising. There is humour throughout, certainly; but it’s the gallows kind, that only exacerbates the splintering of our hearts as Sarah’s journey unfolds.

Wry and devastating in equal measure, Almost Love is a delectable and heartbreaking tale about an all-consuming relationship gone wrong, and demonstrates how treacherous, agonising and addictive love can be; how love can be an exercise in self-sabotage, and falling for the wrong person is often akin to hitting the self-destruct button. O’Neill navigates the jagged edges of love so astutely. I loved it.

Review: The Night Market by Jonathan Moore

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Harry Bosch meets Blade Runner in this brilliant thriller reviewed by simon mcdonald

Jonathan Moore’s frightening near-future thriller The Night Market is a thought-provoking noirish crime novel set in a gorgeously realised subtly-futuristic, overwhelmingly dystopian version of San Francisco, where copper thieves run rampant, drones buzz above the heads of the city’s citizens, and ostentatious consumer consumption runs riot. Think of a Michael Connelly Harry Bosch novel set in a Blade Runner-esque world.

When a man is found dead — his corpse in a terrifying state of decay  — in one of the city’s luxury homes, SFPD Homicide detective Ross Carver and his partner are called to the scene to lead the investigation. But before they’re able to get beyond a cursory glance at the victim, six FBI agents — or are they? —burst in and forcibly remove them from the premises. The detectives are hastened into a disinfectant chamber, sprayed with a metallic-tasting liquid, then rendered unconscious. When Carver wakes two days later in his apartment, he has no memory of the events that occurred; but his mysterious neighbour, Mia, is strangely determined to help Carver remember.

The Night Market steadily ramps up its revelations, and it gradually becomes clear there are larger forces at play. Moore resists the temptation to have Carver follow breadcrumbs into the darkest corners of his incredibly-imagined world, keeping the narrative tight and focused. Moore’s latest novel — the first of his I’ve read, but surely not the last — is a tense, gritty thriller, and near-perfect in its overall execution, with an ending that lingers well past the final page. Seriously, this is a book that nails its finale; it’s pitch-perfect and haunting. It’s one of my favourite thrillers of the year so far.