Book Reviews

Review: Room For a Stranger by Melanie Cheng

Reviewed by Simon McDonald

Melanie Cheng’s short story collection Australia Day was an absorbing panorama of contemporary Australia, populated by a diverse cast, that highlighted the ramifications of such an eclectic potpourri of different races and faiths coexisting. The fourteen powerfully perceptive stories were written with love, humour, realism, and a distinct edginess — and left me wanting more. Room For a Stranger was worth the wait: Cheng’s trademark empathy and sharp insight are out in force here, in a novel that transmutes the texture of human relationships into smart, sensitive, engaging art.

Margaret “Meg” Hughes, an Australian woman in her seventies, lives a in her family home with Atticus, an African grey parrot, her only companion. Hers is a life of contented isolation; accustomed to the long silences, the sparseness of her daily routine, the pain in her arthritic knees. But following a break-in —more melodramatic in her mind’s eye than it was in reality, perhaps, but still discombobulating — she can’t bare the solitude and her vulnerability, so for her own protection, applies to share her home with a university student. Andy, from China is facing problems of his own; failing his university course that his parents are paying for while they struggle with health and financial issues. He feels burdened with guilt by his inability to match his father’s lofty expectations. You could not put two more dissimilar people together; seemingly destined to clash as a consequence of age, gender, race and culture. The lesson here is that there, at the core of humankind, there is more that unites us that diversifies us.

Cheng conjures genuine tenderness and empathy for her characters as she explores their histories, what individuates them, and the compassion that ultimately unites them. Her writing is simple, restrained and intelligent; its insights razor-sharp. Room For a Strangeris the kind of book that seduces you from its first page, and with its keen observations, makes you examine your own relationships anew.

Review: Run Away by Harlan Coben

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Reviewed by Simon McDonald

In Harlan Coben’s capable hands, the familiar runaway daughter plot is revitalised and exacerbated, in a thriller replete with several truly sneaky twists and a haunting dénouement. Although Coben’s customary wit and banter is diluted — the repercussions of Simon Greene’s search for his daughter, Paige, doesn’t really allow for sass or wisecracks — Run Away is another masterful domestic thriller, and another impressive page-turner from one of my favourite writers.

When Simon, a successful Manhattan money manager, identifies his runaway college dropout (now junkie) daughter Paige playing guitar in Central Park, he approaches her, hoping to encourage her back into rehab, or at the very least a few nights away from her abusive boyfriend, Aaron. Things do not go well. Strung out on drugs, Paige barely seems to recognise her father — and their resulting confrontation results in Simon punching Aaron in the face, and becoming a viral sensation as a rich guy abusing the poor. Paige disappears, and for three months, Simon and his wife, Ingrid, hear nothing;  that is until Bronx Homicide Detective Isaac Fagbenle turns up at Simon’s office, asking questions about the murder of Aaron. The Greene’s are suspects, but Paige is the obvious one — and she’s still missing. So Simon and Ingrid launch their own investigation, which brings them into the path of Chicago PI Elena Ramirez, hired to find the missing adopted son of wealthy Sebastian Thorpe III, and a murderous duo named Ash and Dee Dee, the latter of whom waxes lyrically about the Maine religious commune she belongs to. Somehow Coben manages to successfully connect these threads, building momentum until the very last page.

Fasten your seat belt for this roller-coaster ride through family hell.

Review: The Place on Dalhousie by Melina Marchetta

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Reviewed by Simon McDonald

A deliciously engaging exploration of love, parenthood and belonging, The Place on Dalhousie charts familiar fictional territory, but Melina Marchetta’s inimitable artistry elevates the novel far beyond the sum of its parts into one of my favourite books of the year.

It opens in 2009, when Rosie meets Jim — “SES Jesus”, as Rosie thinks of him, because of his orange overalls and facial hair — in a town that’s about to be flooded by the Dawson River in Queensland. She’s been in town for five weeks now, caring for a cantankerous old lady named Joy Fricker, and recovering from the abrupt departure of her boyfriend, Luke. She’s not looking for a relationship, but partakes in what she assumes is casual sex, ignoring her burgeoning attraction to this stranger, not just to his body but his personality, his genuineness.

Two years later, Rosie has returned to her family home on Dalhousie in Sydney, that her father, Seb, was in the process of rebuilding, but never completed. In his place is Martha, who married Seb less than a year after the death of Rosie’s mother, and who Rosie can’t help but loathe. It is a house they both lay claim to; a place neither can let go of. But beyond their mutual enmity, both women have other issues plaguing their lives; Rosie is coping with the living, breathing consequence of her liaison with Jimmy (who is about to re-enter her life); and Martha is battling to come to terms with the total upheaval the death of Seb had upon her existence.

This is a book with so much heart, and traverses such a rich emotional landscape, with a deftness rarely displayed. Hard to put down, impossible to forget, The House on Dalhousie is one of those precious books you don’t want to end. I would’ve happily spent another 300 pages with Rosie, Jimmy, Martha, Ewan and co.

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.