Simon McDonald

Review: Recursion by Blake Crouch

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Reviewed by Simon McDonald

A wildly ambitious, fast-paced, high-octane science fiction thriller about the apocalyptic consequences of one woman’s quest to build a machine that allows people to relive memories. Buckle up, put the seat back, adjust the headrest — and hang on.

In 2018, NYPD Detective Barry Sutton fails to stop Ann Voss Peters from leaping to her death from the Poe Building. Ann was suffering from a rare but proliferating condition known as False Memory Syndrome, in which detailed false memories of other lives lived flare to life —marriages, children, careers — and clash with conscious reality, often resulting in mental degradation, or complete psychotic breakdown. When Barry decides to dig deeper into the condition, he stumbles upon the Hotel Memory, and a life-changing discovery. In 2007, a stupendously wealthy philanthropist named Marcus Slade offers neuroscientist Helena Smith unlimited funding to achieve her life’s goal, inspired by her mother’s Alzheimer’s, of allowing people to relive their memories. But Slade’s objective isn’t quite to benevolent — particularly when they learn the incredible potential of Helena’s machine.

Recursion is a nerve-shredding, genre-bender of the highest calibre. It builds from shock to shock, intensifying with each turn of the page. It’s part love story, part meditation on grief and its long-lasting resonance, and how memories shape us. And it t is never anything less than electrifying. With Recursion, Blake Crouch has produced one of the must-read thrillers of 2019.

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: 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.

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. 

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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