Review: My Brother’s Name Is Jessica

9780241376171John Boyne has been on the receiving end of some serious backlash since he penned his Irish Times article about his support for trans rights but his rejection of the word ‘cis.’ For the record, I am a huge fan of Boyne’s work (his Ladder to the Sky was far and away the best book I read last year); I support trans rights; and I have no objection to being referred to as cis. Quite honestly, I am not sure why anybody would take umbrage with this; I believe our language should be as fair and inclusive as possible, and encompass everybody’s experiences of gender so we can eradicate inequalities between gender identities.

Books like Boyne’s My Brother’s Name is Jessica — targeted at young readers, whose perceptions and attitudes are still being shaped — are vital for their education and understanding. And mine, too. I am a cisgender, heterosexual male; there is an inherent privilege attached to this identity, which I hope will be rectified in my lifetime. But this means I will never know the trauma of feeling like I am not born in the right body. Through books —  fiction and non-fiction —  I hope to learn, understand, and empathise. So I believe novels dealing with the subject are obliged to both entertain and educate, which might be asking too much, but it’s what I demand.

On a surface level, I quite enjoyed My Brother’s Name Is Jessica. I raced through it, chortled in all the places the author hoped to induce a chuckle, and enjoyed seeing the world through young Sam Waver’s eyes as he struggled to comprehend his older brother’s transition from Jason — star footballer and one of the most popular kids in school — to Jessica. Sam just doesn’t get it: why does his brother want to change? Because no matter how often Jessica tries to articulate what it’s like to live in a body that feels wrong, it’s an entirely foreign concept to Sam. For his parents, too; comically awful, villainous people, and politicians to boot, with the top job in mind, and not happy about the potential political repercussions of their eldest son’s actions. In their minds, he is being viciously selfish.

Because the book is framed exclusively from the perspective of a cisgender boy, comfortable in his body and gender identity, readers never truly gain insight into what it’s  like for Jessica. Which I suppose is fine; if the book is designed to showcase a family’s gradual developing compassion and empathy for their daughter, it succeeds, to a degree; but the potential emotion of this story is undercut by most of the cast’s portrayal as comical caricatures. There’s an undercurrent of slapstick, which makes My Brother’s Name is Jessica eminently readable, but lacking the emotional profundity I’ve come to expect from Boyne.

ISBN: 9780241376171
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 240
Imprint: Penguin Books Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 16-Apr-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Bodies of Men by Nigel Featherstone

9780733640704.jpgUnafraid of emotion, though without a moment of wretched sentimentality, Bodies of Men magnificently conveys love, courage, endurance and comradeship straining against the cataclysmic backdrop of World War II. With unobtrusively elegant prose, Nigel Featherstone has crafted a vidid evocation of the arduous complexities of love between two men inured by the traumas of conflict. The result is something very special indeed: equal parts compelling, harrowing, and tender.

The book opens in Egypt, 1941. Mere hours after disembarking in Alexandria, William Marsh, a twenty-one-year-old Australian corporal, finds himself engaged in battle with the Italian enemy, and unable to squeeze the trigger and end a life. Incredibly, William is saved by James Kelly, a childhood friend from Sydney; the two men have always shared a lingering affinity, but despite their reunion, their assumption is they will each move on, serving their country, separately, living in each other’s memory. But despite their divergent paths — William is dispatched to supervise an army depot in the Western Desert, while James Kelly goes AWOL with an unusual family with deeply-buried secrets — fate thrusts them back together in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

Bodies of Men holds the reader from first page to last. With exquisite artistry, Featherstone writes about people trapped in a tragic situation struggling to reconcile their responsibilities and desires.

ISBN: 9780733640704
Format: Paperback / softback (233mm x 153mm x 25mm)
Pages: 336
Imprint: Hachette Australia
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Publish Date: 23-Apr-2019
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean

y648In The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone, debut novelist Felicity McLean explores the long echoes of emotional trauma and guilt born of the disappearance of three siblings twenty years ago.

When we meet Tikka Molloy in 2012, she’s chasing a ghost from her past — literally. Sitting in a Baltimore cab, crawling towards downtown, Tikka spots the one person she will never forget, no matter how hard she scrubs at her memory, walking among the crowd of commuters headed for the metro station: Cordelia Van Apfel; the middle Van Apfel child. Without skipping a beat, Tikka is out of the cab, chasing the impossible, what simply cannot be. Because twenty years ago that week, in the summer of 1992, Cordelia and her sisters vanished. And Tikka has never been able to put the tragedy of her missing friends behind her.

Smash-cut to Tikka returning home, to Australia, and the insular community from which the Van Apfel girls disappeared two decades ago. Her sister, Laura, is about to begin chemotherapy, and Tikka is back to support her older sibling. But old memories inevitably resurface. Tikka has spent years marinating on the events that lead to that fateful day. And back where it happened, she’s determined to prod and poke at those painful memories, and ask the difficult questions, in order to determine the truth: not necessarily the specific fates of Ruth, Cordelia and Hannah; rather, her own and her sister’s culpability. Because one thing is clear, as McLean unravels her tale through flitting perspectives between eleven-year-old and present-day Tikka; there’s plenty of guilt to go around.

The Van Apfel Girls are Gone is a propulsive and deeply resonant coming-of-age tale, and an absolutely enthralling account of a young woman’s effort to heal deep wounds that don’t easily show, whose voice will stay with you for a long, long time.

ISBN: 9781460755068
Format: Paperback / softback
Imprint: HarperCollins Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd
Publish Date: 18-Mar-2019
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Snake Island by Ben Hobson

Snake IslandWhen Vernon Moore learns his son Caleb — in gaol for assaulting his wife, and abandoned by his parents as a result — is being regularly brutalised by Brendan Cahill, he decides to intervene and negotiate a truce with Brendan’s father. But Vernon’s decision to approach Ernie Cahill, the head of Newbury’s drug-dealing operation, sets off an unstoppable chain of escalating violence.

Ben Hobson’s second novel is about the darkness of our hearts, and the search for lost light within them. Snake Island is not a tale of redemption, although you might catch glimpses of it. This is a book about actions and their consequences; big and small, and irrevocable. It is a violent, visceral and gripping tale about the cyclic, destructive nature of revenge; an exploration of the spectrum of morality, and the purity of hate versus the complexity of love and forgiveness, told in brisk declarative sentences that possess the cadence of a shotgun blast. The small town ambience is real enough to smell and taste; a good thing too, because I’m not sure I want to visit.

Hobson’s characters spend the novel searching for their moral centre, desperately scrabbling for a reference point against which they may measure their decision, actions, and beliefs as they’re sucked into a vortex created by violence and corruption. Its only true villains are the two members of the Melbourne drug syndicate the Cahill’s work for; whose menacing presence reminded me of Anton Chigurh in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men; everybody else is ordinary, fallible, and desperate.

As fast-paced as any thriller, Snake Island is one of my favourite books of the year so far. It is dark, lean and mean; an absolute pearler of a read.

Review: Metropolis by Philip Kerr

9781787473201.jpgThe 14th and final Bernie Gunther novel takes the world-weary investigator back to the beginning: Berlin, 1928, the eve of the Nazi rise to power, with Gunther just promoted to the Murder Commission, and two serial killers on the loose.

Published posthumously, Philip Kerr’s swansong, Metropolis, is another masterpiece — which is a word that gets thrown around too easily, but is thoroughly deserved here, and almost an understatement. Kerr created one of crime fiction’s greatest characters in the sardonic anti-hero Bernie Gunther, and by plunging readers backwards and forwards in time through Gunther’s life, exploring his post-war and Nazi era antics, Kerr concocted a thrilling tapestry of a life lived in a time of great turmoil; when Gunther’s moral code, his lethal wisecracks, and the quality of the novels he starred in, were the only guarantees, because you never knew where, and when, Gunther might pop up next.

In his first case for the Berlin Murder Commission, Gunther is plucked from Vice to hunt for a serial killer targeting prostitutes, whose calling card is slicing the scalp from his victims. Then a new killer strikes, who has their sights set on the city’s disabled war veterans, and Gunther is forced undercover as a homeless veteran, which forces him to confront his own memories of the war. But it’s not just the threat of dual murderers that has Berlin on edge; Nazism is on the rise, blackening hearts, stoking violence and anti-Semitism.

You’ll turn the pages as fast as possible to identify the killers; then go back to truly savour Bernie Gunther’s perspective on Berlin in 1928; not to mention his interactions with historical figures such as Thea von Harbou and Lotte Lenya. That’s the beauty of Philip Kerr’s fiction: they’re mesmerizing for both plot and character, and their blurring of truth and fiction, which is often closer than readers might imagine.

Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 400
Imprint: Quercus Publishing
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Publish Date: 4-Apr-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Dead If You Don’t by Peter James

Dead If You DontThe clock is ticking for Brighton Detective Superintendent Roy Grace — and a teenage kidnap victim plucked from the heaving Amex Stadium on the day of Brighton and Hove Albion’s first match of their debut Premier League season.

Kipp Brown is a successful businessman — and a monstrously compulsive gambler. Accustomed to the volatility of luck, a veteran of riding the waves fortune and misfortune and always coming out on top, for the first time in his life, Kipp is stuck in a seemingly irrevocable losing streak. He’s losing, often and spectacularly. And things are about to get worse.

Within minutes of arriving at the Amex Stadium for Brighton and Hove’s debut match in the Premier League, Kipp’s son, Mungo, disappears. His first thought: Mungo’s stormed off after their argument during the drive to the stadium. Mungo is a capricious teenager; he’s probably blowing off some steam. Kipp’s not too worried. Until he gets a message that his son has been taken, and to get him back alive, Kipp will have to pay. With money he doesn’t have.

Enter: Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. Who quickly realises this is no straightforward case of kidnap. In order to return Mungo to his family, Grace and his cohorts will have to dive deep into a dark, violent criminal underbelly, where nobody wants to talk to the cops for fear of retribution. By the time you’ve reached the final page, the events of 48 hours detailed in propulsive, pulse-pounding fashion have turned Brighton into one of the murder capitals of the world.

Dead If You Don’t is a tightly-plotted, fast-paced, addictive page-turner. Vintage Peter James, in other words. He packs half-a-dozen meaty, painstakingly interlinked subplots into his mystery cops, crims and victims all get their chance in the spotlight   but the economy and perceptiveness of his prose shifts these scenes seamlessly. This is another gem in James’s long-running series.

ISBN: 9781509816378
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 512
Imprint: Pan Books
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Publish Date: 18-Oct-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

DC Ink’s MERA: TIDEBREAKER by Danielle Paige & Stephen Byrne and DC Zoom’s ‘SUPER SONS’ by Ridley Pearson & Ile Gonzalez

Adventures_of_Superman_Vol_1_526I was delighted when DC Comics revealed their new Young Adult and Middle Grade imprints: DC Ink & DC Zoom. Without 1995’s Adventures of Superman #526 (pictured) I probably wouldn’t be a reader, because this comic turned me into an even more rabid Superman man, but more importantly, sealed my love of comic books, and began a school holiday tradition with my father of schlepping to the comic shop. From my love of comic books grew and overwhelming love of storytelling in all of its forms; I became addicted to stories. And that has remained true to this day; it’s why I work in a bookshop. So since DC’s announcement, I’ve been eager to see how their iconic superheroes are being introduced to an entirely new generation of young readers. I am not entirely convinced.

9781401286392.jpgSuper Sons, Vol. 1: The Polarshield Project by Ridley Pearson and illustrated by Ile Gonzalez reimagines the sons of Superman and Batman — Jon Kent and Damian Wayne — but probably doesn’t go far enough in terms of rejuvenating these characters for kids without an established interest in the DC Universe. Maybe Pearson didn’t have carte blanche to go nuts, but the minor tweaks made to Damian — sorry, ‘Ian’ —and Jon’s origin are very tame; I want to live in a world where the natural predilection for kids plucking Batman and Superman comics off the shelf isn’t that these heroes are white guys with capes. The introduction of Candace — a princess with a mysterious background sure to be fleshed out in future volumes — is very cool, though she feels underused here. The plot itself offers interesting commentary on global warming — in this world the polar ice caps have melted, and the cities along the coasts are flooding and uninhabitable, despite the Wayne Corporation’s manmade flood walls — but its all very fleeting. That’s my biggest gripe with this first volume; it jumps between perspectives and scenes with reckless abandon, never allowing the reader a chance to settle and understand its characters, or to fully develop its themes. Its protagonists are rarely more than stereotypes. I realise kids have short attention spans, but the way to engross them isn’t to flick rapidly between action set pieces; let them develop an affinity with the characters; make them want to spend more time with them. One thing is for sure: they’ll happily study Ile Gonzalez’s crisp, clean artwork.

81zbas8yf0l._ac._sr360460Mera: Tidebreaker by Danielle Paige and Stephen Byrne reinvents Mera, the heir to the throne of Xebel, an ocean realm ruled by the Atlanteans, for a YA audience. When we meet Mera she is fiery and feisty; the kind of young woman who can kick ass and takes names, and isn’t afraid to do so, political consequences be damned. When she sets off on a mission to kill Arthur Curry on the surface world — Arthur being the Atlantean Royal Heir, unbeknownst to him — you can’t help but cheer; this princess isn’t going to simply oblige the whims of the powerful men that surround her. But everything crumbles — her plan, and the book — when she falls (almost immediately) in love with Arthur, which totally dilutes her sovereignty; not because she’s not allowed to be in love, but just the abruptness of it, totally undercuts the strength of her character. Of course, we know Arthur Curry — one day, ‘Aquaman’ — and Mera are destined to be together; but I’ve never a more potent example of ‘instalove,’ and it was a crushing blow to my enjoyment. Why not hint at their romance? Establish some romantic tension? Mera and Arthur go from zero to a billion faster than a speeding bullet. And the book could’ve reached the same conclusion without it; with mutual respect, rather than making out. Still, Byrne’s artwork, and his diluted colour palette, makes this book incredibly appealing to the eye.