Review: Wimmera by Mark Brandi

9780733638459Wimmera tracks the friendship of two boys from a defining moment in their childhood, when a mysterious newcomer arrives in the small Australian country town of Wimmera, through to the discovery of a body in the river twenty years later. Mark Brandi’s debut is a simply extraordinary literary crime novel, delivered with intelligence, power and heart.

The novel opens in the midst of the 1989 summer holidays, where we’re introduced to best friends Ben and Fab. These almost-teenagers spend their days yabbying, playing backyard cricket, hypothesising revenge against school bullies, and leaving unsaid their shared discomfort over the way Fab’s father hits him, and the suicide of Ben’s next-door neighbour. When a man moves into the now-vacant neighbour’s house, Fab and Ben contemplate his presence in their hometown now; what brought him here, and where was he before? He’s a big man, obviously strong, built like a linebacker. There’s something not right about him; a meanness in his smile, a dubious glint in his eye. Unbeknownst to Ben and Fab, his arrival in Wimmera will have a major impact on their young lives — the ripples of which are still felt twenty years later, when their friendship has long since eroded, Ben now living the big city life in Melbourne, while Fab remains, stuck in a dead-end job, burdened by the weight of a decision made in his youth, soon to be crippled by it when the police discover a body in the river.

Wimmera is rural Australian noir perfected. The tone of the novel is bleak, its characters steeped in defeatism. You know from the start: nobody is going to get what they want, and everyone is going to get what’s coming to them. In his foreword of The Best American Noir of the Century, Otto Penzler described noir works as “existential pessimistic tales about people, including (or especially) protagonists, who are seriously flawed and morally questionable. The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral and their plans and schemes inevitably go awry.” That’s Wimmera in a nutshell. It is unsettling and bittersweet bearing witness to two young men orbiting a black hole, but more importantly, it’s unputdownable.

Comparisons to Jane Harper’s The Dry (my 2016 book of the year) are inevitable — both Australian debuts, both set in rural Australian towns — but besides their sheer readability, these are two very different novels deserving of equal merit. Harper’s was a relentless page-turner; a race to determine the perpetrator of the crime. Brandi’s is more of a slow-burn; a character-driven, emotionally-wrenching tour-de-force.

ISBN: 9780733638459
Format: Paperback
Pages: 272
Imprint: Hachette Australia
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Publish Date: 27-Jun-2017
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

9781781090329Hogarth Shakespeare seriesIn Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello is transplanted to a school in 1970s Washington DC.

This is not a radical reimagining of Shakespeare’s play, and for those enamoured with the classic work, Chevalier’s tale will hold few surprises. Which isn’t to say New Boy won’t resonate with such readers, just that you’ll be reading with a dreadful sense of inevitability burdening your conscious. Thankfully the dynamics and anachronisms of this retelling work wonderfully, and the transposition of Othello, Desdemona, Iago and so forth, into adolescent,s is superbly effective.

Son of a Ghanian diplomat, Osei Kokote arrives at his fifth school in as many years, cognisant of what must be done if he is to survive his first day. There’s a lot of politics involved in being the “new kid,” especially when the colour of your skin is different to everybody else’s. He needs an ally: someone to tie him into the social fabric. He finds that person in Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student, Ian, is apoplectic at this budding relationship, and begins scheming. Come the end of this school day, the friendship between the black boy and the perfect little princess will be in ruins, and the impact of their decimation will ripple through the lives of pupils and teachers alike.

Some readers will bemoan the closeness to which New Boy adheres to the original work, but thanks to the richness of this young cast, and Chevalier’s majestic ability to transport readers back to the playground, with all its heightened drama, this latest instalment in the Hogarth Shakespeare series is a must-read. It will certainly rank as one of my favourite books of the year.

ISBN: 9781781090329
Format: Paperback (216mm x 135mm x 14mm)
Pages: 192
Imprint: Hogarth
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 11-May-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Gray Man by Mark Greaney

9780515147018Mark Greaney’s The Gray Man is as satisfying as any wide-screen Hollywood blockbuster, its superbly choreographed and adrenaline-fuelled action scenes enhancing the thriller’s thin plot. It’s heavy on familiar tropes — the assassin with a conscious, spurned by his government overseers, now targeted for elimination by, well, just about every professional killer in the business — but this first book in a series that has now reached its sixth entry is fast and furious, and a sure fix for thriller junkies.

Court Gentry is known as The Gray Man in clandestine circles: a proven killer who moves silently from job to job, accomplishing the impossible, then fading into the background. But when a job goes awry, he finds himself up against impossible odds: a fleet of killers who will do anything to bring his head to their employer. Stripped of equipment and weapons, wounded and adrift, Gentry faces off against opposition forces in Prague, Zurich and Paris, pulling off miracle escape after miracle escape. Bashed and blooded, things come to their violent climax in a chateau near the Normandy coast.

Fans of Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum in their pomp will find plenty to enjoy here. The Gray Man isn’t going to make new friends of the genre, but for acolytes, this is superb. It’s a blast.

ISBN: 9780515147018
Format: Paperback / softback (189mm x 110mm x 25mm)
Imprint: Jove Books
Publisher: Jove Books
Publish Date: 1-Sep-2009
Country of Publication: United States

Review: The List by Michael Brissenden

9780733637421Michael Brissenden’s debut novel, The List, has all the elements of a rollicking thriller: a diabolical threat, political intrigue, set locally in Sydney. It sits somewhere between a Harry Bosch mystery and a Tom Clancy technothriller, but unfortunately, the sum of its parts doesn’t equate to greatness. The List nails the raw pace required of a thriller, but it lacks the high-octane theatrics that elevated the best of Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum, and lacks the serpentine plot of an A-list crime novel. The novel’s characters and locales lack colour and life, and the telling details that are the hallmarks of the genre’s greats. It’s an effective page-turner, but not propulsive. It’s a little too beholden to the books that’ve come before it, not quite doing enough to stand out from the crowd.

Sidney Allen is part of the Australian Federal Police’s K block, tasked with doing whatever it takes to stop terrorist attacks on home soil. When young Muslim men on the Terror Watchlist start turning up dead, Allen and his partner, Haifa Hourani, are assigned to the case. As they dig deeper, they uncover an incredible terrorist plot that would decimate Sydney. It’s Bosch meets 24 as they race against time to stop the impending attack.

Neither Allen or Hourani are convincing protagonists. Though we are assured they are skilled investigators – the best of the best – we never actually get to witness their genius or aptitude in action. Events happen around them, or to them, with great regularity, but they never seem to chart their own course. Their backgrounds are passé; the love of Allen’s life was murdered by the terrorist operating under the pseudonym ‘the Scorpion,’ so obviously he’s fuelled by a lust for revenge; and Hourani struggle between her Muslim faith and her desire to protect others from its extremist would be fine, if only her elucidation of that fact didn’t feel like the author standing on his soapbox.

It is absolutely correct that authors provide a fair and balanced portrayal of Muslims in their fiction. Readers are smarter and more widely-read than ever; we expect, and deserve, more than cookie-cutter ‘extremist Muslim’ villains chased by Caucasian white men. I applaud Michael Brissenden for touching on relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in Australia, exploring how Islamic ways can align with Australian norms, and demonstrating ISIS’ mastery at messaging and manipulation. But too often these passages – whether they’re internal monologues or dialogue between characters – read like the author’s rhetoric; like chunks of an essay. There is nothing subtle or nuanced about these passages; the message belongs, but it’s delivery is clunky. It weakens the overall narrative, and slows down the pacing.

The List is a passably entertaining thriller with very few surprises. If Brissenden can iron out some of his debut’s kinks, and focus more on the action, his sophomore effort might be something to behold. As it stands, The List is a perfunctory thriller that’ll be lapped up by the genre’s acolytes. Brisk and easy, it’ll suffice for your next long-haul flight.

ISBN: 9780733637421
Format: Paperback
Pages: 368
Imprint: Hachette Australia
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Publish Date: 25-Jul-2017
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

9781911215370I’m a late Murakami convert. My first sample of his work – 2014’s Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage – inspired a marathon of Murkami madness over the next eighteenth, solidifying my adoration of his imagination and his spare, unadorned prose. It lead to the devout proclamation:  whatever Haruki Murakami writes, I will read. So when Men Without Women arrived in store, there was no pause for deliberation: I slapped my money down on the counter and slipped my copy of the short story collection into my bag. There was no doubt in my mind: my commute over the next couple of days would be a delight.

In the seven stories that comprise this collection, Murakami explores themes of adultery, friendship, alienation and sex through the perspective of emotionally isolated men. Perhaps they’re struggling in the aftermath of a faded love, unable to cope with their subsequent loneliness; perhaps they are men who’ve never experienced love, but are desperate for its touch; or men who are in love, but fear its loss, and how its annulment might ruin their lives. The women in these tales are never fully realised, almost entirely eponymous. They serve as potential saviours, or narrative devices, to demonstrate the stuntedness of the male protagonists.

Murakami’s prose is as delectable as ever, though it only serves to highlight the bleakness of most of these stories. Men Without Women is eminently readable, and rife with the author’s recurrent motifs, but lacks the sparkle, if not the general potency, of his other short stories. Of course, readers’ mileage may vary. One thing’s for certain: these are stories that beg for discussion. Add this one to your reading group list.

ISBN: 9781911215370
Format: Hardback (222mm x 144mm x 25mm)
Pages: 240
Imprint: Harvill Secker
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 9-May-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham

9780733638015.jpgIn Michael Robotham’s sure and practised hands, domestic noir has achieved new heights. With its perfect blend of sharp plotting, great characterisation and a powerful narrative, The Secrets She Keeps might well be the spiritual successor to Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train we’ve all been waiting for.

The Secrets She Keeps revolves around two central themes: the attainment of a (perceived) perfect life, and the extremes we are capable of going to in order to keep our darkest secrets safe. Our narrators — Agatha Fyfle and Meghan Shaughnessy. — come from vastly different backgrounds, but are united by two unconnected and deeply personal secrets, both of which have the potential to unravel their lives. Agatha thinks Meghan has it all — two perfect children, a handsome and successful husband, a happy marriage — while all she has is an absent boyfriend (and father of her unborn child) who won’t return her calls. If only Agatha could see the inner-workings of Meghan and Jack’s marriage; see past the sheen and the smiles plastered on their faces in public. Is a third child really the antidote to their woes? And if it is, suppose that antidote was maliciously removed… the consequences would be devastating.

In this standalone psychological thriller, Robotham explores the lengths we’ll go to bury the truth beneath a flood of lies. He never writes a dull page, ratcheting up the tension, pressing his foot against the accelerator, until the pages start turning themselves. The Secrets She Keeps is gripping and heartbreaking in equal measure. You will doubt everything and everyone, because ultimately, the characters at the novel’s centre simply can’t be trusted. They are liars, cheats and scoundrels. And they are so utterly compelling, you might breeze through this one in a single sitting. It’s ‘forget your job, meals, friends and family’ kind of good.

ISBN: 9780733638015
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 448
Imprint: Hachette Australia
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Publish Date: 11-Jul-2017
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: The Wanderers by Meg Howrey

VoyagerMeg Howrey’s The Wanderers lyrically showcases the psychological costs of humanity’s desire to explore the stars. It’s a space opera without grandiose plot theatrics — The Martian this ain’t! — which thrives on digging deep into its characters’ psyches and exposing the toll their mission takes on them.

In the near future, a private space firm called Prime Space — think SpaceX — is preparing for its inaugural mission to Mars. As part of their training, the first mission’s crew — comprised of Russian cosmonaut Sergei Kuznetsov, Japanese astronaut Yoshihiro Tanaka, and American astronaut Helen Kane — undertake a 17-month simulation of the proposed mission to Mars and back in order to assess their capacity to cope with the physical and emotional pressures of such isolation.

Rather than focus merely on the three astronauts, Howrey expands her insights into the trio’s family’s, and members of the Prime Space support crew, each of whom have their own demons, all of which are exacerbated by the extremity of the circumstances they face. The author juggles these perspectives with aplomb; not once does Sergei’s sexually-confused teenage son, or Helen’s guarded actress daughter, or Yoshi’s restless wife come across as stereotypes. They’re genuine, flawed people, doing their best to survive in a paradoxical world in which they miss their loved ones, but know this 17-month expedition is merely an hors d’oeuvre to the real thing, where failure will likely result in death.

With the rise of SpaceX, novels such as The Wanderers will become increasingly salient. Humanity’s capacity to go forth and explore other planets — heck, maybe some day, the universe — hinges not necessarily on hardware or science, but on the fortitude of the brave men and women who partake in these expeditions. Meg Howrey’s novel is a wonderful testament to these voyagers.

ISBN: 9781471146664
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x 23mm)
Pages: 384
Imprint: Scribner UK
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publish Date: 6-Apr-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom