Review: A Shout in the Ruins by Kevin Powers

9781473667785.jpgA Shout in the Ruins is a sprawling, richly textured epic, covering more than 100 years, that explores the legacy and ongoing effects of the Civil War. And while Kevin Powers’ prose remains as sharp and assured as it was in The Yellow Birds — quite possibly my favourite novel about war — this book didn’t resonate quite as strongly with me, purely because of its subject matter, and the conflict that forms its nucleus. The American Civil War isn’t as transcendental — for me, at least, as a non-American with limited exposure to its history and brutalities — as the Iraq war, which was the focus of The Yellow Birds.

A Shout in the Ruins alternates between chapters set in the Civil War era and the mid-20th century. It opens with the mysterious disappearance, and rumoured death, of Emily Reid Levallois in the late 1860s, and then shifts back in time to recount the story of her life. It is a complicated novel, its narrative threads weaved together subtly, Powers’ poetry rendering a brutal portrayal of Civil War-era Virginia. Various characters flit in and out of the spotlight, but each person is essential to Powers’ tale, and the novel truly sings when a character is allowed an entire chapter to live and breathe on the page.

At its heart, A Shout in the Ruins is about the effects of the past on the present, and serves as a necessary reminder that some people still feel the ripples of a conflict more than 150 years old. Powers’ cumulative portraits of the poor souls impacted by the Civil War — during the conflict itself, and years after it ended — is a masterpiece.

ISBN: 9781473667785
Format: Paperback
Pages: 288
Imprint: Sceptre
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton General Division
Publish Date: 15-May-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Greeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr

9781784296537At the stage of his career when many other thriller writers struggle for new ideas or settle on conventional, repetitive plots, Philip Kerr continues to crank out electrifying, utterly addictive novels of suspense. 

The thirteenth book in Kerr’s long-running series, Greeks Bearing Gifts opens in Munich, 1957, with Bernie Gunther, the one-time Commissar of the Murder Commission, now working under the pseudonym “Christof Ganz” as a morgue attendant, desperately trying to leave his past behind, and live whatever remains of his future in relative peace. But the past is something that won’t let go, and it reappears in the form of a dirty cop, and a lethal trap, which Bernie escapes, though barely. Thrust into a new career as a claims adjuster for a prominent insurance company thanks to the influence of powerful attorney Max Merten, Bernie is dispatched to Athens to assess the sinking of a ship. But his simple mission turns into something far more dangerous when he discover’s the ship’s owner, former Wehrmacht Navy man Siegfried Witzel, shot dead through both eyes. Compelled by the Greek cops to investigate, Bernie’s once again drawn back into the dark history of WWII.

Inspired by real people and events, Greeks Bearing Gifts is emblematic of why Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther books are far more than a guilty pleasure. There’s the central mystery to unravel, of course, and plenty of nerve-shredding tension along the way; but there’s always another layer to Kerr’s work, in this case an exploration and analysis of Adenauer’s amnesty for Nazi war criminals, and Bernie’s struggle to fit into this new Germany and its willingness to move on from its checkered past.

Brilliantly composed and elegantly constructed, Greeks Bearing Gifts is a masterful historical crime novel, and leaves Bernie Gunther in a tantalising place for the future that will assure readers this is not the end of our journey with one of the finest anti-heroes in literature.

ISBN: 9781784296537
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 464
Imprint: Quercus Publishing
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Publish Date: 3-Apr-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

9780143789604.jpgAn intimate, spellbinding and heartbreaking story of a romance distorted by racial prejudice and the failure of the criminal justice system.

Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage is a haunting masterpiece; a stunning, first-rate piece of literature that will make you think and feel. Ostensibly the story of a marriage interrupted by a grievous mistake, this is a timely work about what it means being black in contemporary America.

Roy O. Hamilton Jr. grew up in a working-class family in Louisiana, and earned himself a scholarship to Morehouse College. As he says, “if my childhood was a sandwich, there would be no meat hanging off the bread. We had what we needed and nothing more.” Roy worked hard to reach his place in life, he earned his successes, and was determined to work harder. It was an ingrained mindset. When he married Celestial Davenport, she was an up-and-coming artist, and after a year of marriage, they were considering buying a larger house and starting a family; the personification of the American Dream. Until it all came crashing down the night Roy was arrested for a crime he did not commit. Despite promises, by man and wife, that both would remain faithful and resolute throughout the duration of Roy’s incarceration, cracks begin to form in their relationship as it’s put to the ultimate test.

An American Marriage begins with chapters written from the points of view of its two main characters, but Jones changes the pace and encapsulates the erosion of their marriage through a series of letters between Roy and Celestial. The novel reverts back to its original narrative structure when Roy is released from prison, with the addition of a new voice: Andre, Celestial’s best friend since childhood, and now something more. An American Marriage reaches its heartrending apex here, as all three characters are faced with reality and the state of their lives; all three question the nature and validity of their love; nobody walks away a winner.

Jones’s characters are vividly depicted; equally empathetic, sometimes selfish and altogether beguilingly human. Readers will inevitably yield to their charms. An American Marriage is magisterial: intimate, effortless, and confronting. Vitally, the story of Roy, Celestial and Andre feels complete and whole despite Jones’s emphasis on the inherent brokenness of their situation.

ISBN: 9780143789604
Format: Paperback
Pages: 320
Imprint: Vintage (Australia)
Publisher: Random House Australia
Publish Date: 29-Jan-2018
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Kill the Father by Sandrone Dazieri

9781471170409An action-packed, cinematic thriller; an assured start to the Caselli and Torre series.

Much to my chagrin, Sandrone Dazieri’s Kill the Father was the surprise crime fiction hit at the shop over Christmas. Which isn’t to disrespect this first book in the Caselli and Torre series, or its author; just that, there I was, during the Christmas peak, pushing the crime books and thrillers I’d actually read, and there was Kill the Father, with its astounding cover, blowing everything else away. Customers departed for their summer vacations with the book in their possession, then returned, waxing lyrically about how much they enjoyed it, using the expression I’ve turned into my personal catchphrase: “the pages turned themselves.” With that kind of buzz, there was no way I could ignore the book and leave it unread on my teetering stack. With its sequel just published, I reached for Kill the Father over the weekend and dived into what I’m sure will be one of the most action-packed and cinematic thrillers I read this year.

Kill the Father fuses the police procedural elements of a Michael Connelly novel with the blockbuster action and pace of a Matthew Reilly thriller. Set against the backdrop of Rome, it pits two enigmatic and damaged investigators against a sinister villain known as ‘The Father’, who has been on the loose for more than three decades, kidnapping children for unfathomable reasons. Dante Torre — an early victim of The Father — and police detective Colomba Caselli hardly seem a dynamic duo capable of locating this psychopath and ending his reign of terror, and they very quickly find themselves a target not just of the derranged killer, but of the authorities, too, as things spiral wildly out of control. Add into the mix a touch of Moonlighting about their relationship — a will they / won’t they tension  — and there’s plenty of thrust to the narrative. Indeed, the plot builds to a satisfying conclusion, Dazieri adding a final twist that’ll leave readers salivating for the sequel, Kill the Angel.

So, Kill the Father is a damn fine thriller, executed with aplomb, but to some extent I felt like it followed the established How to Write a Successful Thriller blueprint; it hits all the right notes, pitch perfectly, but lacks the soul, or the spark, to push it into the highest echelon. This might seem like a cruel critique, particularly since I, truly and whole wholeheartedly, recommend the book to connoisseurs of the genre; but although I applaud its execution and its craft, it feels archetypal in almost every respect. It races along at a great clip, and the action is great, and the whole thing is laced with suspsense; but there are no genuine surprises; nothing to rattle readers. Even so, I’m looking forward to Kill the Angel; with the characters now established, Dazieri is free to go nuts with his plot and concoct something truly genre-defining; potentially genre-defying. He clearly has the chops to craft something magnificent.

ISBN: 9781471170409
Format: Paperback
Imprint: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publish Date: 1-Feb-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Chicago by David Mamet

9780062847102A tantalising setting and fantastic cast of characters can’t elevate a familiar, paper-thin plot.

I so wanted to love David Mamet’s Chicago. A Prohibition-era tale of murder and mystery, gangsters, love, friendship and betrayal? Written by the man who wrote the screenplay for The Untouchables? Uh, yes, please; and thank you. Unfortunately, though the setting is masterfully evoked and the dialogue sings, beneath all of that is a tame whodunit, which takes an age to unearth, and is too thin to garner any sort of suspense or intrigue.

Mike Hodge is a former pilot of the Great War, now a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who falls hard for a young woman named Annie Walsh, and becomes determined to find her killer after she is murdered in front of his eyes. Hodge’s story — ostensibly a revenge quest— could’ve unfolded as a cliched tale of revenge, but US playwright Mamet digs past the superficial level to deliver a story rife with social commentary on 1920’s organised crime-ridden Chicago, imbued with three-dimensional characters who display the distinctive, fast, edgy dialogue the author is renown for. But Mamet seems more determined to paint a portrait of the mob-era Windy City than he is provide an intoxicating mystery for readers to sink their teeth into and propel them forward.

Strong on atmosphere but lacking anything in suspense, Chicago serves as a vehicle for Mamet to deliver his trademark sharp and nuanced dialogue, but there’s so much talking going on that nothing much actually happens.

ISBN: 9780062847102
Format: Paperback
Imprint: HarperCollins
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Inc
Publish Date: 19-Feb-2018
Country of Publication: United States

Review: The Night Market by Jonathan Moore

9781409159780Harry Bosch meets Blade Runner in this brilliant thriller.

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.Stars

ISBN: 9781409159766
Format: Paperback
Pages: 304
Imprint: Orion (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd )
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 11-Jan-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom



Review: Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

9780008286637Back in 2014, when The Southern Reach trilogy was published, two of my colleagues at the bookshop I worked at would debate the series with varying intensity. Annihilation, if memory serves correctly, was agreed upon as the best instalment, in which four female scientists — a biologist, a surveyor, an anthropologist and a psychologist — journey into the unknown as part of the twelfth expedition into a cordoned landscape named Area X. The question being debated behind the counter at the bookshop was whether its two sequels augmented or diluted the brilliance of Annihilation. Four years later, I’m too late to join that debate, but have embarked upon my own journey of discovery, compelled by the impending release of the film adaptation starring Natalie Portman.

I am not a connoisseur of speculative fiction. I read, maybe, half a dozen science fiction novels a year, and rarely touch the fantasy genre. There’s a joke around the bookshop: “if it has dragons, Simon won’t read it.” But Annihilation doesn’t feature dragons, and it’s bite-sized, a couple hundred pages, which are two things immediately in its favour. Things aren’t explained in Annihilation; they’re experienced, which is a fine distinction. The narrative is framed as the biologist’s journal, and it possesses an uncanny eeriness that lingers long after the book has ended. There’s a level of ambiguity other writers might not get away with, fuelled by a desire to detail the amazing world they’ve constructed; Vandermeer is happy to paint his portrait languorously and leave certain elements inconclusive.

The prose is perfunctory rather than lavish, intentionally so. Again, this is a story told from the perspective of a scientist, who details her observations with clear-cut crispness. At first, its relative dryness bothered me; I found the protagonist difficult to relate to, as we’re barely provided glimmers of her personality. As the novel continued, I understood its intention; once I accepted its style, I enjoyed it all the more.

As the start of a trilogy, Annihilation does precisely what it needs to: leave an impossible number of questions unanswered, but at the same time, confident in the author’s ability to explain everything. I’m incredibly fascinated to see how Alex Garland adapts the source material.

ISBN: 9780008139100
Format: Paperback (198mm x 129mm x 16mm)
Pages: 208
Imprint: Fourth Estate Ltd
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publish Date: 20-Jul-2015
Country of Publication: United Kingdom