Review: A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

9780857523501Compelling and unnerving in equal measure, A Ladder to the Sky probes the toxicity inherent in naked ambition and the depravity one man will embrace in order to achieve literary acclaim. Disturbing yet seductive, John Boyne has crafted one of the best books of 2018.

John Boyne’s new novel begins with successful novelist Erich Ackermann describing his beguiling relationship with the handsome (but enigmatic) young would-be writer named Maurice Swift, who over the course of many months, teases information from Ackermann about his early life in Nazi Germany, and the awful secret he has kept hidden for his entire life. These revelations are fictionalised — though just barely — in Swift’s debut novel, Two Germans, which receives critical acclaim, and much publicity when he willingly exposes the basis for his book, which effectively destroy’s Ackermann’s career, making him a pariah, and sends him into hiding until the day he dies.

A Ladder to the Sky then flashes forward, various periods of time narrated by different voices (including Swift’s wife Edith, and in the final section of the book, Maurice himself). We quickly learn that, although Swift is a gifted writer — a concocter of great sentences — he has no imagination for fiction. His prose lacks heart, and quite simply, he is unable to conjure a single original idea. This shortcoming infuriates Swift, who is determined to win the Prize, and become a literary legend, no matter what it takes. And Swift is willing to do anything to accomplish his goal, including two particularly heinous acts, which will chill readers to the bone. Indeed, as the novel continues, Boyne excruciatingly dangles the possibility that Swift will never get his comeuppance; that this man, warped and demented by toxic ambition, will achieve everything he has ever hoped for while those he uses as mere stepping stones to his path of greatness are left so suffer. Some fade to obscurity; others suffer far worse fates.  And the ending, when it comes, is absolutely perfect.

A Ladder to the Sky haunted me for days after I’d finished it. As much as I loathed the amoral Maurice Swift, a part of me couldn’t help but admire his sheer cunning and determination to succeed regardless of his failings. There were moments — fleeting as they were — when I understood (but never respected or agreed with, just to be clear!) his arguments for appropriating other people’s stories; and Boyne’s insights into literary life make for enthralling reading, peppering an otherwise dark tale with moments of genuine levity.

In a year of some tremendous fiction — Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance, and Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, to name just three of the greats — John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky deserves a place among the very best books of 2018. It might even be my favourite.

ISBN: 9780857523501
Format: Paperback / softback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 368
Imprint: Doubleday
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
Publish Date: 9-Aug-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Past Tense by Lee Child

9780593078198.jpgPast Tense is fuelled not by nerve-shredding tension or a confounding mystery, rather the tantalising inevitability of Jack Reacher’s collision course with a group of kidnappers who’ve abducted a young couple for an abhorrent purpose. It sticks to the trusted formula, and boasts the unpretentious, staccato prose Reacher’s legions of fans demand — and its insight into Reacher’s past makes it a worthy addition to the canon.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Jack Reacher, on his way no nowhere — well, the West Coast, if you must know — hitchhikes his way into a small, middle-of-nowhere town  Laconia, New Hampshire, in this instance  and steps right into trouble. It’s the archetypal setup for a Reacher thriller, and Lee Child has mastered its unfolding over more than two decades and twenty-three books. Past Tense follows suit, for the most part, with two slight variances: Laconia is the place where Reacher’s father, Stan, grew up, which means this time there’s a personal connection; a history that Reacher wants to explore, for no other reason than he may never pass through the town again. And meanwhile, not too far away, in a isolated motel, readers witness the terror facing a young Canadian couple who find themselves unwilling participants in a psychotic game.

Patty Sundstrom and Shorty Fleck are more than side-characters, or victims waiting to be saved by Reacher. They’re fully-formed, empathetic characters, whose storyline is actually more compulsive than Reacher’s. There’s an urgency to their plight, which doesn’t seep into Reacher’s enquiries until very late on in proceedings. And indeed, it’s fascinating, and exciting, awaiting the moment of intersection between these characters, which doesn’t last long, but is incredibly satisfying when it happens.

Reacher’s mortality has floated to the surface in recent books, so too his own personal realisation of his complete and utter loneliness. Reacher’s interest in his family history maintains this theme, but thankfully, Past Tense is unblemished by the slight melancholic feel that pervaded the finale of The Midnight Line. Come the end of Past Tense, you’ll be fist-pumping the air and awaiting Reacher’s next adventure. There is no doubt: Lee Child and Jack Reacher remain the most reliable entertainers in the genre.

ISBN: 9780593078204
Format: Paperback
Pages: 432
Imprint: Bantam Press
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
Publish Date: 5-Nov-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

 

Review: What If It’s Us by Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli

what-if-its-us-9781471176395_hrWho 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.

ISBN: 9781471176395
Format: Paperback
Pages: 448
Imprint: Simon & Schuster Childrens Books
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publish Date: 9-Oct-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Greater Good by Tim Ayliffe

the-greater-good-9781925640915_hrA clever plot, full of twists, which takes us deep into a corrupt world.

The city of Sydney is as much the main character of Tim Ayliffe’s debut crime novel as veteran newspaper journalist John Bailey. Not since Jon Cleary’s Scobie Malone and Peter Corris’s Cliff Hardy has a crime novelist dared to explore and expose the city’s underbelly.

The Greater Good is a solid mystery, grounded in muscular prose and enhanced by local colour. It embraces several conventions of the genre — the damaged hero, who drinks too much, and has a habit of getting in way over his head — and zips along at a great pace, rarely allowing the read to pause for breath. It begins when Bailey’s boss, Gerald Summers, editor of The Journal, orders the seasoned war reporter to report on the murder of sex worker whose client list includes a high-ranking government official. As Bailey digs deeper, he exposes a grand conspiracy that has international repercussions; real ripped-from-the-headlines stuff.

The first of a trilogy, The Greater Good possesses all the requisite action-suspense crime fiction addicts desire.

Format: Paperback(153mm x 234mm x 30mm)
Pages: 400
Imprint: Simon & Schuster Australia
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Australia
Publish Date: 1-May-2018
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: The Lost Man by Jane Harper

untitled.pngSet 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.

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.

ISBN: 9781743549100
Format: Paperback (233mm x 154mm x mm)
Pages: 384
Imprint: Macmillan Australia
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia
Publish Date: 23-Oct-2018
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon

9780349011875Some 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 dangerous and 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.

ISBN: 9780349011875
Format: Hardback (226mm x 150mm x 22mm)
Pages: 224
Imprint: Virago Press Ltd
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Publish Date: 31-Jul-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly

9781760528553.jpgAn excellent police procedural in its own right, and a definitive novel in the Harry Bosch series. This is crime writing at its very best.

Dark Sacred Night and the last handful of Michael Connelly’s novels —  Two Kinds of Truth, The 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.

ISBN: 9781760528553
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Publish Date: 29-Oct-2018
Country of Publication: Australia