Review: The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre

9780241186657As compulsive and pulse-pounding as any thriller I’ve read this year — any year, actually — Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and Traitor recounts the life of Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB officer turned MI6 spy, who will go down in history as one of the greatest and most influential assets of British intelligence.

In A Spy Among Friends  still my favourite Ben Macintyre book, though this one comes close the author explored the hidden truth of Kim Philby’s treachery, who is perhaps the most infamous double agent. ‘Philby tasted the powerful drug of deception as a youth, and remained addicted to infidelity for the rest of his life,’ wrote Macintyre, explaining that while Philby’s motivations for switching allegiances were originally rooted in communist ideology, it was his innate desire to burrow into the most exclusive of clubs — into a society so secret and insulated — that drove his prolonged sedition. The same question that drove A Spy Among Friends drives The Spy and the Traitor: what caused a seemingly loyal agent to turn?

Oleg Gordievsky was a secret agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service for more than a decade. Admitted to the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations before eventually being recruited to the KGB, he was content to eschew his partiality for democracy when the Berlin Wall went up and continue carrying out his orders. Of course, disenchantment with one’s profession occurs in every line of work; it’s not necessarily enough to warrant treason. But for Gordievsky, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was the last straw; a final provocation, the nail in the coffin of Gordievsky’s belief in the Soviet system. He was ripe for the turning, and he became such a prized operative to the British that his true identity was withheld from the country’s allies — including America’s Central Intelligence Agency.

But when the CIA eventually learned Gordievsky’s identity, a disgruntled officer named Aldrich Ames  — discontented with his lot in life and his standing within the agency — decided to sell secrets to the Soviets, which set in motion Gordievsky’s spectacular escape from Moscow to the West. Macintyre’s storytelling here is filmic, cutting back and forth between the various players involved, masterfully ratcheting the suspense. Not even Daniel Silva or John le Carré, with the benefit of their imaginations, could conjure a getaway as riveting as Macintyre’s retelling of Gordievsky’s.

ISBN: 9780241186664
Format: Paperback / softback (234mm x 153mm x 29mm)
Pages: 384
Imprint: Viking
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 20-Sep-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz

Sentence is DeathI was effusive in my praise for Anthony Horowitz’s 2017 novel The Word is Murder, calling it “one of the best and most compulsively readable mysteries of the year.” It’s a line I could repeat here for the second book in the Daniel Hawthorne series, The Sentence is Death. Quite frankly, there is no more bewitching stylist in crime fiction than Horowitz, who has delivered another slick, taut, inventive, and utterly engrossing whodunit. There’s no doubt about it: we’re in the presence of one of the masters of crime fiction.

The Word is Murder opened with a wealthy woman  found strangled in her home six hours after she has arranged her own funeral, a beguiling premise that demanded attention. The Sentence is Death presents another enigma: celebrity-divorce lawyer Richard Pryce is discovered bludgeoned to death in his bachelor pad with an insanely expensive bottle of wine, which makes little sense, given Pryce was a teetotaller. Even more bizarre is the three-digit number painted on the wall beside the corpse. For Private Investigator Daniel Hawthorne and his compatriot (and the tale’s narrator) Anthony Horowitz (newcomers to the series, don’t be alarmed by this meta element — just trust me, it works) there are almost too many suspects. Pryce, by the very nature of his profession, and as a consequence of his profession, was a man with many enemies. So who delivered the fatal blow  and why?

The Sentence is Death is the kind of book you’ll cancel a night out for and stay up until dawn reading. Horowitz has a gift for the blindside; nudging readers towards one conclusion before smartly pulling the rug out from underneath them, reformatting clues on the fly, presenting them from a different angle. Horowitz is Holmes, and the reader is a very obliging Watson. Even as you hurriedly turn the pages to find out what happens next, a part of you will be wanting to slow down; to savour and admire the seamless plotting mechanics. You won’t want it to end.

ISBN: 9781780897080
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 384
Imprint: Century
Publisher: Cornerstone
Publish Date: 29-Oct-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips

MyHeroesHaveAlwaysBeenJunkies-1.pngMy Heroes Have Always Been Junkies — set in the world of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ long-running Criminal opus — is a gripping, heart-rending and ultimately tragic graphic novella about Ellie, a denizen of an upscale rehab clinic, who tests the elasticity of morality in a dog-eat-dog world where the roles of hero and villain are seamlessly interchangeable and equally immaterial.

It was purely coincidence I read this right after finishing Mark Brandi’s The Rip, which also stars two drug addicts, albeit in a Melbourne setting, and in the form of prose rather than a graphic novel. The books handle the topic of addiction very differently. My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies presents the romantic idea of substance abuse as Ellie repeatedly name-drops a bunch of famous musicians who used pills and needles to (Ellie believes) fuel their imaginations and thus their capacity to create great art. Ellie doesn’t want to be rehabilitated; she’s stimulated by the idea that “drugs help you find the thing that makes you special,” even though there are occasions when the reader will wonder whether that viewpoint is starting to fracture. My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies never actually presents the darker side of addiction which is precisely where Brandi’s The Rip resides as it explores characters plummeting inexorably towards obliteration.

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies opens with Ellie standing on the beach, reeling from the fateful decision that forms the climax of the text. The narrative flashes back, detailing the events that lead to Ellie’s walk along the sand using Brubaker’s trademark storytelling method of the internal monologue. Ellie is a patient at the Infinite Horizon rehab clinic, locked in a schedule of tedious meetings with other patients only too happy to over share. The only like-minded soul in the place is a handsome young man named Skip, and the two begin a flirtatious relationship which quickly blossoms into a full-blown, but doomed romance. Everybody is someone’s fool, and while Ellie’s fondness for Skip is genuine, it’s complicated by the skeletons in her closet. The story builds toward two questions: whether Ellie and Skip will live happily ever after (which deems doubtful from the very start) and whether Ellie will accept the toxicity of her addiction.

Brubaker’s writing is greatly enhanced, not for the first time, by the artwork of his frequent collaborator Sean Phillips. Previous volumes of Criminal have been punctuated by moments of violence, but My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies is far more nuanced, and Phillips excels at the quieter moments, capturing the emotion of a scene with unparalleled clarity. Brubaker and Phillips remain an iconic duo of the contemporary comics scene.

ISBN: 9781534308466
Format: Hardcover
Number Of Pages: 72
Published: 16th October 2018
Publisher: Image Comics
Country of Publication: US

Review: The Rip by Mark Brandi

9780733641121.jpgI’m 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.

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.

ISBN: 9780733641121
Format: Paperback
Pages: 272
Available: 26th February 2019

Review: Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

9781509868070.jpgBook of the year? Maybe. Certainly one of the best.

John Carreyrou’s riveting account of the Theranos scandal reads like a thriller. Only if this was fiction, you might question the plausibility of such duplicity and malevolence. The fact this happened — that Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes got away with so much, for so long — is astounding. The mere fact she convinced people like Kissinger and Murdoch to invest too is insane.

Not familiar with Theranos? Neither was I, really. It was on the periphery of my memory. Basically, it was a multibillion dollar biotech startup that promised to revolutionise the medical industry. What it actually did was deceive investors and retail partners, and endanger the health of patients who utilised its technology. Pretty reprehensible stuff.

Carreyrou recounts the rise and fall of Theranos with incredible tempo. The narrative pulsates; the pages demand turning, one unbelievable what the f*ck?! moment leading to the next. Bad Blood is as riveting as any novel; a masterful untangling of unbelievable corruption.

ISBN: 9781509868070
Format: Paperback / softback (234mm x 154mm x 27mm)
Pages: 320
Imprint: Picador
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Publish Date: 29-May-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

9780241373545.jpgIn The Fifth Risk Michael Lewis scrutinises the “wilful ignorance” of the Trump administration.

This is a bite-sized, searing indictment of Trump’s government. It’s shocking — absolutely terrifying — just how little interest Trump’s appointees to head government agencies had in learning the intricacies of their departments, and how they function day-to-day. And more importantly, their value and significance to ordinary citizens. The Energy Department, Agriculture Department and the Commerce Department aren’t sexy sectors of government; but they do important — vital — work.

I’ve little interest in US Federal Government bureaucracy, but by focusing on individuals working inside these departments — touching on their backstories and their desire to serve their country in whatever capacity they’re able — Lewis humanises his reportage. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the subtler, less publicised, ramifications of a Trump government.

ISBN: 9780241373545
Format: Hardback (240mm x 162mm x 24mm)
Pages: 224
Imprint: Allen Lane
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 1-Oct-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales

9780143789963Comprised of a series of interviews between Leigh Sales and a selection of people who have suffered an unexpected (or in one particular instance, expected) tragedy (or tragedies), and those who’ve made it their life’s work to assist those affected inthe aftermath (a police detective, a social worker, and a priest all feature), Any Ordinary Day explores how tragedy and loss can affect people, and considers the tried and tested methods of overcoming such experiences.

Leigh Sales is the perfect person to tackle an issue as nebulous as tragedy and grief, having witnessed and reported on her fair share as a journalist, and experienced some of her own. Hers is the appropriate lens to examine these catastrophes and their repercussions, kneading her interviewee’s experiences into a cohesive narrative occasional peppered with Sales’s own thoughts about the nature of emotional anguish and the ensuing fallout. Besides the final chapter — more of a coda — Any Ordinary Day is rarely preachy; and even when it flirts with becoming sanctimonious, Leigh quickly shifts focus, maintaining the sanctity of her interviewees’ experiences.

Those interviewees include Stuart Diver, who lost his first wife Sally in the 1997 Thredbo disaster and his second wife Rosanna to breast cancer; Hannah Richell, whose husband Matt died in a surfing accident; Walter Mikac, whose wife Nanette and two small daughters, Alannah and Madeline, were killed in the Port Arthur massacre; and even former Australian Prime Mister John Howard, who governed the country during some of its most shocking tragedies. Their stories are never anything less than heartbreaking, but more often than not, incredibly inspiring and ultimately, as they picked themselves up and carried on with their lives, irreparably changed, but capable of maintaining functional, meaningful lives, chock-full of the highs and lows the rest of us experience. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s very true: life carries on.

Sales also dips into the statistical likelihood of any one of us being in the wrong place at the wrong time; our chances of death by simply driving our cars to work, or stepping onto a plane to travel to our next holiday destination; or even our chances of being the victim of a random terrorist attack. Some of these passages are incredibly sobering, but the overriding message is clear: live your life and enjoy your life. Nobody is promised a tomorrow, so take advantage of today. Cherish your life, and the lives of your loved ones. Any Ordinary Day underlines a very simple mantra: live your life to the fullest. Accept that bad things can happen — the intrinsic randomness of life — but know that it’s possible to overcome any great tragedy; to survive and carry on.

ISBN: 9780143789963
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 272
Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Publish Date: 1-Oct-2018
Country of Publication: Australia