Review: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

9781474613453As readers, we’re always looking for dynamic new iterations and interpretations of our favourite authors and genres. We know what we like, and we want the same, but different; enough so it feels fresh, but not to the extent it feels totally unfamiliar. Which is how I feel about Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times. The twenty-something Irish author was christened “the new Sally Rooney” long before I plucked her debut novel from my stack. Which was inevitable, given her biography, and the territory trodden in her book: 22-year-old narrator Ava has relocated from Dublin to Hong Kong to teach English, and finds herself entangled in a love triangle with a man and woman, and floundering to find meaning, and indeed any semblance of sincerity, in the burgeoning years of her adulthood.

We are entrenched in Ava’s headspace for the duration of the novel, which is often exasperating, if only because Dolan pitch-perfectly captures the prevailing nihilism seeped into the psyches of most young adults. It sure was in mine. At various occasions throughout its slight page count, Ava is portrayed as manipulative, self-loathing, and cynical. I’m not sure I ever liked her, but I sure as heck sympathised with her plight to find purpose, and chuckled along at her acerbic observations about class, race, gender, wealth and relationships, and basically every element of society at a microscopic level.

Oh, there were so many moments I wanted to shake the book and bellow, “Why are you like this, Ava? Why are you even with Julian; can’t you see what he is? What’s with the chip on your shoulder? Oh, not again; this is a blatant example of self-sabotage!” Because at its heart, Exciting Times is a love story, in the purest sense, because it doesn’t just present the glitz and glamour and tenderness of romance; it shoves the reader’s face in the mud and muck of opening up your heart, and the high-risk reality of tethering your happiness to another. Ava is battle-hardened; emotionally unavailable, until the moment she isn’t, which sneaks up on her — and the reader — with such poignant clarity in a moment of beautifully inadvertent intimacy.

Ava is a real person; frustratingly so, and sometimes — for me — loathsomely so. Which is the genius of the novel. Through sketched-out anecdotes of her year in Hong Kong, Dolan exposes us to Ava’s real, unvarnished thoughts and fears. True and honest insight into the mind of a young woman finding herself in a messy world. Paint my introspections on the page, and I’m sure the result would be ugly, too. Garnished with Ava / Dolan’s specific brand of caustic wit, Exciting Times is elevated beyond mere Sally Rooney cookie-cutter. It’s a millennial parable.  

ISBN: 9781474613453
ISBN-10: 1474613454
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 240
Published: 14th April 2020
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co

Review: Amnesty by Aravind Adiga

9781509879045Amnesty | Aravind Adiga | Pan Macmillan AU | February 2020 | RRP $30.00 | 9781509879045

“There is a buzz, a reflexive retinal buzz, whenever a man or woman born in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh sees another from his or her part of the world in Sydney — a tribal pinprick, an instinct always reciprocal, like the instantaneous recognition of homosexuals in a repressed society. Because even if both of you believe that one brown man holds no special significance for another in Sydney — a city and civilisation built on the principle of the exclusion of men and women who were not white, and which fully outgrew that principle only a generation ago — which is to say, even if you want to stay icebox or indifferent in the presence of the other brown man, you are helpless.”


Booker Prize-winning author Aravind Adiga returns with the story of a day in the life of Dhananjaya ‘Danny’ Rajaratnam, an illegal Sri Lankan immigrant, who unwittingly becomes embroiled in a murder, and must decide whether coming forward with information that would aid the police investigation is worth the risk of deportation. As he evaluates the morality and consequences of either decision, we learn of Danny’s past, and his daily struggles to survive as a cleaner in Sydney; living in a grocery storeroom under the thumb of its tyrannical owner; wracked by the fear of the authorities who want him expelled; and the desperate measures he must go to in order to assimilate into Australian society.  

What makes Amnesty propulsive, powerful and unsettling in equal measure is Adiga’s ability to render this tale apolitically. The novel neither berates nor bolsters Australia’s immigration policy, merely spotlights a singular human story that so often gets lost amidst the debate, framed around a young man’s quest to negotiate the blurred line between justice and responsibility. It’s a story of dreams; those already shattered, those for the future, and the cost of making them a reality.

This timely novel depicts the struggles faced by immigrants — legal and illegal — with heartbreaking specificity; the constant fear of being discovered by immigration officers alongside the desire to acclimate to a society that doesn’t want you. It’s one of best, and most bittersweet novels I’ve read in some time; as a reader, you are burdened by the knowledge that whatever Danny chooses to do, the ramifications will be ruinous. Sober and erudite, Amnesty is another tour-de-force from a brilliant writer whose literary powers show no signs of abating.

Review: Neon Prey by John Sandford

neon-prey-9781471184383_lgRelentlessly formulaic, this is assembly-line stuff from John Sanford. Lucas Davenport remains a strong enough protagonist to keep the pages turning, but it’s starting to feel like the author is phoning it in. Neon Prey is slick, swift, and utterly forgettable. It hits all the right beats, but with an impotence that undermines any tension or compulsivity.

Thing is, there’s enough here to elevate this manhunt beyond routine. The ingredients just seem undercooked. Initially Clayton Deese seems like your run-of-the-mill gun-for-hire criminal. But when he skips bail after job goes wrong, U.S. Marshals start digging deeper into his background and discover Deese is actually a prolific cannibal serial killer, who has gone undetected for years. Enter: Lucas Davenport, whose job is to hunt Deese down and bring him in, or put him down. But for all his supposed menace, Deese never feels terrifying. He’s a sketched villain rather than a fully-formed threat. He’s a bad guy because he does bad, bloody things, that we sometimes see on the page, but it all happens so hurriedly, there’s absolutely no resonance. Sandford has created some truly terrifying villains; Deese is not one of them. A problem when he’s the driving force of the narrative.

Not much of a thriller, not much of a mystery. Sandford has a brilliant ear for dialogue, and it’s the character interactions that make Neon Prey worth sticking with, assuming you like the cut of the author’s jib. Sandford has done better, and hopefully will again. The thirtieth novel in the series is out next year.

ISBN: 9781471184390
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 400
Imprint: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publish Date: 25-Apr-2019
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: Lethal White by Robert Galbraith

9780751572865There’s nothing wrong with a slow-burn mystery, but there are times when Lethal White barely sizzles.

Forsaking any sense of urgency, J.K. Rowling—writing under her Robert Galbraith pseudonym—overburdens her fourth Strike / Ellacott novel with too much focus on the (still) unresolved sexual tension between the pair of private detectives and their flailing relationships outside the office, which detracts from their labyrinthine investigation into the blackmailing of a high-ranking government official — that (eventually) turns into something far deadlier.

Lethal White begins right where Career of Evil left us: Strike arriving late to Robin’s wedding, just after she says “I do” to Matthew, the fiancé everybody loves to hate —  and for good reason. The prologue treads over familiar territory, which Galbraith continues to mine: Strike and Robin internally monologuing about their conflicted feelings toward each other, and their mutual determination to maintain the status quo for the sake of their business. Flash forward a year later — yep, those conflicted feelings remain! — and a mentally ill man named Billy shows up with a barely-coherent story about having witnessed something diabolical when he was a child. Billy is the brother of Jimmy Knight, who coincidentally is one of the people blackmailing the Minister for Culture, Jasper Chiswell — and Strike’s new client. Strike quickly pegs Geraint Winn, husband of Minister for Sport Della Winn, as Jimmy’s likely partner, and sends Robin undercover to maintain surveillance on Winn. And we haven’t even got to the murder yet.

Some great character moments punctuate the convoluted plot, but for me — who kneels at the shrines of Chandler, Hammett, Cain and McBain — Lethal White is too bloated. Honestly, I found it a bit of an unbalanced slog. When enraptured by the main mystery, the narrative would cut to Robin dealing with PTSD; just as I became invested in that element, we’d smash-cut to Strike meeting his ex-fiancée. It’s like Galbraith is trying to pack the entirety of a whole season of television into one book; I’d settle for one brilliant episode.

ISBN: 9780751572865
Format: Paperback
Pages: 656
Imprint: Sphere
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Publish Date: 18-Sep-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

 

Man Out of Time by Stephanie Bishop

9780733636349As compulsively readable as it is thoughtful and moving, Stephanie Bishop’s third novel is a literary masterpiece.

Man Out of Time is the kind of novel that deserves to be described by someone with a vaster knowledge of superlatives.  It is a book that’s a step above ‘brilliant’ and ‘magnificent’ — it rockets past those classifications early on — and by the time you’ve turned its final page, it’s overturned ‘dazzling’ and ‘remarkable.’ It’s in a different stratosphere. It has left Earth. Left the galaxy. It has broken the space time continuum with its genius. Man Out of Time is, quite simply, an intoxicating, vivid, beguiling novel about the relationship between a father and his daughter, and the legacy of his struggle to exist.

It begins with the police knocking at Stella’s door in September 2001. Her father has gone missing — not for the first time — and they’re hoping she might be able to help track him down. From there, the novel separates into two equally compelling narrative threads: the first propelling us back to Stella’s childhood, and the fateful Summer day she witnessed her father cry over his failure to make amends for forgetting to buy the doll she had hoped for, and other mistakes; and the second thread details precisely what happened to her father, Leon.  Stella’s whole life has been affected by her father’s grapple with his place in the world, and his struggle to exist. She fears that she, too, will inherit this self-destructive trait; this curse that has blighted her father and forever tarnished their relationship; that his vision of the world, and his place in it, will become hers.

Man Out of Time is potent in its subtlety. Stephanie Bishop is an exquisitely precise writer, and her rendering of this tale requires conscious unravelling from the reader; its secrets are not all laid bare. It is a rich novel that demands your full attention, and rewards you for granting it such. Man Out of Time is absolutely a book for readers of literary fiction looking to be immersed in the power of language, but I loved it most for its two empathetic protagonists, and their engrossing, toxic relationship.

ISBN: 9780733636349
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Imprint: Hachette Australia
Publication date: August 2018