Review: Spook Street by Mick Herron

9781473621275Spooks retire, but their secrets never do. Twenty years retired, David Cartwright’s once-imperious intellect is now fading with old age. So when toxic secrets and clandestine enemies reemerge, he’s not in the best condition to face them. But that doesn’t mean he’s defenceless.

The brilliance of Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb series is the author’s willingness to utilise and turnover a large cast. In his quartet of spy thrillers, Herron has subjected his characters — the misfits and no-hopers that the Intelligence Service assigns to Slough House to keep them out of the way — to immeasurable trauma and betrayal; he has killed some off, and has retired others. Nobody is safe, which makes every turn of the page a delight. The only ever-present is Jackson Lamb, who remains one of the most unlikable-likeable characters in fiction. A real bastard, but with an underlying sense of justice, which rarely flares to life in company.

Spook Street is a masterful spy novel, reminiscent of the best of  le Carré, with an occasional tip of the hat to 007. Few writers are as capable of the slow-build, the dramatic twist, and the brilliant payoff. I’ve now read five Mick Herron novels over a six week period, and each improves over the last. Herron’s synthesis of action, intrigue and humour is unsurpassed. He remains the espionage writer to beat.

ISBN: 9781473621275
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x 25mm)
Pages: 352
Imprint: John Murray Publishers Ltd
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton General Division
Publish Date: 9-Feb-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Oh, Valentine’s Day

Oh, Valentines Day. A day of unmet expectations. Or inappropriately exceeding expectations – guilty! – when there were none in the first place.

(Because nothing is more awkward than giving someone flowers on Valentine’s Day and getting the text message: “Thanks. That’s sweet. X.” as a response. We, uh, never spoke again).

For those in established, long-term relationships, it can feel like an obligation. Not that either partner hates showering their loved ones with affection; just, why does it have to be on this day, this corporate holiday? Grrr!

For blossoming romances, it’s a chance to go all out. To make it official: we’re boyfriend-girlfriend! Or boyfriend-boyfriend. Or girlfriend-girlfriend. Whatever! As of right now! With these flowers! We’re a thing! It’s real!

Despite it’s corporateness, I love Valentine’s Day. Few days embolden me more to stew in my own personal cocktail of insecurity, honesty, immodesty and self-deprecation. It’s designed for those in fledging relationships, or aspiring romances, to take a chance. Yeah, go on. Send those flowers! Send that card! Tell her you like her!

Oh, it’s not reciprocated? That’s OK. It’s Valentine’s Day. We’re all a little love-crazed on Valentine’s Day. It’s fine. Normalcy resumes tomorrow.

One of my ill-famed Valentine’s Day moments (of which there is a phone book) occurred just out of High School. This girl and I, we weren’t going out yet, but there was a spark, I was sure of it. Or at least, pretty sure. There was maybe a spark. Possibly. One minute I’d think, Yeah, something’s here, and the next I’d think, God, what are you thinking?! But on this Valentine’s Day I woke up thinking: this is it. Time to do something huge. Time to make my move.

It was time to send flowers.

There were problems with this plan. Firstly, I couldn’t afford flowers. Secondly, I was petrified of delivering them: what would I say when she answered the door? What would I say if a parent answered the door?! Thirdly, how would I get to her place? I didn’t drive. The answer was my mum and dad. Which added a fourth problem: telling my parents I liked a girl, and dealing with the repercussions.

Anyway, to cut it short: I borrowed money from my parents, got a lift from them, and arrived at the girl’s house… where I promptly dropped the flowers on the front veranda and dashed back to the car. I don’t think I screamed “Go! Go! Go!” at my mum, but I probably wanted to. Then I whipped out my phone and texted her something like: “Left flowers on your veranda. Hope you like them.” Or something similarly poetic. And I probably added a smiley emoticon, because when your heart is all aflutter, emoji’s work wonders. It worked out OK in the end, though. Somehow. Miraculously. Well, for a while.

I totally get that there are those who view Valentine’s Day as a day of required love, and abhor it for that reason. I guess I have this inexplicable partiality for seeing people loved-up. Not that I want to witness their public displays of affection, you understand, but there is something very unifying and heartening about seeing couples holding hands, leaning into each other, roses, or another gift, in hand.

Some days it feels like the world is full of hate and bitterness. Valentine’s Day might be infested with corporateness, and for those without that ‘special someone’ (and especially those who, quite frankly, don’t want a ‘special someone’), the whole day can feel like a gigantic Fuck You. But there are too few days that encourage humanity to showcase their love and affection for one another. I can’t help but bask in it.

Although the day we shatter status quo on marriage in this country and let any two people wed will make it absolutely pale in comparison.

Review: Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

9780749020729.jpgSuzanne Rindell’s Three-Martini Lunch has been in my reading stack since its publication last year, but it was only recently, during the New Year long weekend, when there was less pressure to read a forthcoming release, that I got the chance to dip into it. Honestly, I hadn’t heard much about Rindell’s second novel, but the fact it’s set in the cut-throat world of publishing in late 1950s New York was enough to pique my interest. And as it turns out, it’s more than a homage to the beatnik generation; it’s an incredibly poignant and evocative tale about the price we pay going after our dreams.

The novel revolves around the lives of three young people trying to make their mark in the world of publishing in post-war New York. Miles Tillman is a bright young African American who is graduating from Columbia University, and is is determined to write his first novel when he gets sidetracked into a search for his dead father’s wartime diary. Eden Katz is a Jewish girl from Indiana with dreams of becoming an editor. And Cliff Nelson is the son of a famous publisher, desperate to become the next Hemingway, but easily distracted by, well, everything and anything. Their lives bisect each other’s in various ways throughout the book as their aspirations intersect.

Three-Martini Lunch is a tremendous novel, which captures the lavishness and inhibitions of late-1950s New York. As envious as I am of those times, to a degree, when long, luxurious lunches were a mainstay of the publishing industry, Rindell’s book also serves as a stark reminder of the sexism, casual racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism that was rampant at the time. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

More importantly, this is a novel in which the main characters feel genuine. Not always likable, but always relatable. I was absolutely enamored and enthralled by their stories.

ISBN: 9780749020729
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Imprint: Allison & Busby
Publisher: Allison & Busby
Publish Date: 19-May-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Crimson Lake by Candice Fox

crimson-lakeAustralian crime fiction is experiencing something of a renaissance thanks to a handful of fresh female voices. Jane Harper’s The Dry was 2016’s darling and rightfully so — I called it “the year’s best achievement on the Australian crime writing scene” in my review, and named it my Book of the Year — and in 2015 I was absolutely blown away by Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay: “stripped-down and raw, and packs one helluva punch.” And then, of course, there’s Candice Fox, who has carved out a distinctive square on the map of contemporary crime writing with her Bennett / Archer trilogy (Hades, Eden and Fall), and  who ranks as one of my absolute favourite authors. Perhaps it’s too early to predict 2017’s Aussie crime fiction blockbuster, but one thing is for certain: Candice Fox’s Crimson Lake will feature in the conversation.

Crimson Lake introduces former Sydney-based police detective Ted Conkaffey, who was accused, but not convicted, of abducting a 13-year-old girl. But the accusation is enough. To his wife, his peers, and the general public, a lack of conviction isn’t proof of innocence, just evidence of a lack of proof. Ted is an outcast. The life he had is over, and so he flees Sydney to Cairns: specifically the steamy, croc-infested wetlands of Crimson Lake. There he meets Amanda Pharrell — an accused and convicted murderer now operating as a private detective — and partners with her to investigate the disappearance of local author Jake Scully.

Veteran Fox readers will notice some thematic similarities between Crimson Lake and her Bennett / Archer trilogy. She is the absolute master of the enigmatic protagonist: characters with deep, dark secrets, who readers will follow and support, but with occasional hesitancy; because what if the worst is true? What if we’re  actually cheering on a killer in Amanda Pharrell? And Ted — our narrator — what if he’s hiding the truth from us? What if he is guilty of abducting the girl, and leading readers astray? We’re never quite certain — not totally — until the novel’s very end of how trustworthy and reliable Ted and Amanda are, which makes Crimson Lake incredibly compelling and propulsive.

Candice Fox’s prodigious ability to keep coming up with unforgettable characters elevates Crimson Lake beyond the standard police procedurals that proliferate the genre. Oh sure, Ted and Amanda’s investigation into Jake Scully’s disappearance is effectively handled — plenty of twists and red-herrings, and a heart-stopping climax to satisfy plot-focused readers — but it’s their uneasy comradeship, and their secrets which threaten to bubble to the surface, that make the novel a blast. It boasts Fox’s signature style, edge and humour to delight established fans, and will surely win new ones, too.

One of the best Australian crime writers just levelled up. If you haven’t jumped on the Candice Fox bandwagon, now’s the time. Crimson Lake will be one of 2017’s best crime novels, and Candice Fox has quickly established herself as one of our finest talents operating in the genre. That’s not hyperbole. It’s fact. Read Crimson Lake — you’ll see.

ISBN: 9780143781905
Format: Paperback
Pages: 400
Imprint: Bantam
Publisher: Transworld Publishers (Division of Random House Australia)
Publish Date: 30-Jan-2017
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Marshall’s Law by Ben Sanders

9781760294892.jpgAmerican Blood introduced Marshall Grade, a former NYPD detective, who worked undercover trying to dismantle a particularly vicious crime syndicate, until his cover was blown, and he was forced into Witness Protection. But such was the reach of Marshall’s enemies, he sublet his WITSEC safe-house (much to the chagrin of his handler, Lucas Cohen) in order to circumvent any possible paper trail, and lived under the radar in Albuquerque, until he was forced back into action, and back into the limelight. The result was a stylish, action-packed thriller, which begged for a sequel. And here we have it: Marshall’s Law.

This time round, Sanders’ comparison to Elmore Leonard — John Sanford, too, I think — is more than justified. While Marshall is the titular character, and a hero in the Jack Reacher mould — easy to root for, wholly capable of dismantling any threat without breaking into too much of a sweat — the ensemble cast is intrinsic to this novel’s success. Lucas Cohen makes another appearance — indeed, it’s his attempted kidnap that sparks Marshall’s Law into life, and the question his would-be captors ask: Where’s Marshall?

He’s back in New York, actually — trying to start afresh, still shadowed by his violent past. But he can’t do nothing in the face of a potential threat, which is what he believes the attack on Cohen signifies. So he starts to investigate, and quickly discovers he’s the target of a corrupt businessman named Dexter Vine, who is in debt to some very bad people, and has hired Ludo Coltrane to find Marshall at any cost, who himself brings in Perry Rhode s to assist, whose willingness to be a trigger man can’t overshadow his potential liability to the Vine / Coltrane operation.

Sanders flicks between these characters’ perspectives, building a head of steam, ratcheting up the tension, and bringing the cast together in a wonderfully brutal and bloody climax. Trouble is, there’s not much of a muchness between Cohen, Marshall, Coltrane, Vine and Rhodes. Sure, they’ve diverging desires and backgrounds, but ultimately, they’re boilerplate tough guys. There’s nothing empathic about any of them, or anything particularly quirky or offbeat. That was Leonard’s mastery: taking a formula and embellishing it with his trademark zaniness and humour.

Bullet-holes and body-blows abound in Marshall’s Law. It’s a tightly-constructed, stylish and effective thriller, which confirms Ben Sanders as one of the new generation of thriller writers to watch.

ISBN: 9781760294892
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 352
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Publish Date: 1-Jan-2017
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Kill the Next One by Federico Axat

9781925355871.jpgWith more twists than a double helix, Kill the Next One is a relentlessly-paced, unputdownable psychological thriller. It zigs one way, then zags another, providing the kind of stomach-clenching, unsettling suspense readers associate with Lauren Beukes and Stephen King. Nothing should be taken at face value, but rest assured, Federico Axat is a brilliant guide.

Just like Blake Crouch’s Wayward Pines series, Kill the Next One needs to be read unspoiled. This is a book that relies on the potency of its labyrinthine twists, and prior exposure has the potential to ruin the whole experience. The set-up barely scratches the novel’s surface: family man Ted McKay is moments away from pulling the trigger on the Browning pressed against his head. Then the doorbell rings, and Ted is presented with the notion of becoming part of a suicidal daisy chain: in exchange for killing someone who deserves to die, he will be killed, making his passing easier for his family. Easier to live knowing your husband / father was the victim of a random act of violence than by self-inflicted means … right? Things spiral wildly from there, quite brilliantly, and nothing is what it seems.

There’s a delightful boldness – – an incredible audaciousness — to Kill the Next One. Expertly paced and plotted, and extremely visceral, with bucket-loads of surprises and genuine chills, it’s sure to be one of the most-talked about thrillers of the year. Let’s hope Kill the Next One isn’t Axat’s only book to receive an English translation. He’s a writer to watch, and this book is one to savour.

ISBN: 9781925355871
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 432
Imprint: The Text Publishing Company
Publisher: Text Publishing Co
Publish Date: 28-Nov-2016
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

9781910701881The author of Sapiens — also a must-read — returns with another enthralling work of potent brain fuel. Seriously, whatever Yuval Noah Harari writes, I will read. And I’m not a guy who reads a ton of non-fiction.

This time, Harari explains humanity’s rise and ponders our future. He poses that humanism is the dominant ideology of the modern age, but warns it carries the seeds of its own destruction.  Homo Deus is less of a prophecy and more of a conversation: what sort of future do we want? Human nature will be transformed in the 21st century — into what? 

Whether or not you agree with Harari’s assertions and proclamations, his latest work is highly captivating.  Will his outlandish visions come to pass? Well, who knows? But the very idea of it’s possibility — that it might happen — is chilling.

ISBN: 9781910701881
ISBN-10: 1910701882
Format: Paperback (235mm x 155mm x 34mm)
Pages: 448
Imprint: Harvill Secker
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 8-Sep-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom