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

 

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