Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance is an extraordinary novel; one of those books I’m ashamed I haven’t read sooner, but at the same time, am so glad I’ve read at a point in my life when I can truly appreciate its magnificence. It is a timeless, masterful epic; without question, one of my favourite novels of all time, so brilliantly gripping, I couldn’t put it down until its heartbreaking final pages. I haven’t been haunted by a book like this since Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life; but I’d say the scope and architecture of A Fine Balance is even more impressive.
Mistry’s second novel is an impassioned indictment of India’s corrupt and horrifically cruel society during India’s “State of Internal Emergency” of the 1970s. Its four protagonists — Dina, in her forties, poor and widowed; her two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Om (deemed ‘untouchable’ by the caste system); and Maneck, the son of an old School friend of Dina’s — are all victims of the times, whose sufferings are disparate, but equally devastating.
It’s so effortlessly Dickensian; virtuosically exploring grand themes with poised and measured grace. A Fine Balance is as close to perfection as a novel gets.
Format: Paperback / softback (198mm x 126mm x 37mm)
Imprint: Faber & Faber
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Publish Date: 14-Oct-2006
Country of Publication: United Kingdom
“Of course, I know there are LGBTQIA activists out there who fought for centuries for me to have the right to fuck up like this… I’m aware that I should be grateful that I have the ability to get broken up with and publicly humiliated the same as my hetero friends. I am progress.”
This tremendous queer coming-of-age story feels heart achingly familiar and extraordinary at the same time. Stunningly rendered in grayscale, with tinges of pink, by artist Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is about two High School girls — Frederica (Freddy) Riley and Laura Dean — in a seriously toxic relationship, and spans a formative year in their lives; through the highs and lows of young, raw, love and the repercussions their noxious romance has on those around them.
Set in Berkeley, California, the cast is extremely diverse, with a broad range of sexualities, race, gender expressions and body shapes presented, not just as background, but as substantial characters, dealing with their own trials and tribulations that don’t always come to the fore — this isn’t their story, it’s Frederica’s — but lends the narrative credibility. This world feels lived in; the characters breathe.
Complex characters, authentic dialogue, and messy-but-beautiful friendships; Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell have created a modern classic of graphic storytelling. Readers who’ve aged beyond Raina Telgemeier’s work should seek this out immediately. Read it, love it, cherish it. You won’t regret it.
Format: Paperback / softback
Imprint: First Second
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Publish Date: 7-May-2019
Country of Publication: United States
Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake #1) | C.J. Sansom | Pan MacMillan UK | 2003 | RRP $19.99 | 9781447285830
In C.J. Sansom’s first Matthew Shardlake mystery, the hunchbacked lawyer is dispatched by Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister, to investigate the murder of Commissioner Robin Singleton at a Benedictine monastery in Scarnsea, Sussex, as the King’s disbanding of the monasteries gathers pace.
Executed with consummate skill, the novel’s blend of whodunit tropes and rich historical texture makes for fascinating reading. The monastery setting, filled with enigmatic characters, and dark, lingering shadows, is suitably spooky, and Shardlake’s exploration of its halls almost approaches horror. Some of the detective work is a tad plodding, but the pacing seems deliberate on Sansom’s part, as he gradually weaves a tapestry pockmarked with credible suspects, daring the reader to form their own conclusions.
Sansom’s recreation of sixteenth century England and his ability to lace his fiction into the confines of truth is remarkable. It’s as vividly presented as Rome in Robert Harris’ Cicero Trilogy. As a series opener, it inspires confidence. I’ve already got the next few on my stack.
The Catch: A Slough House Novella | Mick Herron | John Murray | 14 January 2020 | RRP $22.99 | 9781529331677
As I (impatiently) await the release of a new Slough House novel, this snack-size interlude serves as a wonderful reminder of just how brilliant Mick Herron’s series of espionage novels are; not reliant on Hollywood pyrotechnics or gunplay, but compelling because of the interplay between distinguishable characters, and their clever plotting. The Catch is one of those rare novellas that deepens and enriches the lore of its creators world.
Intelligence Service operative John Bachelor — although it’s a stretch to call him ‘operational’ — is living rent-free in a dead spook’s apartment. Poor John, a ‘Milkman’ for the service, is down on his luck; and the arrival of two Regent’s Park heavies early one morning hardly signals a change in his fortune. They’re looking for a man named Benny Manors, who Bachelor was being paid for by the service to monitor, but whose lackadaisical tendencies have allowed Manors to vanish. If Bachelor doesn’t find Manors — and quickly — he faces not only the end of his living arrangements, but quite possibly the end of his life. Little does he realise he is merely a pawn in a game being played by powerful figures attempting to control a scandal involving a member of the Royal family and a paedophile.
Another well-crafted entry in Herron’s fiendishly good Slough House series. Don’t let its slight page count fool you; The Catch provides twists aplenty.
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Wolf Hall | Hilary Mantel | 4th Estate | 2009 | RRP $22.99 | 9780008381691 | 672 pages
Armed with a cursory knowledge of Tudor history, but determined to finally read Hilary Mantel’s lauded trilogy opener in preparation for the publication of The Mirror and the Light, I read Wolf Hall in patches over the course of two weeks, and found myself simultaneously impressed by the scope of the work and its fascinating historical detail, and bewildered by the sheer number of characters and machinations.
Mantel luxuriates in this retelling of Henry VIII’s notorious marriage to Anne Boleyn and the rise of Thomas Cromwell. Rich historic details are presented at a stately pace as Mantel deftly balances the grand scale of her story with the interpersonal stories of its jam-packed cast. It’s impossible not to be impressed by Wolf Hall, it’s an audacious project saturated in sumptuous prose; but I always felt like a fly on the wall, and kept at arms length from its characters, rather than invested in their thoughts and feelings. It felt like I was reading a wonderfully spun historical account rather than actually partaking in it. Honestly, I was left a little cold; perhaps if I was better educated on the history I’d have enjoyed it more.
Fifty-Fifty | Steve Cavanagh | Hachette Australia | 25 February 2020 | RRP $33.00 | 9781409185857
Fifty-Fifty is vintage Steve Cavanagh: the setup is scintillating, his trademark twists are generously piled on, and the payoff is suitably pulse-pounding.
On the night of their father’s brutal death, two sisters — Sofia and Alexandra Avellino — dial 911 and blame each other for the murder. The women are trialled at the same time, in front of one jury. One of them has been framed; the other is a murderer. Unless they were both involved? Lawyers Eddie Flynn (The Defence, The Plea, etc) and Kate Brooks steadfastly believe their clients are innocent. As they clash in the courtroom, it begins to dawn on them; one, or both of them, are being played by a killer.
Cavanagh expertly manipulates the reader through his labyrinth plot, daring us, and his protagonists, to assume the innocence and guilt of both sisters at various stages, before unveiling a piece of evidence or witness that undermines any presupposed theory. Cavanagh writes blockbuster Grisham-esque thrillers: his plots are sensational, the pacing is pure Hollywood, but they’re grounded by embattled characters readers can’t help but root for. Fifty-Fifty is spectacular entertainment, easily read as a standalone, but also an important milestone in the Eddie Flynn canon.
Death in the East | Abir Mukherjee | Harvill Secker | 19 November 2019 | RRP $33.00 | 9781787300583
“…if the universe gave you a chance for redemption, you’d bloody well better take it, because second chances were rare and third chances were non-existent.”
Abir Mukherjee adds to his impressive slate of historical crime novels with Death in the East, the fourth mystery starring Calcutta police detective Captain Sam Wyndham and his Indian Sergeant, Surrender-not Banerjee. The mastery of his craft is on full show here, as Mukherjee expertly entwines two murders 17 years apart and on different continents: one in 1905, London, when Wyndham was a young, inexperienced constable; the other in 1922 Assam, the ‘present day’ in the series continuity, where Wyndham has sought the aid of a sainted monk to help conquer his opium addiction.
Mukherjee’s interrogations have the rare quality of gradually illuminating and thickening characters, plot, and setting. Alongside an ingenious murder method, Death in the East is abrim with racial tension, methodical detective work, and the hero’s appealing struggle to balance a thirst for revenge with his desire for justice. This might just be Wyndham and Banerjee finest hour. Mukherjee should be celebrated for his sterling consistency. There is no better author of crime fiction writing today — this series is excellent.