Review: Heart of the Grass Tree by Molly Murn

9780143792499With Heart of the Grass Tree, Molly Murn cements herself as not only one of Australia’s most exciting up-and-coming novelists, but a brilliant novelist of Australia.

In the South Australian author’s debut, multiple generations of a family ensconced in secrets and embroiled in personal turmoil converge on Kangaroo Island to farewell Nell, an Indigenous elder, mother and grandmother. The narrative flits between their stories, which occur in distinct time periods — the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries — and their unifying factor is Kangaroo Island, which makes the island, and its distinct landscape and indigenous population, the Ngarrindjeri people, the true protagonist of this extraordinary novel.

Lyricism empowers this tale of settlement on Kangaroo Island. Its prose is gorgeous, every page jewelled by Murn’s lyrical parlance, antithetical to the brutality of its conquest by the first settlers. Her rendering of the island’s natural beauty and it’s violent, oppressive history is truly exquisite and piercingly acute. A true gift of a novel from a truly impressive storyteller.

ISBN: 9780143792499
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 304
Imprint: Vintage (Australia)
Publisher: Random House Australia
Publish Date: 5-Feb-2019
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: The Secret Runners of New York by Matthew Reilly

ReillyA strangely sedate opening eighty pages — by Matthew Reilly standards, anyway, as he explores the cutthroat world of New York’s richest teenage socialites — soon disintegrates into the pedal to the metal chaos fans expect; only this time, there’s time travel, and the end of the world as its backdrop.

Skye Rogers is our hero: 16-years-old, recently moved to New York City to attend an elite school for the astronomically wealthy. Reilly spends a lot of time detailing her world and her struggle to find a place in it; looming debutante balls; burgeoning romantic relationships; high school cliques, fractured friendships. It doesn’t matter how rich you are; all kids go through the same shit. But add a layer of insane affluence, it’s all a bit more savage. Especially when you take into account the number of students who’ve gone “missing” recently.

Against this “new school” drama is the fact the world is predicted to end in less than a year. Yep, the apocalypse is coming; not that you’d notice. The majority of people assume it’s a false prophecy. So the world keeps on keeping on, everyone focused on themselves. Skye, too; until she’s welcomed into an exclusive club, self-designated the “Secret Runners of New York.” These kids have access to an underground portal that can transport them into the future which suggests the looming doomsday is more than prophecy. It’s an unalterable fact. Or is it?

From the beginning of its second act, The Secret Runners of New York explodes into classic Matthew Reilly territory, the brake pedal long forgotten as he thrusts Skye into several impossible scenarios, and the book becomes a gleeful, exuberant sci-fi thriller romp. The action scenes are handled with Reilly’s customary verve — though The Secret Runners of New York doesn’t have the insane set-pieces of his Scarecrow and Jack West blockbusters — but the book lumbers through its bursts of exposition. Reilly’s style of storytelling has always worked best with a cast of military types and adventurers; entering the mindset of a teenager is a totally different beast. Some of the characterisations come off as stereotypical, which is less noticeable in an action-blockbuster romp, where the action zips along at great velocity, but such unambiguousness doesn’t work so effectively in what is supposed to be a more character-focused drama. For my money, if you want to introduce a younger reader to Reilly’s work, Hover Car Racer remains the must-read.

ISBN: 9781760559076
Format: Paperback
Pub Date: 26/03/2019
Imprint: Macmillan Australia
Pages: 352
Price: $16.99

Review: The Island by Ragnar Jónasson


9780718187828.jpgA fairly conventional whodunnit plot — a police detective is sent to investigate what happened on Elliðaey (an archipelago consisting of more than 15 islands located south of Iceland) after one member of a group of friends fails to return from their trip — is elevated into the top tier by one of the finest authors of crime fiction today. Although it lacks the percussion blast climax of The Darkness, Ragnar Jónasson’s second book in the ‘Hulda Series’ is a mesmerising psychological drama on loss, guilt and revenge; altogether haunting and thrillingly well written, the kind of book that will entrance you and keep you reading until the small hours.

When we met Hulda Hermannsdóttir in The Darkness, she was 64-years-old and approaching retirement, and handling her final case; in The Island she is in her fifties, in her prime as an  investigator; and in The Mist (published next year according to my sources see the internet) she’ll be in her forties. Jónasson’s decision to tell Hulda’s story from end to beginning yes, in reverse! is brilliant, and is a startling (and welcome) change of dynamic in the police procedural genre. Forewarned of what her future holds adds a whole new dimension to proceedings — which isn’t to say The Island can’t be enjoyed without reading its predecessor, but with two months until publication, you’ve got plenty of time jump on board this stunning trilogy and affix remarkable layers of poignancy to scenes involving Hulda’s family, and in particular, the novels dénouement.

Swift, sentimental, and deeply satisfying. Jónasson prudently strews clues and complications into Hulda’s investigation with unrivalled prowess. You’ll rapidly turn the pages to determine the killer; you’ll remember The Island, long after the mystery is solved, for its protagonist.

ISBN: 9780718187828
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 352
Imprint: Michael Joseph Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 4-Apr-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: A Cold Day in Paradise by Steve Hamilton

Cold Day in ParadisePublished in 1997, Steve Hamilton’s A Cold Day in Paradise — the first book in the Alex McKnight series — has its share of boilerplate elements, but by deftly integrating its protagonist’s past and present in his search for a murderer, unreeling the mystery with an escalating sense of tension which culminates satisfactorily rather than surprisingly; more golf-clap ‘well-played’ than voracious applause — it’s clear why McKnight has starred in ten subsequent novels, and why Hamilton has developed a reputation as one of the genre’s most reliable storytellers.

Fourteen years ago, Maximilian Rose put three bullets in ex-Detroit cop McKnight’s chest, and murdered his partner in cold blood. Forced into retirement, one bullet still lodged next to his heart, McKnight’s only just registered himself as a private investigator when corpses begin appearing in the small town of Paradise, Michigan, and he starts receiving late night phone calls, letters, and mementos — seemingly Rose. But how’s that possible, when  authorities at Jackson State Prison report  he hasn’t left the facility or had any visitors for years?

Even though its final revelations didn’t shock me,  I appreciated the craft of Hamilton’s debut, and his economy and masterly command of pace. I’ll be tracking down the other McKnight books as soon as I possibly can.

ISBN: 9781250012685
Format: Paperback
Imprint: Minotaur Books
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publish Date: 22-May-2012

Review: Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

9781787331679The trouble with Machines Like Me is that for however eloquent and incisive Ian McEwan’s ruminations on artificial intelligence and its relationship to human beings are, there’s a prevailing sense that this cautionary tale has been told before, and more dynamically. All the questions the narrative poses — What makes us human? Could a machine ever understand the human heart? — have been asked before, and answered. McEwan plunges headfirst into the ethical conundrums of machines masquerading as men and women, but the result is more pedestrian than prescient.

Its premise beguiles an alternate 1982, in which the British are about to lose the Falklands War, Thatcher is Prime Minister, and the work of Alan Turing, still alive, whose research has helped enable the first line of androids, almost indistinguishable from humans, to walk the Earth among us — but its rarely plundered for the prosperity it deserves. The human protagonists are interesting, so too their conundrum, even though its familiar: Charlie Friend, an unfocused 32-year-old, inherits enough money to buy one of the expensive machines, but not the “Eve” model he wants, so he settles for an “Adam.” Charlie and the younger woman living above him input Adam’s “personality parameters,” thus calcifying their friendship, and nudging it into romantic territory: Adam is their shared project, and soon, an interloper in their relationship, who informs Charlie that Miranda should not be trusted because of something from her past.

Machines Like Me delves into morality and ethics, not just of machine thinking, but of people’s decisions and their consequences. It is not a bad novel by any stretch, just bland, and overly familiar, for a reader like me, who frequently delves into science fiction. For more literary readers, perhaps less familiar with the genre, and therefore unexposed to this conventional territory, I imagine McEwan’s latest will be rather stimulating and provocative.

Thanks to Penguin Random House Australia for the advanced reading copy.

ISBN: 9781787331679
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 320
Imprint: Jonathan Cape Ltd
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 16-Apr-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

9781526606693In The Other Americans, Pulitzer Prize finalist Laila Lalami uses the hit-and-run death of a Moroccan father in the Mojave Desert to interrogate ideas of identity, nationality, immigration and belonging.

When she learns of her father’s death, Nina Guerraoui (one of the novel’s many narrators) — a struggling composer who makes ends meet by substitute teaching, much to the chagrin of her mother (another narrator), who always expected so much more — returns to her patents’ home in Yucca Valley, and into a family on the brink of destruction.

Her father, Driss (who, despite his death, is a narrator as the narrative flits briefly into the past) was always Nora’s rock — a persistent supporter of her music and independence — and without him as the bedrock, Nora’s relationship with mother and sister, who of course chose a conventional path of marriage, kids, and a lucrative career happiness personified, it would seem is severely strained. Unable to grieve, Nora pushes the detective in charge of the investigation, Erica Coleman (an African American police officer with family issues of her own, who, yep, is another narrator) to determine who killed her father. As she waits for answers, which she hopes will allow her to move on, she encounters Jeremy Gorecki (an Iraq war veteran, and another narrator), a former elementary school classmate, which lead to a blossoming romance she’s not entirely certain is right for her: at his juncture? Ever?

These characters are linked not just by the death of Driss, but the sense of alienation they share as a result of their race and religion, which is succulent fictional territory for sure, but with nine separate first-person point-of-view characters, the potency of Lalami’s exploration of these themes is diluted, as some of the voices become homogenized — not archetypal, just toneless — and the novel’s pacing uneven, as the narrative wrestles with its own identity: is it a mystery? A love story? A family drama? The Other Americans is all of these and more, but these parts never form a cohesive whole.

This is a book I wanted to love — felt compelled to love after reading Roxane Gay’s glowing review — and though I admire Lalami for casting such a wide net, I was never entirely spellbound by what she pulled to shore.

ISBN: 9781526606693
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 320
Imprint: Bloomsbury Circus
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
Publish Date: 26-Mar-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Twisted Prey by John Sandford

twisted-prey-9781471174834_lgJohn Sandford is one of the great entertainers of crime fiction, known for his fast-paced, adrenaline-producing suspense novels, and Twisted Prey is par for the course: canny plotting, tight prose, swift tempo; tick, tick, tick. It’s not a standout in the long-running Prey series, but with plenty of page-turning propulsion, it’s bound to please Sandford’s acolytes and makes for perfect beach reading, with pages that almost turn themselves.

A few books back, Lucas Davenport moved on from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to the U.S. Marshals Service. His nose for trouble — finding it, and finding himself in it — hasn’t abated. Twisted Prey opens with Minnesota Senator Porter Smalls involved in a high-speed crash he insists was an assassination attempt engineered by his (and Davenport’s) old nemesis, Minnesota Senator Taryn Grant. The local accident investigators determine the crash to be accidental, so Smalls calls in Davenport and fellow marshals Rae Givens and Bob Matees.

Twisted Prey zips along at a great clip, but becomes a little too perfunctory, as each lead Davenport uncovers is inevitably gunned down, and the he’s forced back to square one, only for the same thing to happen again. It’s your standard game of cat-and-mouse that seems destined for a stunning climax, but ends with — well, not a whimper, exactly, but not wholly satisfactorily. That said, I’ll be back for Neon Prey later this year; twenty-nine books into this series, Sandford has earned my trust, and though this one didn’t quite stick the landing, nobody writes a slicker page-turner.

ISBN: 9781471174841
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 400
Imprint: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publish Date: 1-May-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom