The Best Books of 2018 — So Far!

 

A brilliantly propulsive Australian crime thriller by Chris Hammer; a standout second novel by Irish sensation Sally Rooney; a mile-a-minute, long-time-coming page-turner by Henry Porter; a quietly powerful, wise and humane novel by Anne Tyler; and an empathetic but never sentimental debut by Naima Coster that dares to probe the dynamics of a fractured family: these are my picks for the books that have already made 2018 a stellar year for reading.

Continue reading “The Best Books of 2018 — So Far!”

Review: Bed-Stuy is Burning by Brian Platzer

bed-stuy-is-burning-9781501146954_hrBrian Platzer’s Bed-Stuy is Burning is an ambitious debut novel that seeks to explore love, race, religion, ambition and gentrification in a mere 320 pages. Which is perhaps biting off  more than it can chew.  While Platzer’s grand aspirations are laudable — and certainly I’d rather a novelist shoot for the stars and miss rather than settle for something middling — the result is muddled; a book pockmarked with a few powerful moments and shades of great characters, which aren’t given the chance to truly shine and take on a life of their own.

Basically, this is a story about the relationship between Aaron, an ex-rabbi turned investment manager with a gambling addiction and a waned faith in God, and his girlfriend, Amelia, a freelance journalist determined to write more than celebrity fluff pieces and new mother, who loves the father of her child, just has serious reservations about marrying him. This alone has all the makings of a solid book; lots to play with here already. But wait, there’s more: Aaron and Amelia recently purchased a house in the historically black neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. They and their tenants, are the only white people on their block, which so far hasn’t been an issue; in fact, they’ve been welcomed into the area. Until, that is, the police shoot and kill a twelve-year-old black child, which inspires a rebellion. And Aaron, Amelia, their nanny, their tenant Daniel, a neighbour and a young black girl who’s just escaped a demonstration are caught smack-bang in the middle.

The narrative flits between each of their perspectives, unravelling the day in occasionally-disjointed chunks. It’s a little clunky at times, but it keeps momentum going, and there is one particular set-piece that’s executed with pulse-pounding brilliance; real white-knuckle stuff as the angry crowd advance on Aaron and Amelia’s home.

It’s not that Bed-Stuy is Burning is in any shape or form a bad book; it’s just brimming with so much potential and shades of greatness, I’m disappointed it doesn’t hit those heights. It’s under-cooked; underdeveloped. I wanted more. And as much as I love a novel with pace, it would’ve been nice to slow things down a little, dig a bit deeper. Having said that, it shows a lot of promise from an author whose next book I will certainly read.

ISBN: 9781501146961
Format: Paperback (213mm x 140mm x mm)
Pages: 336
Imprint: Emily Bestler Books
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publish Date: 1-Aug-2018
Country of Publication: United States

 

 

 

Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

DfUUEAqV4AADjEP.jpgSally Rooney’s ability to recognise and deftly chronicle the nuanced, critical moments of human relationships, is again brought to the fore in Normal People, her brilliant follow-up to last year’s Conversations With Friends.  It takes an unflinching look at the intricate nature of love and friendship, and the impact a person can have on another person’s life. More impressively, it demonstrates the difficulty of communicating with those you care for most, and ultimately how important it is. Normal People is, without question, one of the finest novels of 2018.

This is the story of Connell and Marianne, who grew  up in the same small town in the west of Ireland. Their resemblances end there; turns out you can come from the same place, but still live in very different worlds. But despite their conflicting status’, the two form a connection that grows, and changes, when they both earn places at Trinity College in Dublin.

An addictive journey through all the territories of love — familial, romantic, sexual, the love between friends — Normal People charts the relationship of Connell and Marianne with humour, tragedy and deep insights that will make you both laugh and cry. I identified aspects of my own personality in both characters, and recognised some of their mistakes as my own as various relationships ignite, stutter, and ultimately fail. Sally Rooney has that rare gift of being able to write compulsive fiction about, well, normal people, and make their stories resonate long after the book is back on the shelf.

No sophomore slump here; Rooney’s second novel is suffused with the same elements that made Conversations With Friends such a success. I doubt I’ll read a better novel this year — certainly not one that affects me so deeply.

 

ISBN: 9780571347292
Format: Paperback
Pages: 304
Imprint: Faber & Faber
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Publish Date: 6-Sep-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: American By Day by Derek B. Miller

9780857525376Derek B. Miller’s American By Day is that rare breed of crime novel that actually has something to say, and wants to make you think.  Amidst an enthralling murder mystery are musings on the differences between American and Scandinavian cultures, analysis on race relations within the American justice system, and an examination of police brutality.

Chief Inspector Sigrid Ødegård of the Oslo Police is cleared of any wrongdoing after gunning down a Kosovan immigrant during a confrontation. But she can’t help but deliberate and go over how events played out, and whether she could’ve done something differently; whether the man really had to die. And what better for some quiet introspection than on her family farm, where her father still resides. But upon her arrival, he quickly hands over a ticket to America. Sigrid’s brother Marcus has seemingly vanished in upstate New York, uncontactable for long enough to raise concern. Her father wants Sigrid to find Marcus and make sure he’s safe. She doesn’t have a lot to go on, just a place of residence, but Sigrid is a top-class investigator, and despite her reservations about the USA, she accepts her father’s mission. Turns out, Marcus disappeared following the death of the woman he loved, an African American professor named Lydia Jones, which is more than a little suspicious, thus making him a person of interest for local sheriff Irving Wylie.

American By Day is clever, devious and morally complex. While some of Sigird’s observations about the differences between American and Norwegian culture and policing are a little too on-the-nose, and characters are prone to occasional soliloquies, the novel is never anything short of compelling. Miller’s ability to craft thrillers with true emotional and thematic depth make a lot of his fellow authors look pallid and formulaic.

ISBN: 9780857525376
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x 25mm)
Pages: 352
Imprint: Doubleday
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
Publish Date: 19-Apr-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Scrublands by Chris Hammer

ScrublandsWith Scrublands, Chris Hammer has fashioned a meticulously written and propulsive crime novel, notable for  its palpable sense of place, a slate of fully-drawn characters, and a meaningful denouement.

The last crime novel that actually earned the Thriller of the Year / Book of the Year banner emblazoned on its advanced reading copy cover was Jane Harper’s The Dry. Booksellers are inherently cynical about such statements, because nowadays just about every book that comes our way says the same thing. And of course, thanks to the success of The Dry, now every Australian crime novel is written “in its vein.” But there were rumblings about Chris Hammer’s book before reading copies began circulating. Industry buzz was — well, buzzing — and intensified until, finally, the book arrived in my hands.

On a flight from Hobart to Sydney, I opened to its prologue and began reading. Those two hours in the sky disintegrated. I was annoyed when the seat belt sign flashed; one of those rare times I would’ve welcomed the pilot’s voice crackling over the intercom, apologising that we’d have to circle the airport for an hour or two. Alas, no; I alighted the plane, Scrublands grasped tightly in my hands, not in my bag. I snatched moments to read during the walk to baggage claim; lost myself in its relentless grip as I waited for the train; and once I was home, I didn’t put the book down until I’d witnessed how Hammer tied all his wonderfully woven threads together. Which he does, with aplomb, that belies his status as a debutant.

So, does Scrublands earn its Thriller of the Year tag? Absolutely. Is it my favourite book of the year so far? Well, it’s only June, but since you’re asking the question: at this very moment, yes it is.

Suspenseful from start to finish, with plenty of regional colour informing its narrative, Scrublands combines sophisticated layers of mystery with an intensely scarred hero, reporter Martin Scarsden, on a quest to uncover the truth behind the events that lead to a young country town priest calmly opening fire on his congregation, which will ultimately have a profound effect on the veteran newsman. Readers who despair after a hundred pages that all the plot lines Hammer has launched can’t possibly fit together needn’t worry; they do indeed fit, and the monstrous connections that emerges between the inhabitants of the small Riverina town of Riversend are truly devastating. As he vividly portrays the harshness and beauty of the Australian landscape, Hammer keeps the twists coming and provides column-inches of background expertise on the hard business of hard news, and the psychological impact of bearing witness to, and transcribing, innumerable tragedies.

Deliberately paced and wound tight, this book will keep you awake until you’ve finished the final page. And maybe even after that. It’s relentless, it’s compulsive, it’s a book you simply can’t put down. We’re in a Golden Age of Australian crime fiction, and with Scrublands, Chris Hammer has joined the elite, up there with Jane Harper, Candice Fox, Emma Viskic, Sarah Bailey, Mark Brandi, and the grand master himself, Peter Temple.

ISBN: 9781760632984
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Publish Date: 25-Jul-2018
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Forever and a Day by Anthony Horowitz

9781911214779Like Trigger Mortis, Anthony Horowitz’s first 007 novel, Forever and a Day has all the essential James Bond ingredients — the audacious plot, the maniacal villain(s), the beautiful woman, the rip-roaring pace — but lacks that secret sauce, the Fleming Factor that has made Bond the sacrosanct icon of the spy genre. But even Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, couldn’t always harness this; for every brilliant Bond novel there was a dud; for every Casino Royale, Moonraker, From Russia with Love and Goldfinger there was a You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me and Diamonds are Forever. Rest assured: both Trigger Mortis and Forever and a Day are closer to the top tier of Bond novels than they are the bottom, and are top-notch, read-in-one-sitting thrillers.

Set before the events of Casino Royale, James Bond — newly-promoted to the 00 section —  is assigned to investigate the murder of his predecessor whose body was found bullet-ridden in the waters of Marseille. Fleming never delved too far into Bond’s backstory; snippets were revealed throughout the course of the series, but it never much mattered how and why Bond acquired his license to kill. Horowitz seems to recognise this too; we don’t spend too much time with an ‘unlicensed’ Bond, and regardless of his ‘inexperience’ in the 00 section of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he’s still a formidable operative; just not yet hardened into the bruised, battered, and eventually broken man readers are confronted with in later novels.

Horowitz has concocted an excellent, truly Fleming-esque villain in Scipio, a tremendously overweight Corsican drug-dealer. Bond’s first encounter with the man is evocative of Fleming’s greatest standoff’s, and the subsequent torture sequence is played brilliantly, and is truly chilling. Sure, he and his cohort’s dastardly sinister scheme is preposterous, but when it comes to Bond, we expect the outlandish. One character Fleming mightn’t have had the capacity to create is Sixtine, who is assuredly a post-#MeToo partner for 007; alluring for sure, but the kind of kick-arse, strong, independent woman Bond’s creator populated his books with alarmingly infrequency. Of course, they eventually sleep together —  hardly a spoiler — but not before Sixtine makes it absolutely clear their union is on her terms, not his. Still, it might be time to remove this trope from Bond novels; he’ll be no less a cool character for not bedding someone in future adventures; we’re here for the thrills and spills, not the bluntly-rendered sex. Horowitz has started the process of tacitly cleaning-up the seamier aspects of 007’s character, but there’s still more to be done. 

Forever and a Day is, if anything, superior to some of Ian Fleming’s originals. Horowitz’s affection for Bond and for all the tropes that surround him is abundantly clear, and the book works perfectly as an in-continuity pastiche, which I believe was the author’s objective. We’re not modernising Bond, as Raymond Benson, John Gardner and Jeffrey Deaver attempted; Horowitz is merely borrowing Fleming’s character, and propelling him on another thrilling adventure. Which it is. There is ultimately only one test for a book such as this: do you want to keep turning the pages? Answer: heck, yes. And not because it’s James Bond, but because the pace propulsive and there are enough twists and surprises to keep you gripped.

ISBN: 9781911214786
ISBN-10: 1911214780
Format: Paperback
Pages: 336
Imprint: Jonathan Cape Ltd
Publisher: Random House Children’s Publishers UK
Publish Date: 18-Jun-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

 

Review: The Outsider by Stephen King

9781473676404A brilliant addition to Stephen King’s impressive body of work, The Outsider is meticulously plotted and impossibly compulsive.

Don’t pick up  The Outsider unless you have some time on your hands. Its first 200 pages are so high-octane and frenetic, you’ll be hard-pressed to put it down until you’ve unravelled the novel’s mystery and discerned who lives and who dies. Here more than ever before, King keeps his foot hard on the throttle from beginning to end.

When an eleven-year-old boy is found brutally murdered in a town park, eyewitnesses identify the culprit as Little League coach Terry Maitland. DNA evidence and fingerprints verify their accounts: as unlikely as it might initially seem to the lead investigator, Detective Ralph Anderson, there is no doubt that this well-loved family man committed this unforgivable atrocity. Enraged by what he considers a personal betrayal, Anderson makes a spectacle of Maitland’s arrest. It’s only afterwards he learns about Maitland’s watertight alibi. Impossible, because their evidence is irrefutable, too. Which means — what? A double? An evil twin? A clone?

Eventually The Outsider tapers into comfortable King territory; most of the answers the author provides aren’t especially innovative or shocking, but the journey to that endpoint  is intoxicating. You know, of the stay-up-all-night-and-forget-everything-else-in-your-life  variety. This is a book peopled by rich characters faced with unimaginable scenarios: they carry their scars — physical and moral — around with them. It is a story of real life, despite its blatant impossibilities; of human frailties, and violence and its effect. The Outsider is never better than when it explores its characters’ feelings of grief and loss.

Anybody who blew through the Bill Hodges trilogy — who’ll whoop with delight when a character from that series makes an appearance here — will devour this genre-blending freight train of a novel. The pace is frantic, the writing snappy, the characters unforgettable. Strap yourself in and prepare for one hell of a ride.

ISBN: 9781473676404
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Imprint: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
Publication date: January 2016
Dimensions: 234mm X 153mm
Availability date: June 2018