Review: The Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos

9781409179733.jpgA new George Pelecanos crime novel is always something to celebrate, especially nowadays, when he’s veered into the land of television, writing and producing shows such as The Wire, Treme and The Deuce, so the release of his prose work is increasingly sporadic. The Man Who Came Uptown is a welcome return five years after his last novel, The Double, and three years since his collection of short stories, The Martini Shot. And while much of this story is classic crime noir — cops and PI’s moonlighting as criminals; ex-cons trying to live a straight life, enticed back into the same dark undercurrent they’re trying to escape  — it’s also about the redemptive and transformative power of books. Anyone thinking that sounds too sanctimonious, or that Pelecanos has gone soft — stop. This is as gritty as everything that’s come before. The violence on the page is brutal, and you’ll be lost in the haze of the characters’ amorality. The Man Who Came Uptown is crime writing of the highest order — a taut page-turner with a stunning climax, and far greater depth than your average whodunit or potboiler.

The lives of three characters are entangled in The Man Who Came Uptown. Phil Ornazian is a middle-aged private investigator in D.C. who makes the bulk of his money stealing from criminals. He rationalises this by considering it ‘vigilante justice,’ — these’re bad people’s money, after all — and imperative for the financial security of his young family. He operates with a guy named Thaddeus Ward, an ex-cop turned bail-bondsman, who packs quite the armoury. But some jobs require a third person — a driver — and Oranizan knows just the dude to assist their next hit: the titular ‘man who came uptown,’ Michael Hudson. In street parlance, ‘going uptown’ means getting out of jail, and the only reason Michael got his freedom is because of Oranzaian, who banked the favour for the right time. Which is now.

Thing is, Michael is keen to avoid repeating past mistakes. He’s got a steady job as a dishwasher at a local restaurant not much, but it’s a start, something to build from   and he wants to make good on his promise to stay straight. In prison — thanks to its mobile librarian, Anna, who is the book’s third central character — Michael discovered the joy of reading, and the ability to escape his cell through the power of the written word. The first thing he purchased out of prison was a bookcase, and he’s determined to fill it. And Anna’s periodic reappearances in his life reaffirm his desire to remain on the side of the angels. But Ornazian has the power to send Michael’s life spiralling, and doing this one job might get him off his back. Or it might lead to more illicit work. And straight back to prison.

The Man Who Came Uptown is a book about survival; how life sometimes forces you into a corner, and individual fortitude and morality often determines how far you’ll go to get out of it. Sometimes karma catches you; sometimes it doesn’t. Live a good life and bad things can still happen; the opposite is also true. One thing is certain: you’ll race through Pelecanos’ latest to learn the fates of his characters.

ISBN: 9781409179733
Format: Paperback / softback (236mm x 179mm x 20mm)
Pages: 272
Imprint: Orion (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd )
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 6-Sep-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

9781787476011.jpgI was partway through the first story in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut collection Friday Black when I dropped the book onto my lap and in a whispered breath said aloud to an empty room: “Bloody hell.”

Actually, that’s not quite true. I was a little more profane. But the room was empty. And in its silence, I knew: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah — clearly a writer of prodigious,arresting talent, having sampled just a couple thousand words of his work — is an author we’re going to hold in the highest of esteem for a long, long time to come.

The stories contained inside the beautifully packaged Friday Black are at times painful, funny, shocking and crushing; always whip smart, and never anything less than thought-provoking. It’s a volcano of a book that discloses hard, painful, and necessary truths, ruthlessly and lyrically deriding America’s racism, its legal system, gun culture and healthcare. Adjei-Brenyah manipulates and mutates the reality of modern day, divided America to fit the ingenious scenarios he conjures, but a consistent layer of truth, no matter the ‘unreality’ of some stories, grounds each tale so that each lands like a gut punch.

A cutting and resonant debut — not to be missed.

Review: The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs — A New History of a Lost World by Steve Brusatte

Dinosaurs.png“Somewhere around the world — from the deserts of Argentina to the frozen wastelands of Alaska — a new species of dinosaur is currently being found, on average, once a week,” writes Steve Brusatte, a young American palaeontologist who has emerged as one of the foremost stars of his field, in his new book, The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs A New History of a Lost World. Then, to emphasise the significance of this statement, he reiterates (with intentionally placed ellipses): “[that’s] a new dinosaur every . . . single . . . week.”

This translates to about fifty new species each year, all thanks to new and emerging technologies that allow the palaeontologists of today — and indeed of tomorrow — to not only unearth new fossils, but enhance our understanding of dinosaur biology and their evolution. Which means some of mankind’s most exciting discoveries about the Earth’s most fearsome creatures are yet to be made. If that doesn’t excite nascent palaeontologists, nothing will.

Excitement is the key word here. Brusatte’s devotion and love of his field is positively palpable as he lyrically retells the history of the dinosaurs through the Palaeozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras, aided by illustrations and photographs that further refine his  breakdown of what happened when and why. Brusatte‘s retelling of the rise and fall of dinosaurs is interspersed with revelations of his own expeditions, his contemporaries, and those in whose footsteps he follows. His enthusiasm is inspiring, and while I’m not yet ready to hand over my bookshop keys in exchange for a trowel, I can imagine this book propelling somebody younger into a career in palaeontology. Anybody with even the slightest interest in dinosaurs will devour The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs A New History of a Lost World. Exceptionally readable and compelling. Non-fiction at its best.

ISBN: 9781509830077
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: 08/05/2018
Imprint: Macmillan
Pages: 416
Price: $32.99

Review: The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre

9780241186657As compulsive and pulse-pounding as any thriller I’ve read this year — any year, actually — Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and Traitor recounts the life of Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB officer turned MI6 spy, who will go down in history as one of the greatest and most influential assets of British intelligence.

In A Spy Among Friends  still my favourite Ben Macintyre book, though this one comes close the author explored the hidden truth of Kim Philby’s treachery, who is perhaps the most infamous double agent. ‘Philby tasted the powerful drug of deception as a youth, and remained addicted to infidelity for the rest of his life,’ wrote Macintyre, explaining that while Philby’s motivations for switching allegiances were originally rooted in communist ideology, it was his innate desire to burrow into the most exclusive of clubs — into a society so secret and insulated — that drove his prolonged sedition. The same question that drove A Spy Among Friends drives The Spy and the Traitor: what caused a seemingly loyal agent to turn?

Oleg Gordievsky was a secret agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service for more than a decade. Admitted to the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations before eventually being recruited to the KGB, he was content to eschew his partiality for democracy when the Berlin Wall went up and continue carrying out his orders. Of course, disenchantment with one’s profession occurs in every line of work; it’s not necessarily enough to warrant treason. But for Gordievsky, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was the last straw; a final provocation, the nail in the coffin of Gordievsky’s belief in the Soviet system. He was ripe for the turning, and he became such a prized operative to the British that his true identity was withheld from the country’s allies — including America’s Central Intelligence Agency.

But when the CIA eventually learned Gordievsky’s identity, a disgruntled officer named Aldrich Ames  — discontented with his lot in life and his standing within the agency — decided to sell secrets to the Soviets, which set in motion Gordievsky’s spectacular escape from Moscow to the West. Macintyre’s storytelling here is filmic, cutting back and forth between the various players involved, masterfully ratcheting the suspense. Not even Daniel Silva or John le Carré, with the benefit of their imaginations, could conjure a getaway as riveting as Macintyre’s retelling of Gordievsky’s.

ISBN: 9780241186664
Format: Paperback / softback (234mm x 153mm x 29mm)
Pages: 384
Imprint: Viking
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 20-Sep-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz

Sentence is DeathI was effusive in my praise for Anthony Horowitz’s 2017 novel The Word is Murder, calling it “one of the best and most compulsively readable mysteries of the year.” It’s a line I could repeat here for the second book in the Daniel Hawthorne series, The Sentence is Death. Quite frankly, there is no more bewitching stylist in crime fiction than Horowitz, who has delivered another slick, taut, inventive, and utterly engrossing whodunit. There’s no doubt about it: we’re in the presence of one of the masters of crime fiction.

The Word is Murder opened with a wealthy woman  found strangled in her home six hours after she has arranged her own funeral, a beguiling premise that demanded attention. The Sentence is Death presents another enigma: celebrity-divorce lawyer Richard Pryce is discovered bludgeoned to death in his bachelor pad with an insanely expensive bottle of wine, which makes little sense, given Pryce was a teetotaller. Even more bizarre is the three-digit number painted on the wall beside the corpse. For Private Investigator Daniel Hawthorne and his compatriot (and the tale’s narrator) Anthony Horowitz (newcomers to the series, don’t be alarmed by this meta element — just trust me, it works) there are almost too many suspects. Pryce, by the very nature of his profession, and as a consequence of his profession, was a man with many enemies. So who delivered the fatal blow  and why?

The Sentence is Death is the kind of book you’ll cancel a night out for and stay up until dawn reading. Horowitz has a gift for the blindside; nudging readers towards one conclusion before smartly pulling the rug out from underneath them, reformatting clues on the fly, presenting them from a different angle. Horowitz is Holmes, and the reader is a very obliging Watson. Even as you hurriedly turn the pages to find out what happens next, a part of you will be wanting to slow down; to savour and admire the seamless plotting mechanics. You won’t want it to end.

ISBN: 9781780897080
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 384
Imprint: Century
Publisher: Cornerstone
Publish Date: 29-Oct-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

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