Review: A Shout in the Ruins by Kevin Powers

9781473667785.jpgA Shout in the Ruins is a sprawling, richly textured epic, covering more than 100 years, that explores the legacy and ongoing effects of the Civil War. And while Kevin Powers’ prose remains as sharp and assured as it was in The Yellow Birds — quite possibly my favourite novel about war — this book didn’t resonate quite as strongly with me, purely because of its subject matter, and the conflict that forms its nucleus. The American Civil War isn’t as transcendental — for me, at least, as a non-American with limited exposure to its history and brutalities — as the Iraq war, which was the focus of The Yellow Birds.

A Shout in the Ruins alternates between chapters set in the Civil War era and the mid-20th century. It opens with the mysterious disappearance, and rumoured death, of Emily Reid Levallois in the late 1860s, and then shifts back in time to recount the story of her life. It is a complicated novel, its narrative threads weaved together subtly, Powers’ poetry rendering a brutal portrayal of Civil War-era Virginia. Various characters flit in and out of the spotlight, but each person is essential to Powers’ tale, and the novel truly sings when a character is allowed an entire chapter to live and breathe on the page.

At its heart, A Shout in the Ruins is about the effects of the past on the present, and serves as a necessary reminder that some people still feel the ripples of a conflict more than 150 years old. Powers’ cumulative portraits of the poor souls impacted by the Civil War — during the conflict itself, and years after it ended — is a masterpiece.

ISBN: 9781473667785
Format: Paperback
Pages: 288
Imprint: Sceptre
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton General Division
Publish Date: 15-May-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

9780143789604.jpgAn intimate, spellbinding and heartbreaking story of a romance distorted by racial prejudice and the failure of the criminal justice system.

Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage is a haunting masterpiece; a stunning, first-rate piece of literature that will make you think and feel. Ostensibly the story of a marriage interrupted by a grievous mistake, this is a timely work about what it means being black in contemporary America.

Roy O. Hamilton Jr. grew up in a working-class family in Louisiana, and earned himself a scholarship to Morehouse College. As he says, “if my childhood was a sandwich, there would be no meat hanging off the bread. We had what we needed and nothing more.” Roy worked hard to reach his place in life, he earned his successes, and was determined to work harder. It was an ingrained mindset. When he married Celestial Davenport, she was an up-and-coming artist, and after a year of marriage, they were considering buying a larger house and starting a family; the personification of the American Dream. Until it all came crashing down the night Roy was arrested for a crime he did not commit. Despite promises, by man and wife, that both would remain faithful and resolute throughout the duration of Roy’s incarceration, cracks begin to form in their relationship as it’s put to the ultimate test.

An American Marriage begins with chapters written from the points of view of its two main characters, but Jones changes the pace and encapsulates the erosion of their marriage through a series of letters between Roy and Celestial. The novel reverts back to its original narrative structure when Roy is released from prison, with the addition of a new voice: Andre, Celestial’s best friend since childhood, and now something more. An American Marriage reaches its heartrending apex here, as all three characters are faced with reality and the state of their lives; all three question the nature and validity of their love; nobody walks away a winner.

Jones’s characters are vividly depicted; equally empathetic, sometimes selfish and altogether beguilingly human. Readers will inevitably yield to their charms. An American Marriage is magisterial: intimate, effortless, and confronting. Vitally, the story of Roy, Celestial and Andre feels complete and whole despite Jones’s emphasis on the inherent brokenness of their situation.

ISBN: 9780143789604
Format: Paperback
Pages: 320
Imprint: Vintage (Australia)
Publisher: Random House Australia
Publish Date: 29-Jan-2018
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Chicago by David Mamet

9780062847102A tantalising setting and fantastic cast of characters can’t elevate a familiar, paper-thin plot.

I so wanted to love David Mamet’s Chicago. A Prohibition-era tale of murder and mystery, gangsters, love, friendship and betrayal? Written by the man who wrote the screenplay for The Untouchables? Uh, yes, please; and thank you. Unfortunately, though the setting is masterfully evoked and the dialogue sings, beneath all of that is a tame whodunit, which takes an age to unearth, and is too thin to garner any sort of suspense or intrigue.

Mike Hodge is a former pilot of the Great War, now a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who falls hard for a young woman named Annie Walsh, and becomes determined to find her killer after she is murdered in front of his eyes. Hodge’s story — ostensibly a revenge quest— could’ve unfolded as a cliched tale of revenge, but US playwright Mamet digs past the superficial level to deliver a story rife with social commentary on 1920’s organised crime-ridden Chicago, imbued with three-dimensional characters who display the distinctive, fast, edgy dialogue the author is renown for. But Mamet seems more determined to paint a portrait of the mob-era Windy City than he is provide an intoxicating mystery for readers to sink their teeth into and propel them forward.

Strong on atmosphere but lacking anything in suspense, Chicago serves as a vehicle for Mamet to deliver his trademark sharp and nuanced dialogue, but there’s so much talking going on that nothing much actually happens.

ISBN: 9780062847102
Format: Paperback
Imprint: HarperCollins
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Inc
Publish Date: 19-Feb-2018
Country of Publication: United States

Review: The Night Market by Jonathan Moore

9781409159780Harry Bosch meets Blade Runner in this brilliant thriller.

Jonathan Moore’s frightening near-future thriller The Night Market is a thought-provoking noirish crime novel set in a gorgeously realised subtly-futuristic, overwhelmingly dystopian version of San Francisco, where copper thieves run rampant, drones buzz above the heads of the city’s citizens, and ostentatious consumer consumption runs riot. Think of a Michael Connelly Harry Bosch novel set in a Blade Runner-esque world.

When a man is found dead — his corpse in a terrifying state of decay  — in one of the city’s luxury homes, SFPD Homicide detective Ross Carver and his partner are called to the scene to lead the investigation. But before they’re able to get beyond a cursory glance at the victim, six FBI agents — or are they? —burst in and forcibly remove them from the premises. The detectives are hastened into a disinfectant chamber, sprayed with a metallic-tasting liquid, then rendered unconscious. When Carver wakes two days later in his apartment, he has no memory of the events that occurred; but his mysterious neighbour, Mia, is strangely determined to help Carver remember.

The Night Market steadily ramps up its revelations, and it gradually becomes clear there are larger forces at play. Moore resists the temptation to have Carver follow breadcrumbs into the darkest corners of his incredibly-imagined world, keeping the narrative tight and focused. Moore’s latest novel — the first of his I’ve read, but surely not the last — is a tense, gritty thriller, and near-perfect in its overall execution, with an ending that lingers well past the final page. Seriously, this is a book that nails its finale; it’s pitch-perfect and haunting. It’s one of my favourite thrillers of the year so far.Stars

ISBN: 9781409159766
Format: Paperback
Pages: 304
Imprint: Orion (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd )
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 11-Jan-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom



Review: Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

9780008286637Back in 2014, when The Southern Reach trilogy was published, two of my colleagues at the bookshop I worked at would debate the series with varying intensity. Annihilation, if memory serves correctly, was agreed upon as the best instalment, in which four female scientists — a biologist, a surveyor, an anthropologist and a psychologist — journey into the unknown as part of the twelfth expedition into a cordoned landscape named Area X. The question being debated behind the counter at the bookshop was whether its two sequels augmented or diluted the brilliance of Annihilation. Four years later, I’m too late to join that debate, but have embarked upon my own journey of discovery, compelled by the impending release of the film adaptation starring Natalie Portman.

I am not a connoisseur of speculative fiction. I read, maybe, half a dozen science fiction novels a year, and rarely touch the fantasy genre. There’s a joke around the bookshop: “if it has dragons, Simon won’t read it.” But Annihilation doesn’t feature dragons, and it’s bite-sized, a couple hundred pages, which are two things immediately in its favour. Things aren’t explained in Annihilation; they’re experienced, which is a fine distinction. The narrative is framed as the biologist’s journal, and it possesses an uncanny eeriness that lingers long after the book has ended. There’s a level of ambiguity other writers might not get away with, fuelled by a desire to detail the amazing world they’ve constructed; Vandermeer is happy to paint his portrait languorously and leave certain elements inconclusive.

The prose is perfunctory rather than lavish, intentionally so. Again, this is a story told from the perspective of a scientist, who details her observations with clear-cut crispness. At first, its relative dryness bothered me; I found the protagonist difficult to relate to, as we’re barely provided glimmers of her personality. As the novel continued, I understood its intention; once I accepted its style, I enjoyed it all the more.

As the start of a trilogy, Annihilation does precisely what it needs to: leave an impossible number of questions unanswered, but at the same time, confident in the author’s ability to explain everything. I’m incredibly fascinated to see how Alex Garland adapts the source material.

ISBN: 9780008139100
Format: Paperback (198mm x 129mm x 16mm)
Pages: 208
Imprint: Fourth Estate Ltd
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publish Date: 20-Jul-2015
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Wanted by Robert Crais

the-wanted-9781471157509_lgI fell into a week-long reading lull recently; started a couple of things but just couldn’t get into them, so set them both aside, half-finished, left to die. To get myself back in the groove, I reached for one of the sure-thing’s in my reading stack; my term for the books I know I’ll smash through quickly, genre fiction, usually thrillers. In this case it was Robert Crais’ The Wanted,  which provided the kick-start I needed. Because few writers are capable of crafting thrillers as lean, mean and propulsive as the creator of Elvis Cole and Joe Pike.

In The Wanted, Elvis Cole is hired by Devon Connor to investigate her teenage son’s sudden profligacy. There’d been hints he was up to no good, and the sight of a Rolex strapped to his wrist confirms it. Initially Devon just wants to know precisely what her son is up to; she presumed some sort of criminal activity, drugs maybe, but the truth is far worse. Tyson’s gotten himself involved with a duo of burglars who specialise in high-end thefts. But they’ve stolen from the wrong person, and now Tyson and his comrades find themselves hunted by two wisecracking, murderous killers. Even worse — they might be dirty cops.

Its pace is reckless, its action is plentiful. The Wanted provides primitive pleasures, but they’re genuine ones. Crais has refined his formula with each successive book, and his latest is one of his best. In these final weeks of summer, The Wanted deserves a place in your beach bag.

ISBN: 9781471157509
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x 24mm)
Pages: 336
Imprint: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publish Date: 28-Dec-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Into the Black Nowhere by Meg Gardiner

9781101985557Darkly and extravagantly imagined, full of pulse-pounding action and brutally emotional highs and lows, Meg Gardiner’s UNSUB was a tremendous work of suspense fiction, and my favourite thriller of 2017. Its sequel, Into the Black Nowhere, doesn’t quite reach those same heights, lacking the character depth and intricate plotting of its predecessor, but is nonetheless a breakneck ride from first page to last. Gardiner steps on the gas early, and it’s pedal to the metal until the very end.

This time round Caitlin Hendrix of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit is tasked with hunting down the Texas-based ‘Saturday Night Killer’. Disturbingly adept at abducting women from seemingly safe venues, somehow gaining the trust of his victims before brutally dispatching them, the killer is identified by Hendrix and her peers in the opening hundred pages of Into the Black Nowhere, sacrificing mystery for the suspense involved in trying to get under his skin and indict him. Just when you think things are wrapping up a little too neatly and succinctly, the Saturday Night Killer escapes custody, planning revenge on those who helped play a role in identifying him. And as fast as Hendrix’s FBI unit is, the killer is even faster; impossibly so. Could the killer have an accomplice?

A furiously-paced tale that you’ll devour in a single go, Into the Black Nowhere is replete with bloodshed, mayhem, and twists. Meg Gardiner’s prose will draw you in, her short, sharp chapters ratchet the tension, and the payoff lands like an unexpected punch to the stomach. This is turbocharged entertainment, pure and simple.

ISBN: 9781101985557
Format: Hardback
Imprint: Dutton Books
Publisher: Dutton Books
Publish Date: 30-Jan-2018