Review: The Overstory by Richard Powers

9781785151644 (1)A few years back, Annie Proulx published Barkskins, a vast multi-generational and ecological saga that was enormous in size and scope. I adored the books for its lofty ambition — to chronicle the world’s deforestation from the perspective of two distinct bloodlines — and figured I was done with environmental novels for a while. Then came The Overstory by  Powers — shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize, and loved by several of my colleagues — and lo and behold, here I am, another enormous novel about trees behind me.

The Overstory is about our relationship with nature, and our responsibility to the planet and to ourselves. It has a cast of operatic proportions; nine characters share the spotlight as Powers’ unravels a full half century of their involvement with activism and resistance. Despite its scale, The Overstory never feels bloated it drags a little, maybe, for a hundred pages in its middle, but it’s always engaging thanks in no small part to Powers’ luminous prose — but there were times when I questioned its architecture. The Overstory is structured unlike any novel I’ve read in recent memory; its first section — “Roots” — reads like a collection of short stories, as nine characters are introduced, whose only association is their relationship with trees. “Roots” is a truly magnificent example of Powers’ unparalleled craftsmanship; and it’s here the book truly thrums. It then breaks from that style, and slows down, becomes less revelatory and more perfunctory; “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seed” sees these nine characters being inextricably drawn together, their lives entangled. The writing is still exemplary, but the narrative energy of “Roots” is lost.

The Overstory is impressive; masterful, even, as Powers weaves an impossible number of threads together. Its scope is fantastic, but its execution, in my view, is uneven. But if I could reread”Roots” again, for the first time, I would it’s exceptional storytelling.

ISBN: 9781785151644
ISBN-10: 1785151649
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 512
Imprint: William Heinemann Ltd
Publisher: Cornerstone
Publish Date: 5-Apr-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

My Year in Reading – 2018

This year I managed to read 166 books, which is 25 more than 2017, and 24 more than in 2016. Each year I aim to read at least 100 books across a variety of genres and with my propensity for genre novels, it’s a manageable target.

Now, you might be wondering — what exactly do I classify as a book in my trusty, never-leave-home-without spreadsheet? Because everybody has their own rules. Some readers, for example, might include children’s picture books in their tally; I don’t. But I do include graphic novels, collected editions of comic books, and volumes of manga (the latter of which I’ve actually not read this year, but y’know, if I had read manga, it’d be included).

Let’s break it down.

Continue reading “My Year in Reading – 2018”

Review: Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales

9780143789963Comprised of a series of interviews between Leigh Sales and a selection of people who have suffered an unexpected (or in one particular instance, expected) tragedy (or tragedies), and those who’ve made it their life’s work to assist those affected inthe aftermath (a police detective, a social worker, and a priest all feature), Any Ordinary Day explores how tragedy and loss can affect people, and considers the tried and tested methods of overcoming such experiences.

Leigh Sales is the perfect person to tackle an issue as nebulous as tragedy and grief, having witnessed and reported on her fair share as a journalist, and experienced some of her own. Hers is the appropriate lens to examine these catastrophes and their repercussions, kneading her interviewee’s experiences into a cohesive narrative occasional peppered with Sales’s own thoughts about the nature of emotional anguish and the ensuing fallout. Besides the final chapter — more of a coda — Any Ordinary Day is rarely preachy; and even when it flirts with becoming sanctimonious, Leigh quickly shifts focus, maintaining the sanctity of her interviewees’ experiences.

Those interviewees include Stuart Diver, who lost his first wife Sally in the 1997 Thredbo disaster and his second wife Rosanna to breast cancer; Hannah Richell, whose husband Matt died in a surfing accident; Walter Mikac, whose wife Nanette and two small daughters, Alannah and Madeline, were killed in the Port Arthur massacre; and even former Australian Prime Mister John Howard, who governed the country during some of its most shocking tragedies. Their stories are never anything less than heartbreaking, but more often than not, incredibly inspiring and ultimately, as they picked themselves up and carried on with their lives, irreparably changed, but capable of maintaining functional, meaningful lives, chock-full of the highs and lows the rest of us experience. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s very true: life carries on.

Sales also dips into the statistical likelihood of any one of us being in the wrong place at the wrong time; our chances of death by simply driving our cars to work, or stepping onto a plane to travel to our next holiday destination; or even our chances of being the victim of a random terrorist attack. Some of these passages are incredibly sobering, but the overriding message is clear: live your life and enjoy your life. Nobody is promised a tomorrow, so take advantage of today. Cherish your life, and the lives of your loved ones. Any Ordinary Day underlines a very simple mantra: live your life to the fullest. Accept that bad things can happen — the intrinsic randomness of life — but know that it’s possible to overcome any great tragedy; to survive and carry on.

ISBN: 9780143789963
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 272
Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Publish Date: 1-Oct-2018
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Lethal White by Robert Galbraith

9780751572865There’s nothing wrong with a slow-burn mystery, but there are times when Lethal White barely sizzles.

Forsaking any sense of urgency, J.K. Rowling—writing under her Robert Galbraith pseudonym—overburdens her fourth Strike / Ellacott novel with too much focus on the (still) unresolved sexual tension between the pair of private detectives and their flailing relationships outside the office, which detracts from their labyrinthine investigation into the blackmailing of a high-ranking government official — that (eventually) turns into something far deadlier.

Lethal White begins right where Career of Evil left us: Strike arriving late to Robin’s wedding, just after she says “I do” to Matthew, the fiancé everybody loves to hate —  and for good reason. The prologue treads over familiar territory, which Galbraith continues to mine: Strike and Robin internally monologuing about their conflicted feelings toward each other, and their mutual determination to maintain the status quo for the sake of their business. Flash forward a year later — yep, those conflicted feelings remain! — and a mentally ill man named Billy shows up with a barely-coherent story about having witnessed something diabolical when he was a child. Billy is the brother of Jimmy Knight, who coincidentally is one of the people blackmailing the Minister for Culture, Jasper Chiswell — and Strike’s new client. Strike quickly pegs Geraint Winn, husband of Minister for Sport Della Winn, as Jimmy’s likely partner, and sends Robin undercover to maintain surveillance on Winn. And we haven’t even got to the murder yet.

Some great character moments punctuate the convoluted plot, but for me — who kneels at the shrines of Chandler, Hammett, Cain and McBain — Lethal White is too bloated. Honestly, I found it a bit of an unbalanced slog. When enraptured by the main mystery, the narrative would cut to Robin dealing with PTSD; just as I became invested in that element, we’d smash-cut to Strike meeting his ex-fiancée. It’s like Galbraith is trying to pack the entirety of a whole season of television into one book; I’d settle for one brilliant episode.

ISBN: 9780751572865
Format: Paperback
Pages: 656
Imprint: Sphere
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Publish Date: 18-Sep-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

 

Review: The Lost Man by Jane Harper

untitled.pngSet in the unforgiving landscape of the Queensland outback, The Lost Man is a cracking page-turner  that explores the psychology of abuse and the desire for retribution.

The Dry was a transcendent work for Australian crime fiction, ushering in a new Golden Age for the genre. Its sequel, Force of Nature, vindicated those early accolades, proving that Jane Harper has the ability to produce relentlessly fast-paced and beautifully structured mysteries that fully exploit the harsh Australian landscape. Delightfully, The Lost Man amply fulfils the promise of its predecessors and sets the bar even higher. The intimate betrayals that pockmark The Lost Man are nothing short of devastating.

Anyone who read The Dry will recall its scintillating opening salvo: blowflies buzzing around the corpses of the Hadler family. It hooked you immediately; compelled you to turn its pages, to understand how this moment came to pass. The beginning of The Lost Man is just as gripping —  Cameron Bright, baking under the Queensland desert sun, crawling desperately to catch the shadow cast from the stockman’s grave, a long-standing manmade landmark; the only one for miles. When we next see Cameron, he’s dead; stared down upon by his two brothers, whose anguish over his death is overridden by a desire to know how this happened. Men and women in their line of work are survivors: they have to be. Conditioned to the tempestuous weather, accustomed to the isolation, it seems unlikely Cameron found himself alone in the middle of nowhere by accident. So was it suicide? Or did something — or someone — lead Cameron to the stockman’s grave?

Jane Harper is brilliant at pulling away the surface of her characters to expose their deeper — and often ugly — layers. In scrutinising the weeks and months prior to Cameron’s death, each member of the Bright family are forced examine the underlying toxicity that exists between them, and confront their own demons. The visceral fears and hatreds lurking below the surface of every member of the Bright family are adroitly exposed, and demonstrate that anyone has the capacity to be a monster.

ISBN: 9781743549100
Format: Paperback (233mm x 154mm x mm)
Pages: 384
Imprint: Macmillan Australia
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia
Publish Date: 23-Oct-2018
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin

9781409176893 (1)Classic Rankin — top-notch police procedure  merged with deft characterisation.

Having conjured twenty-two novels worth of exploits for the irascible and incomparable John Rebus over the last thirty years, it would seem entirely reasonable for Ian Rankin to begin repeating himself, or for his series to start running out of steam. Indeed, even Rebus references the “managed decline” of his post-retirement life in In a House of Lies, and his treatment of the Saab that’s been as much an ever-present in these books as Rebus himself.  But even as Rebus gradually succumbs to a lifetime of bad habits — not just the drinking and smoking, but integrating himself into trouble, and his recurrent dalliances with vigilantism Rankin’s novels go from strength to strength as he shows a greater willingness to dive deeper into the moral ambiguity of his protagonist. Rebus was always an anti-hero — hard as nails, roguish; but always convinced of his own moral code — but as he faces us to his own morality, with the burden of empty years spent ruminating on his actions, Rankin paints a powerful portrait of a man lacking the assuredness that defined him.

Rebus’s ‘old school’ methods are thrust back into the spotlight when the skeletal remains of a private investigator are discovered more than a decade after the man’s disappearance  in a location that was, apparently, searched during the initial investigation. Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke is part of the new inquiry, tasked with combing through the mistakes of the original case; while Malcolm Fox, formerly of Professional Standards, has the job of specifically looking for misdemeanours, of which there were evidently many — several of which can be tied back to Rebus’s nemesis, the wily, power-hungry crime boss, ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty.

Rankin’s insight into character and motive is as keen as ever. He deftly cuts between his three primary leads as they follow wonderfully woven, unspooled threads that eventually tie together. As always, the resolution is incredibly satisfying, but is almost besides the point: we’re here for the characters, especially Rebus, whose wit remains as razor-sharp as ever. In A House of Lies encapsulates precisely why Rankin is the grandmaster of the genre, and why Rebus remains one of its most iconic and complex creations.

ISBN: 9781409176893
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 384
Imprint: Orion (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd )
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 4-Oct-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Other Wife by Michael Robotham

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In a genre overstuffed with pretenders, Michael Robotham somehow manages to crank out one winner after another. His latest — possibly the final book in the Joe O’Loughlin series, if we’re to believe the endnote — works as both a compulsive mystery and a meditation on fatherhood.

Clinical psychologist Joe, who struggles with Parkinson’s disease, is called to his father Michael’s hospital bedside following a brutal attack that has left him in a coma. But when he arrives, it’s not his mother or sister watching over William — a celebrated surgeon and family man — but a complete stranger; another woman, Olivia, who claims to be his wife.

His other wife.

Joe immediately refutes her assertion, but there’s too much evidence vindicating her relationship with his father. Somehow, William has maintained a secret life for twenty years; he has lied and deceived Joe and his family for two decades. But is his current situation a consequence of his dual lives, or something random? Is Olivia to blame, or her son? But then, where was Joe’s own mother on the night of William’s attack?

The beauty of Robotham’s thrillers is that they rely on human relationships rather than explosions and blasts from sawn-off shotguns to fuel their nerve-shredding tension. As events unravel, Joe’s investigation into his father’s attack spins out into a web that snares a wide cast of characters. Robotham expertly plants red herrings; every time the reader thinks the plot will fall into predictability, the ground shifts and the direction changes. And the end, when it comes, is a satisfying surprise, a pulse-pounding, breathtaking climax built on clues that were on the page all along.

If you have a taste for crime fiction and haven’t read the Joe O’Loughlin series, you could start here — this might be ‘the end’ for Joe, the book works perfectly as a standalone — while rusted-on fans will delight in Robotham’s latest; quite possibly his best.

ISBN: 9780733637933
Format: Paperback
Pages: 400
Imprint: Hachette Australia
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Publish Date: 26-Jun-2018
Country of Publication: Australia