Review: The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

9780099572237After lavishing Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance with praise last year — in fact, it was named in my Top 10 Books of 2018 — a few readers got in touch lamenting its place in that echelon, labelling Tyler’s novels ‘boring’ and homogeneous. Honestly, I’ve not read enough of her work to confirm or deny those allegations; of her 22 books, I’ve read six of them. All I know is, each one of them has been of a sufficiently high quality to warrant further exploration into her backlist. Sure, many navigate similar themes and locales, and revolve around thoroughly messed-up families but honestly, I can’t name you an author more capable of rendering complex emotions with such devastating clarity and sympathetic intelligence; whose I novels I’ve become increasingly infatuated with. It’s not a matter of if I’ll get around to reading all of Tyler’s novels, but when, and prolonging that process as long as possible.

The narrator of The Beginner’s Goodbye is Aaron Woolcott, who works for a family publishing company, who are the originators of the successful Beginners series, which breaks large topics into manageable increments. So less ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Cooking,’ more ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Boiling an Egg.’ Following a childhood illness, Aaron’s right arm and leg are paralysed, so he wears a brace, uses a cane (when he’s not purposefully leaving it behind) and drives a modified car. He also suffers from a bad stutter. As a result, his mother (now dead) and older sister have sought to protect him from the harsh realities of the world, thinking Aaron hapless prey. Aaron despises that notion — spends his days “fending off the two women in my life” and they try, in his eyes, to “cosset me to death.” Which is why he falls for the brusque, almost aloof, Doctor Dorothy Rosales, eight years his senior, who doesn’t treat him with kid gloves. Even Aaron admits: he deliberately chose a non-caretaker as a wife.

But when Dorothy is killed in a freak accident — so swift and unlikely, it’s almost comical — Aaron is forced to revaluate his life, and his marriage. He begins to perceive its cracks, but also the comfort he garnered from Dorothy’s presence. Their marriage was less than ideal: in moments, told in flashbacks, it feels like there’s no affection between the two at all. But they were a unit, had established a routine, valued their companionship, even if it was at times distant. The Beginner’s Goodbye deftly handles Aaron’s nosedive into grief; his steadfast refusal to accept the offerings from neighbours, and the companionship of friends and family, which climaxes with Dorothy’s “return” from the dead; a mirage conjured from extreme melancholic loneliness. But it’s through his dialogue with Dorothy that Aaron gradually begins to move on.

The Beginner’s Goodbye is a light, engaging, poignant story about love and loss. I adored it until its denouement, which reads a little false, more like a fairy tale, a little too convenient, and far too conventional. Good Tyler; not great Tyler.

ISBN: 9780099572237
Format: Paperback / softback (198mm x 129mm x 17mm)
Pages: 272
Imprint: Vintage
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 17-Jan-2013
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

9780857523501Compelling and unnerving in equal measure, A Ladder to the Sky probes the toxicity inherent in naked ambition and the depravity one man will embrace in order to achieve literary acclaim. Disturbing yet seductive, John Boyne has crafted one of the best books of 2018.

John Boyne’s new novel begins with successful novelist Erich Ackermann describing his beguiling relationship with the handsome (but enigmatic) young would-be writer named Maurice Swift, who over the course of many months, teases information from Ackermann about his early life in Nazi Germany, and the awful secret he has kept hidden for his entire life. These revelations are fictionalised — though just barely — in Swift’s debut novel, Two Germans, which receives critical acclaim, and much publicity when he willingly exposes the basis for his book, which effectively destroy’s Ackermann’s career, making him a pariah, and sends him into hiding until the day he dies.

A Ladder to the Sky then flashes forward, various periods of time narrated by different voices (including Swift’s wife Edith, and in the final section of the book, Maurice himself). We quickly learn that, although Swift is a gifted writer — a concocter of great sentences — he has no imagination for fiction. His prose lacks heart, and quite simply, he is unable to conjure a single original idea. This shortcoming infuriates Swift, who is determined to win the Prize, and become a literary legend, no matter what it takes. And Swift is willing to do anything to accomplish his goal, including two particularly heinous acts, which will chill readers to the bone. Indeed, as the novel continues, Boyne excruciatingly dangles the possibility that Swift will never get his comeuppance; that this man, warped and demented by toxic ambition, will achieve everything he has ever hoped for while those he uses as mere stepping stones to his path of greatness are left so suffer. Some fade to obscurity; others suffer far worse fates.  And the ending, when it comes, is absolutely perfect.

A Ladder to the Sky haunted me for days after I’d finished it. As much as I loathed the amoral Maurice Swift, a part of me couldn’t help but admire his sheer cunning and determination to succeed regardless of his failings. There were moments — fleeting as they were — when I understood (but never respected or agreed with, just to be clear!) his arguments for appropriating other people’s stories; and Boyne’s insights into literary life make for enthralling reading, peppering an otherwise dark tale with moments of genuine levity.

In a year of some tremendous fiction — Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance, and Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, to name just three of the greats — John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky deserves a place among the very best books of 2018. It might even be my favourite.

ISBN: 9780857523501
Format: Paperback / softback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 368
Imprint: Doubleday
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
Publish Date: 9-Aug-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Perfect StrangersAll the ingredients are here to make Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers another standout — brilliant characters, sharp insight into human relationships, and laugh-out loud wit but this time round, an unconvincing, and in my eyes, an outlandish plot twist — the actions of a certain character, preposterously villainous, almost James Bond-ish — marred the final third. Don’t get me wrong; Nine Perfect Strangers is as addictive a page-turner as Moriarty’s other work, and I loved spending my time in the heads of these nine (perfect) strangers during their ill-fated ten-day retreat; but this time round, the plot just felt a little too obviously manipulated.

As always with a Liane Moriarty novel, the plot is deceptively simple. In the case of Nine Perfect Strangers, nine stressed city dwellers —  burdened by a smorgasbord of worries — arrive at  Tranquillum House, which promises healing and transformation. Every attendee hopes to be transformed and reinvigorated: romance novelist Frances, for example, has just been mightily stung by an online scammer; while Napoleon, Heather and their daughter are still struggling to come to terms with the death of their son. The resort director watching over them is a woman named Masha; and she is not to be trifled with. A former hot-shot corporate type with a tragic past, she is determined to reshape her clients — no matter what the cost.

Although it deals with some heavy themes, the laugh-out-loud humour that regularly punctuates interactions between the cast makes Nine Perfect Strangers an absolute blast from start to finish. It’s a sharp-eyed, often touching portrait of the fractured lives of disparate strangers, and the unlikely ties that bind them together. Despite my  misgivings about a certain plot element, there is no denying Liane Moriarty’s irresistible storytelling. This is pure, riotous entertainment from start to finish.

4 Star

ISBN: 9781743534922
Format: Paperback (233mm x 154mm x mm)
Pages: 512
Imprint: Macmillan Australia
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia
Publish Date: 18-Sep-2018
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Greenlight by Benjamin Stevenson

9780143789871.jpgWith a plot that blasts along faster than a speeding bullet, and more hairpin turns than an alpine highway, Greenlight is one hell of a debut, and one of the year’s best thrillers. Seriously, this one will leave you breathless.

There’s a book coming out later this month by Chris Hammer called Scrublands. You might’ve heard of it. Not just from me — although you might recall I declared it an early contender for Book of the Year — but from various other bloggers, bookshops and media outlets. It’s being touted as the Next Big Thing in Australian Crime Fiction; primed to explode like Jane Harper’s The Dry. As it should. It’s brilliant.

But when the dust is settling in September  once you’ve had the chance to read and adore Chris Hammer’s debut  another book is going to drop, which deserves the same kind of pre-publication buzz; that should be talked about amongst booksellers in the build-up to is release. Another debut, by another Australian writer, who clearly knows his stuff, given his occupation at Curtis Brown Australia.

The author’s name is Benjamin Stevenson. His book is called Greenlight. And it’s a whirlwind of suspense, intrigue and excitement.

Jack Quick is the producer of a true-crime documentary interested in unravelling the murder of Eliza Dacey, in what was originally considered a slam-dunk case despite the circumstantial evidence that convicted Curtis Wade, who was already a pariah in the small town of Birravale, which is famed for its wineries. Jack’s series has turned the tide on the public’s perception of Wade  he is the victim of a biased police force, they scream  but just as Jack’s set to wrap on the finale, he uncovers a piece of evidence that points to Wade’s guilt, the broadcasting of which would ruin his show.

Understanding the potential repercussions of whatever he decides, Jack disposes of the evidence, thus delivering the final episode of his show proposing that Curtis is innocent. That, he thinks, will be the end of that. But when Curtis is released from prison, and soon after, a new victim is found bearing similarities to Eliza’s murder, Jack is forced to deal with the consequences head-on: his actions might’ve helped free a killer. And so, Jack makes it his personal mission to expose the truth.

Australian crime fiction is currently rife with small-town-murder plots, but Greenlight feels particularly original thanks to its protagonist. By the nature of his profession, Jack Quick is naturally egotistical —  his job is not simply to tell stories, but to shape them, and form narratives that are compelling, not necessarily honest. But he’s also seriously damaged from a particular childhood experience, and suffers from bulimia, which is an eating disorder I wouldn’t dream of pairing up with the hero of a whodunnit, but works effectively here. Stevenson’s story, too, is packed with red-herrings and stunning revelations; readers will be white-knuckled grasping their copies of his debut as he deviously weaves a web of suspicion around the many characters before revealing the killer in the jaw-dropping climax.

Greenlight will have you biting your nails down to the quick as you desperately turn its pages. In a year boasting several impressive debuts, Benjamin Stevenson’s ranks highly among them. Put simply, Greenlight is a knockout.

5 Star

ISBN: 9780143789871
Format: Paperback
Pages: 368
Imprint: Michael Joseph
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Publish Date: 3-Sep-2018
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: The Girl on the Page by John Purcell

Girl on the PagePitch-perfect in every tone, note and detail, the (un)glamorous world of book publishing is an excellent lens for John Purcell’s examination of what it means to balance ambition and integrity. The Girl on the Page starts as a satire, but quickly subverts initial expectations, adding on layers of emotional depth and complexity to its characters with every page, creating evocative portraits of brilliant creative minds in crisis.

Amy Winston is a hot-shot young editor in London who made her name — and a fortune! — turning an average thriller writer into a Lee Child-esque mega-bestseller. But while her professional life is all roses, her personal life is a mess. Not to disparage her life of hard-drinking and bed-hopping, but it’s not exactly conducive to long-term happiness and continued success. Her new assignment — guiding literary great Helen Owen back to publication — isn’t an enviable one, but if anybody can fabricate a bestseller, or at least  something that’ll earn back a smidgen of Helen’s outrageous advance, it’s Amy Winston. But when she arrives at the doorstep of Helen Owen and her husband, Booker-shortlisted author Malcolm Taylor, Amy is confronted by more than just a questionable manuscript: the marriage between this literary power couple appears to have fractured as a result of Helen’s new book, which Malcolm as deemed unworthy of her true talent. Which puts this trio in a terrible position, where either decision — to publish, or to not publish — will result in ruin.

Purcell vividly realises his characters’ emotional journeys, and the reverberations of their fortunes and fates will be felt by readers long after they’ve closed the book. You could strip The Girl on the Page of all its publishing insider juiciness; what remains is a searing take on integrity, commerce, and the consequences of compromise. Purcell is a born storyteller, having spent a lifetime surrounded by books and learning from the masters of the craft. The Girl on the Page is moving, hilarious, and ultimately heart-wrenching. It’s a love-letter to literature, sure; to its creators, and its readers. But it’s so much more than that, too.

ISBN: 9781460756973
Imprint: 4th Estate – AU
On Sale: 24/09/2018
Pages: 352
List Price: 32.99 AUD

 

Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Convenience Store WomanSayaka Murata’s English-language debut is a fun, smart, riveting, and ultimately profound novel about social conformism and work culture.

Keiko Furukura is 36-years-old, and has worked in the same Tokyo-based Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart since she was 18. This makes her an anomaly and a social outcast. While her contemporaries have long since moved into corporate jobs and started families, Keiko has become strangely attached — assimilated, almost — to the shop and its needs, and finds solace in its sameness, and the monotony of her function as one of its workers.

Keiki is not attuned to the rules that govern regular social interactions, completely oblivious to societal norms most take for granted, so replicates the mannerisms and speech patterns of her colleagues. Keiko accepts her outsider status —  it’s not a choice, it’s just who she is — but when confronted by her sister, who worries about her unorthodox lifestyle, Keiko deliberates over her capacity to change in order to adhere to entrenched standards, and in the form of fellow outcast Shiraha, might have a way to attune to normalcy. The question for readers is: should she?

Convenience Store Woman is not a nuanced take-down of societal expectations —  don’t worry about finding the subtext, the author’s message is clear —  but its brevity, and genuine laugh-out-loud moments make it a joyous one-sitting read. Ginny Tapley Takemori’s translation is delectable, too. I can see this book being a great read for book clubs; in fewer than 200 pages, Sayaka Murata gives readers plenty to marinate over; not just Keiko’s intended conformity, but our own role in how we respond to those who deviate from long-standing presumptions.

A book that makes you think, and feel, and laugh; you can’t ask for much more.

ISBN: 9781846276835
Format: Paperback (216mm x 135mm x mm)
Pages: 176
Imprint: Portobello Books Ltd
Publisher: Granta Books
Publish Date: 5-Jul-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

 

The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne

9780241305478.jpgJoe Dunthorne’s The Adulterants is a sort of anti-coming-of-age-story; a comedy of errors about a thirty-something Londoner on the cusp of full-blown adulthood, but whose adolescent-minded cluster of ill-decisions sends his life on a desperately downward spiral.

A slim novel just shy of 200 pages, The Adulterants introduces us to Ray, presented as the typical everyman — he loves and loathes his friends in equal measure, bemoans the price of houses just like the rest of us, and is a little tired of his career as a tech journalist — who we meet just as he’s in the midst of almost cheating on his heavily pregnant wife; just the first in a long, loooong line of terrible decisions, which Ray is adamant he is not at fault for; rather, he’s the victim of societal pressures, circumstance, and the people in his life. From Ray’s point of view, all mistakes can be traced back to everything and anything but himself.

There are several laugh moments, including Ray’s encounter with a policewoman, when every word he utters exacerbates his quandary. But this isn’t a slapstick comedy; it’s top-notch satire, moments of comedic gold coupled with insight and poignancy. This is the story of a man plagued with insecurities about every facet of his life, who lacks the maturity and inclination to reorient his priorities. His uncanny knack for self-sabotage is both hilarious and heartbreaking; Ray is equally empathetic and deplorable. The line between the two is a constant blur.

The Adulterants is an infectious read. I galloped through its pages, marvelled at its insights, guffawed at Ray’s shallow, infantile, narcissist tendencies.

ISBN: 9780241305478
Format: Hardback
Pages: 192
Imprint: Hamish Hamilton Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 29-Jan-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton

9780143786115Tim Winton is my own personal enigma. It’s not that I don’t value, understand, or respect his stature among Australian literary superstars — or indeed his place as one of the world’s finest contemporary writers — it’s just that I’ve yet to read one of his books that’s resonated with me as strongly as, say, Cloudstreet or Breath did for so many of my peers. I have read both of these and enjoyed them, absolutely  admired them for their craft, but whereas so many others felt compelled to wax lyrically about them and offer voracious applause, I was a step back, clapping politely. I guess everyone has those authors, and those books, that are so highly regarded by seemingly everybody else on the entire planet, but left you feeling that little bit cold. You wish you could feel its embrace, all you want to do is curl up with everybody else, feel the love; but something’s holding you back, something you can’t quite explain. Nevertheless, a new book by Tim Winton was hardly something I could leave unread on the shelf. I dove into The Shepherd’s Hut, ready to be wowed, hoping this would be the one connected, that struck all the right chords and would have me singing from the same hymn sheet as everybody else.

It came very, very close. In fact, I’d so as far as to call The Shepherd’s Hut by favourite book by Tim Winton.

Jaxie Clackton is on the run, having found his father crushed to death under a Toyota Hilux. It’s an accident, but young Jaxie is convinced it won’t be viewed as such by the locals, who were all aware how savagely Sid Clackton beat his teenage son and late wife. They won’t need much convincing to believe it’s murder. So Jaxie hurriedly packs for an immediate departure — leave some vital pieces of kit behind — and vanishes into the harsh desert, whereupon he eventually happens across an old shepherd’s hut with a single, strange occupant named Fintan MacGillis; a priest with a dark secret. And whose secluded home might not be the safe haven it initially appears to be.

Jaxie is a product of his childhood. He has grown up surrounded by violence, and the tools of violence. He is an angry young man, and he stays angry, throughout the text, until its end and presumably into the future. There were long periods I hated this young protagonist. I empathised with his plight, and understood where his rage stemmed from. But there were times, nonetheless, when I might’ve hoped the harsh desert landscape would swallow him whole. This, despite his honest appraisal of himself, and his own awareness at his inherent brokeness. But I couldn’t repel the book’s hold over me.

The Shepherd’s Hut is brutal. Bruisingly so. It is a masterly encapsulation of toxic masculinity. This is Winton covering familiar territory, but it’s injected with an urgency, a sense of constant, inescapable threat that adds up to a taut page-turner. Now I desperately want to go back and re-read Cloudstreet and Breath.

ISBN: 9780143786115
Format: Hardback
Pages: 288
Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Publish Date: 12-Mar-2018
Country of Publication: Australia

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: 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