Review: First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“First Person Singular” is an enjoyable short story collection by Haruki Murakami, with whom I’ve had such fond experiences through his fiction. But the further I delved into the eight stories on offer here, the more I realised that my nostalgia for the past was fulfilling me more than the book in my hands. Which isn’t to say any of these tales, or the quality of their writing, is substandard — Murakami hasn’t suddenly devolved into a hack producing work for a spare dime — but there’s a definite sense he coasted through their creation. 

A crowd-pleasing sense of familiarity is often enough for readers to coast through a novel, or short stories, on a sea of goodwill. But my barometer for any collection is my capacity to recollect specific stories (or at least moments from them) in the days after I’ve finished. There’s just not enough bite to “First Person Singular” for it to resonate. 

The stories gently probe themes of youth, love and memory, and provide tender meditations on music, childhood and (in one of my favourite tales) baseball. Many of the stories are tinged with Murakami’s trademark surreality — talking monkey, anyone? — but they’re all framed through a homogeneous first person narrator, so they’ve blurred indistinguishably in my mind. 

But even Murakami writing with his transmission lodged firmly in first gear provides indelibly graceful prose, and very occasionally, the glint of ingenuity. It’s a shame none of the stories sustained that magic for quite long enough. They’re all eminently readable, but their spark never ignites a flame. 

Published: 6 April 2021
ISBN: 9781787302600
Imprint: Harvill Secker
Format: Hardback
Pages: 256
RRP: $39.99

Review: Some Lucky by Jane Smiley

some-luck“Something had created itself from nothing — a dumpy old house had been filled, if only for this moment, with twenty-three different worlds, each of them rich and mysterious.”

Since it arrived in bookstores in 2014 — my first year as a bookseller (I know, late bloomer, right? — I’ve been meaning to read Jane Smiley’s Some Luck. But you know how it is; life (by which I mean other books) finds a way to intrude on your best laid plans, and suddenly that novel you meant to read in 2014 is still unread in 2019.

Well, there was no way I could let this turn into a Wolf Hall debacle (still unread more than ten years later), so demonstrating the kind of roguishness I’m known for, I finally shunted aside my piles of proofs (they toppled like dominoes; some stacks are still falling) and began reading the first book in the Last Hundred Years trilogy, praying it would live up to my expectations (that had only enhanced as the wait lengthened). And, oh boy, it did.

Some Luck begins in 1920 and ends in 1953 (each year is a chapter), and relays the story of The Langdons. Walter Langdon, recently returned from WWI, and his wife Rosanna have settled on a remote Iowa farm to commence their lives together. The novel charts their family’s lives through seismic events — the Great Depression, World War Two, the beginnings of the Cold War — but it’s the ordinary moments, those sacred times we only truly appreciate in hindsight, family gathered together, laughing around the dinner table, that gives Some Luck its profundity. Smiley’s prose is clean and unobtrusive, and brings to live the heterogeneous personalities of her cast as she moves round-robin style from one character to the next. Epic in scale, this is a trilogy I’ll read slowly to savour as long as I possibly can. Is there a better feeling than discovering a sublime novelist?

ISBN: 9781447275602
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 640
Imprint: Picador
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Publish Date: 26-Feb-2015
Country of Publication: United Kingdom


Review: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

9780241410912.jpgMary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes is a wrenching American generational saga about the heavy burdens of family and guilt, and the redemptive power of love.

Narrated from multiple perspectives, whisking readers from the early 1970s until today, it probes the depths of human trauma — physical and emotional — and our capacity for forgiveness, as it highlights the defining moments in people’s lives.

At times Keane’s third novel reminded me of my favourite experiences with Anne Tyler and Ann Patchett; deeply involving, emotionally rich, a book to settle into fully, even as it breaks your heart and opens it up. There’s nothing pretentious about it; just a good story, with characters you love, alongside strong themes, perfectly crafted. A must-read cocktail.

ISBN: 9780241410912
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 400
Imprint: Michael Joseph Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 28-May-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Cari Mora by Thomas Harris

9781785152191.jpgIn a year of brilliant thrillers — think McKinty’s The Chain or Crouch’s Recursion — readers don’t need to settle for anything but the absolute best when it comes to turbocharged literary entertainment. Which is unfortunate for Thomas Harris, and the first book he’s published in thirteen years, because it is devastatingly archaic by comparison. It’s not even a fun throwback to a bygone era; Cari Mora is completely lacking in thrills, chills and even the shadow of a memorable character; and despite its lean page count, it is a slog to get through. The Silence of the Lambs this ain’t.

The plot involves a booby-trapped stash of Pablo Escobar’s gold, hidden in the basement of a luxurious mansion on Miami Beach, and a whole bunch of very bad dudes out to claim the treasure for themselves. Which actually doesn’t sound so bad I bet Donald Westlake, writing under his Richard Stark pen name, could’ve done something amazing with that set up but its unfolding chafingly uninventive and peopled with a two-dimensional, ridiculously villainous cast (there’s the guy who walks in for one scene to eat a human kidney — just ’cause; and the hairless albino whose favourite method of torture is a liquid cremation machine.

There’s the titular heroine, Cari Mora, a gorgeous former-FARC guerrilla, who works in the mansion as a housekeeper, whose backstory is sketched haphazardly, but at least provides the story with a glimmer of heart and humanity. But she’s not enough to sustain interest. The narrative lurches from one point of view to the next at one point we even get to witness the inner thoughts of a crocodile but it’s done without any panache. Uninspired and unsatisfying; for Harris completists only, and only if you must.

ISBN: 9781785152191
Format: Paperback / softback (234mm x 153mm x 24mm)
Pages: 336
Imprint: William Heinemann Ltd
Publisher: Cornerstone
Publish Date: 16-May-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom


Review: The Nancys by R.W.R. McDonald

9781760527334When eleven-year-old Tippy Chan learns of her teacher’s murder, she forms ‘The Nancys’ — an amateur detective club inspired by Nancy Drew — with her visiting Uncle Pike and his new boyfriend, Devon. Together, the trio converge on Riverstone  — a small town in New Zealand with a kaleidoscopic population of less than 4000 and nose their way into trouble.

This is an ebullient, delightful novel, difficult to describe in a way that conveys its greatness without making it sound schmaltzy. On the one hand, it’s warm and funny; its laughs procured from Pike and Devon’s mordant humour; its affability derived from the Nancys’ burgeoning affinity, and their generous hearts. But The Nancys is also a stellar mystery, layered with red-herrings and suspense, the killer’s identity ably concealed until the final pages in a powerful denouement that has heartbreaking repercussions for Tippy.

The Nancys avoids the trap of condescension that ensnares too many well-meaning books written for adults starring preadolescents. Rob McDonald understands the innocence and purity of this phase in life — when the real world constantly threatens to invade, like a looming shadow, on the colourful pop of childhood — and he wonderfully captures the excitement, hilarity and occasional disillusionment of Tippy’s growing discernibility as she her fellow Nancys intervene in the townspeople’s affairs.

Written with verve, humour and heart, this is a stunning debut, one of those very special books that enthrals from its opening, and leaves you with pangs of regret, desperate to spend more time with its characters. This is hopefully not the last time we’ll meet this investigative trio: maybe a trip to Sydney is on the cards for Tippy?

ISBN: 9781760527334
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 400
Available: 3rd June 2019
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Country of Publication: AU

Review: The Man Between by Charles Cumming

ManBetweenAt first I wondered whether its setup might be a little too on the nose — a spy novelist drawn into real-world espionage — but Charles Cumming’s sophisticated treatment of the narrative, combined with his polished prose, make The Man Between a winner. This is a taut and exciting tale of spy craft, reminiscent of genre masters  John le Carré, Mick Herron and Daniel Silva, that’ll have you turning the pages in a frenzy to learn the fates of its characters.

Kit Carradine is a successful thriller writer who has grown tired of days spent in front of his desktop computer, conjuring fictional scenarios for imagined heroes. He envies the life of his father, a British spy whose career was cut agonisingly short because of Kim Philby’s betrayal —  so when British Intelligence invites him to enter the clandestine world of espionage for the good of Queen and Country, Kit willingly becomes embroiled in a terrifying plot to destabilise the West. Not that he expected to play such a vital role in proceedings; or in fact become a pawn in a game played by duelling intelligence services.

Lara Bartok  is a leading figure in Resurrection, a violent revolutionary movement whose attacks on prominent right-wing politicians have spread hatred and violence throughout the West. Kit’s objective is to make contact with her in Morocco — a simple handover, nothing more — and return to his life as though nothing happened. Of course, things don’t pan out as Kit, or his handler (who has secrets of his own) expect.

Kit Carradine is an interesting protagonist.  He is genre-defying, in that he is a civilian thrust into the life of a spy, but acutely aware he’s living the realisation of a trope of countless thrillers we’ve all read. Having made a career of imagining narratives and writing his characters out of dangerous scenarios, he has unconsciously trained himself to have the mental fortitude for the life of a spy; a quick-thinker, often able to talk his way out of trouble. But there are occasions when Kit comes across as a little too cool-headed, and his persona a tad contrived; when he seems impossibly placid given the life-or-death situation he funds himself in. Thankfully Cumming rarely allows the reader time to draw breath; just when you begin to question (and envy) and deliberate over Kit’s exceptional bravery, the story veers in a new direction. And ultimately, this is a genre that demands, at the very least, a slight willingness to accept the improbable.

The Man Between is a smart, gripping, torn-from-the-headlines page-turner. And quite possibly the beginning of a new series, which you’ll want to jump on board with from the start.

4 Star

ISBN: 9780008200329
Format: Paperback
Pages: 368
Imprint: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publish Date: 5-Jun-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom




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 White City by Karolina Ramqvist

9781611855197.jpgThe White City is a resonant book, each sentence handcrafted with precision, its themes enchantingly explored. While its setup might sound like it has the makings of a crime thriller, Karolina Ramqvist’s English debut is instead an unflinchingly honest examination of a woman’s isolation, and her determination to survive with her daughter in their new reality, stripped of the riches Karin’s boyfriend, John, provided through his criminal activities, and removed from the support network of his acquaintances friends.

Set in the middle of a freezing Scandinavian winter, Karin’s struggles as a single parent are exacerbated by the looming threat of the Swedish Economic Crime Authority who are threatening to take her home, and all of her possessions. Her daughter, Dream, is a typical newborn, simultaneously awed and terrified by the world around her. Ramqvist details every tantrum, spit-up, pooping episode, and every other milestone mothers will have experienced, including cooing and the cuddling. A standard crime thriller would relegate Dream to being merely baggage for Karin; in Ramqvist’s hands, she is a living, breathing child, a genuine physical, oftentimes exhausting presence. Indeed, much of The White City consists of Karin managing her newborn.

Against a backdrop of violence and deceit, Karin’s quest to claim what she feels is rightfully hers — a chunk of John’s kingdom, which would therefore secure Dream’s future — is lytically elucidated. Ramqvist makes us feel for these characters, and even though much of the early tension dissipates, it’s a remarkably enthralling tale.

ISBN: 9781611855197
Format: Paperback (194mm x 128mm x 13mm)
Pages: 176
Imprint: Grove Press / Atlantic Monthly Press
Publisher: Grove Press / Atlantic Monthly Press
Publish Date: 3-Aug-2017
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Smile by Roddy Doyle

9781911214762.jpgRoddy Doyle’s Smile is a mesmerising, bleak novel about institutional abuse in Ireland, which is as penetrating and devastating as it is masterfully sumptuous thanks to its shocking final twist. Smile is a triumph. Doyle has delivered an extraordinary work of fiction.

Alone for the first time in years after splitting from his TV celebrity wife, Victor Forde drops into Donnelly’s pub for a pint one evening, an establishment close to his new (and very humble) abode; a place where, he thinks, he might become a regular. It’s here he encounters a man named Fitzpatrick, who Victor can’t remember, but goes along with the man’s assertion they were school pals. Fitzpatrick seems to know everything about Victor, including personal details that he is adamant he’s shared with nobody else, but desperate for friendship, Victor is willing to go along. When he returns to his flat, to the uncompleted manuscript that haunts him, he reflects on the life that has brought him here. The thing is: Victor isn’t a wholly reliable narrator.

The falsehoods start small. Victor tells the barman he put a fiver on Costa Rica in the Word Cup, then informs the reader that he in fact hasn’t. Well, we’ve all done that, right? A little white lie; what’s the harm? When he queries Fitzpatrick on whether he has read his book, he immediately informs us that there is no book. It remains, as it has for many years, unwritten. Then the inconsistencies and the omissions become increasingly prevalent: Victor references a sister and a grownup son, but neither are elaborated on, and feel more like caricatures than characters, lacking any depth or colour. And there’s the matter of Victor’s wife, too. Ah, beautiful, irresistible, loved-by-all Rachel, with a sexual appetite that’ll make readers blush, who for some reason,  unknown to us, or Victor, or his newfound friends at Donnelly’s, loved only Victor; always Victor, forever Victor, this woman, who seems like a fantasy, like every man’s dream, who could’ve had any man she wanted. Why Victor?

Smile unfolds non-chronologically, which infuses the novel with a powerful surrealism. We bounce between episodes, the centrepiece of which is when one of the teachers at the Christian Brothers school Victor attended molests him under the guise of teaching him a wrestling move. Deftly explicated, which makes it all the more heart-wrenching, this was the event that instigated the corrosion; that effectively ended Victor’s chance at a normal, happy life. Because however much of the story he weaves about his life and its apparent successes is true, it’s obvious he is a very damaged man. We just don’t quite realise the severity of it until the final pages, when Doyle turns the whole novel on its head. Some readers might see the twist early, but it’s executed effectively nonetheless, and is a searing reminder of how potent the author’s fiction can be.

Written with precision and thoughtfulness, Smile underscores the repercussions of institutional abuse. It doesn’t do so without zealous overstatement or with detailed depictions of the horror experienced. It simply portrays the stunted life of a lost and broken man, and makes you wonder: is there any hope for those touched by unspeakable evil? Roddy Doyle seems to think not.

ISBN: 9781911214762
ISBN-10: 1911214764
Format: Paperback (216mm x 135mm x 16mm)
Pages: 224
Imprint: Jonathan Cape Ltd
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 7-Sep-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

9780857525017Piercingly effective and genuinely terrifying, Gin Phillips’ Fierce Kingdom is that rarest of thriller: one in which the emotional stakes are just as extreme as the physical threat faced by its characters.

Joan and her four-year-old son, Lincoln, are playing in the Dinosaur Discovery Pit at the zoo when the crack of gunshots echo. Puzzled by the noise, but not immediately anxious by it, mother and son make their way towards the exit… which is where they discover the bodies on the ground.

And a gunman.

Very soon, more than one.

Joan and Lincoln flee into the heart of the zoo, desperate for a place to hide, to see out the violence undiscovered. But how does a mother explain such savagery to a four-year-old boy? How will she cope with the fluctuating emotions and questions of a child faced with an extreme scenario? And what are the heartbreaking decisions and sacrifices she must make to keep her child safe?

Fierce Kingdom is a relentless page-turner that relies more heavily on psychological drama than it does high-impact violence. Brilliantly paced to maximise tension and its emotional impact, this is compulsively readable but incredibly chilling, with more than a few heart-in-mouth moments. Dripping with moral ambiguity, until Phillips’ novel, if you’d told me I’d be enraptured by a tale of a mother deliberating her maternal instincts, I might not have believed you: but this macabre tale proves horribly fascinating.

It’s a book that begs for discussion; that demands readers ask themselves, What would you do? Because faced with certain death, there is no right or wrong. There is just survival. And, ultimately, living with the consequences.

ISBN: 9780857525017
ISBN-10: 0857525018
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x 20mm)
Pages: 288
Imprint: Doubleday
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
Publish Date: 15-Jun-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom