Thursday, 13 July 2017

Review: The Late Show by Michael Connelly

Simon McDonald reviews the first book in Michael Connelly's new series starring LAPD Detective Renée Ballard.

Michael Connelly’s last Harry Bosch novel, The Wrong Side of Goodbye, was another in a long line of masterful police procedurals. Make no mistake: Connelly’s work is the standard to which all crime fiction should be held. It would be easy for the author, with his 30th book, to rest on his laurels: another Bosch novel; maybe another Lincoln Lawyer legal thriller. Instead, he’s gone and created a brilliant new protagonist, LAPD detective Renée Ballard, who has worked the night shift ever since her failed sexual harassment claim against Lt. Robert Olivas, her supervisor at the Robbery Homicide Division. And while there are plenty of similarities between Ballard and Bosch — a thirst for justice, and penchant for going rogue, to name just a couple — Renée’s no female carbon copy of the now-retired Harry. She’s fresh and distinct, inhabiting the same world of torment, fear and danger as Bosch, but providing a very different perspective. Please, Mr. Connelly, sir: don’t let The Late Show be Ballard’s first and last appearance.

Ballard works the night shift at the LAPD’s Hollywood Division alongside her partner, Jenkins, accustomed to initiating investigations, but finishing none, as each morning she turns her cases over to day shift detectives. When she catches two cases on the same night, she can’t part with either. One is the brutal beating of a prostitute; the other is the killing of a young woman in a nightclub shooting.  Despite orders from her superiors and her partner to back off, leave it alone, and let the assigned day shift detectives handle both cases, Ballard launches dual unsanctioned investigations, both of which could lead to her losing her badge, or even worse, her life.

The landscape and themes Connelly explores in The Late Show will be familiar to readers who’ve followed Harry Bosch’s exploits since the beginning, but there’s something refreshing about this young, driven detective’s perspective. When we met Harry in The Black Echo, he was already a seasoned detective with a ton of baggage; it’s very cool to see Connelly try his hand at a less experienced, but no less determined investigator. Long-time readers will also notice characters (or their  kin) from previous novels popping up, either as key players or just in the background. It’s easy to forget, we’ve been reading about Harry Bosch since 1992, more than 20 years, and the world’s continuity remains remarkably intact.

As is his hallmark, Michael Connelly wonderfully combines a mass of procedural detail, a speeding, Byzantine plot, and a flawed hero. The Late Show engages from the first page and never lets go, and Renée Ballard is a character I want to be reunited with as soon as possible. Smartly put together, expertly paced and unpredictable. Just great stuff. To use an oft-repeated word when reviewing Connelly’s work: masterful.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Review: The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham

Simon McDonald reviews Michael Robotham's The Secrets She Keeps, a compelling psychological thriller that delves deeply into the psyche of the human mind.
In Michael Robotham’s sure and practised hands, domestic noir has achieved new heights. With its perfect blend of sharp plotting, great characterisation and a powerful narrative, The Secrets She Keeps might well be the spiritual successor to Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train we’ve all been waiting for.
The Secrets She Keeps revolves around two central themes: the attainment of a (perceived) perfect life, and the extremes we are capable of going to in order to keep our darkest secrets safe. Our narrators — Agatha Fyfle and Meghan Shaughnessy. — come from vastly different backgrounds, but are united by two unconnected and deeply personal secrets, both of which have the potential to unravel their lives. Agatha thinks Meghan has it all — two perfect children, a handsome and successful husband, a happy marriage — while all shehas is an absent boyfriend (and father of her unborn child) who won’t return her calls. If only Agatha could see the inner-workings of Meghan and Jack’s marriage; see past the sheen and the smiles plastered on their faces in public. Is a third child really the antidote to their woes? And if it is, suppose that antidote was maliciously removed… the consequences would be devastating.
In this standalone psychological thriller, Robotham explores the lengths we’ll go to bury the truth beneath a flood of lies. He never writes a dull page, ratcheting up the tension, pressing his foot against the accelerator, until the pages start turning themselves. The Secrets She Keeps is gripping and heartbreaking in equal measure. You will doubt everything and everyone, because ultimately, the characters at the novel’s centre simply can’t be trusted. They are liars, cheats and scoundrels. And they are so utterly compelling, you might breeze through this one in a single sitting. It’s ‘forget your job, meals, friends and family’ kind of good.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Review: Australia Day by Melanie Cheng

Our bookseller Simon McDonald reviews Melanie Cheng's collection of short stories, Australia Day.
Some of the pieces in Australia Day have been published elsewhere, including in the Griffith Review and Sleepers Almanac, but I’d yet to sample Cheng’s work prior to cracking the spine of this collection, and in truth, through my own ignorance, I knew little about her fiction. It was only thanks to the cherished booksellers grapevine that my attention was piqued, and I’m ever-so-grateful that community highlighted another gem. Cheng’s mastery of the form seems to deepen with each story, and at various moments I was jubilant and disheartened by her depiction of our society, but constantly awed by the deftness of her prose. Most admirable is Cheng’s capacity to both indict and acquit Australians throughout her stories: she is equally scathing as she is complimentary, and neither is ever overtly expressed, always nuanced.
Australia Day is a stunning reminder of our great nation’s diversity. Regardless of our heritage, where we’ve come from, or where we’re going — race, religion, ethnicity be damned — we are all inextricably linked by the land we inhabit and share. Melanie Cheng’s short story collection is a celebration of our multiculturalism, even when some of her insights prove uncomfortable. It’s necessary reading, not only because it’s a microcosm of who we are, but because each story is a gem, and a joy to behold.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Review: Wimmera by Mark Brandi

Our resident crime guru Simon McDonald reviews the 2016 Winner of the Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger, Wimmera by Mark Brandi.

Wimmera opens in the midst of the 1989 summer holidays, where we’re introduced to best friends Ben and Fab. These almost-teenagers spend their days yabbying, playing backyard cricket, hypothesising revenge against school bullies, and leaving unsaid their shared discomfort over the way Fab’s father hits him, and the suicide of Ben’s next-door neighbour. When a man moves into the now-vacant neighbour’s house, Fab and Ben contemplate his presence in their hometown now; what brought him here, and where was he before? He’s a big man, obviously strong, built like a linebacker. There’s something not right about him; a meanness in his smile, a dubious glint in his eye. Unbeknownst to Ben and Fab, his arrival in Wimmera will have a major impact on their young lives — the ripples of which are still felt twenty years later, when their friendship has long since eroded, Ben now living the big city life in Melbourne, while Fab remains, stuck in a dead-end job, burdened by the weight of a decision made in his youth, soon to be crippled by it when the police discover a body in the river.
Wimmera is rural Australian noir perfected. The tone of the novel is bleak, its characters steeped in defeatism. You know from the start: nobody is going to get what they want, and everyone is going to get what’s coming to them. In his foreword of The Best American Noir of the Century, Otto Penzler described noir works as “existential pessimistic tales about people, including (or especially) protagonists, who are seriously flawed and morally questionable. The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral and their plans and schemes inevitably go awry.” That’s Wimmera in a nutshell. It is unsettling and bittersweet bearing witness to two young men orbiting a black hole, but more importantly, it’s unputdownable.
Comparisons to Jane Harper’s critically acclaimed The Dry are inevitable — both Australian debuts, both set in rural Australian towns — but besides their sheer readability, these are two very different novels deserving of equal merit. Harper’s was a relentless page-turner; a race to determine the perpetrator of the crime. Brandi’s is more of a slow-burn; a character-driven, emotionally-wrenching tour-de-force. It's not just my favourite crime novel of the year so far, it's one of my favourite novels this year, full-stop. 

Monday, 19 June 2017

The Best Crime Books and Thrillers of June 2017

Our crime connoisseur Simon McDonald reveals his favourite
crime novels and thrillers of the month.

The Force by Don Winslow 

Don Winslow, the acclaimed, award-winning, bestselling author of The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, turns his sights away from the War on Drugs to deliver a truly epic, Godfather-eque cop novel, The Force.

It opens with NYPD Detective Sergeant Denny Malone in federal lockup, reflecting on the decisions that landed him behind bars. Formerly a hero cop and the self-proclaimed King of Manhattan North, Malone was in charge of an elite NYPD unit commissioned to battle drugs, guns and gangs, until something -- well, everything --  went wrong, and his whole world came crashing down. Seems 18 years of bending the rules has finally taken its toll. Not that Malone's remorseful. In his mind, he's done what he's had to, in order to keep the streets safe and line the pockets of his comrades, who deserve maximum compensation for the risks they take. Malone doesn't consider himself corrupt or dirty: when you're working under the hammer of a broken justice system, you make your own rules. Against the backdrop of community outrage from high-profile police shootings of young black men nationwide, Winslow unveils Malone's unravelling. The Force is a propulsive crime novel, offering plenty of social commentary, and a dose of Winslow's trademark dynamism and flair. Anyone needing proof Winslow is one of the finest crime writers working today, here's your proof.

Defectors by Joseph Kanon

Joseph Kanon’s Defectors moves deliberately but colourfully, with intelligent prose and a strong Cold War period feel. With his recent literary gems (Leaving Berlin, Istanbul Passage), the heir apparent to John Le Carré is doing a wonderful job re-sparking interest in classic spy fiction. Nobody is doing it better. Frankly, nobody can do it better.

In 1949, CIA agent Frank Weeks was exposed as a Communist spy and defected to the Soviet Union. Twelve years later, in 1961 when the Defectors opens, his brother, Simon, a New York-based book publisher, gets drawn into a dangerous scheme when Frank dangles the proposition of a tell-all memoir. Simon travels to Moscow, anxious about reuniting with his brother, whose treachery resulted in his dismissal from his work as an analyst (a position he had held with the OSS during World War II), not to mention discomfort over the his secret affair with Frank’s wife, Jo.

But more than that, Simon’s concern is based on uncertainty over Frank’s intentions. The man has made self-preservation an art form, and there is no way his KGB masters will agree to an unadulterated exposé — so what is the true purpose behind Simon’s visit? And will Simon agree to whatever scheme Frank has set in motion? Whatever he decides, there will be a cost.

Like Alan Furst’s The Foreign Correspondent and Le Carré’s The English Spy, Kanon’s latest perfectly encapsulates the potency of a spy thriller devoid of explosions and shootouts. This is a thriller that eschews video game shoot-’em-up style action, and instead relies on the the complexities of its characters and their confused loyalties to maximise suspense. Defectors is a virtuoso display by an author at his peak. It’s a masterful thriller, pure and simple.

The Marsh King's Daughter by Karen Dionne

When the notorious child abductor known as the Marsh King escapes from a maximum security prison, his daughter, Helena, tracks her father through the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan while reflecting upon her childhood as his prisoner. Pitched as a breathless race-against time to stop the Marsh King from reaching her family, The Marsh King’s Daughter is less of a pulse-pounding thriller and more of a coming-of-age character study, with the bulk of the story comprised of flashbacks to Helena’s youth. 

Born and raised in a swamp, Helena had no idea that she and her mother were captives until they were rescued. Trained to trap, hunt and kill, Helena and her mother’s rescue plucked her from anomalous existence to another: a foreign world of electronic gadgets, the internet, and a population grossly enamoured in the goings-on of celebrities. She isn’t comfortable in this world; misses the solitude of the wilderness. Meeting her husband, Stephen, eased the transition; so too the birth of her daughters, which focuses Helena, gives her a purpose, makes her something other than merely a survivor. She’s never told Stephen about her past; lied from the beginning, wanting to separate herself from the past. So when when notorious kidnapper, rapist, and murderer Jacob Holbrook escapes police custody thirteen years after she helped put him away, not only does Helena worry for the safety of her children, the sanctity of her marriage is also under threat.

Conceptually, there’s a lot to love about The Marsh King’s Daughter. Who better to track the Marsh King than his daughter, who learned everything from him? And,as the narrative flits between the past and present, the pages almost turn themselves, Karen Dionne superbly ratcheting the tension. This is a fine character-driven psychological thriller for readers who’ve grown tired of such novels set in the suburbs, and looking for a fresh landscape to explore.

Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane is the author of one of my favourite novels of all time — Shutter Island — and as a long-time admirer of his Patrick Kenzie / Angie Gennaro crime series, as well as the stellar Coughlin trilogy, I was very much looking forward to his new standalone book. And Since We Fell, ultimately, doesn’t disappoint, despite its slightly meandrous beginning (first sentence aside which is a ripper!), when it feels like Lehane is taking the scenic route to the novel’s core. But when the moment arrives (which will remain unspoiled in this review, obviously), everything clicks into place, and the novel kicks into Lehane’s trademark high gear. 

Since We Fell follows Rachel Childs, a former television journalist, who lives as a virtual shut-in after a mental breakdown she experienced on-air as a result of coverage of the massive earthquake that shattered Haiti in 2010. Despite her struggles, life’s not altogether so bad for Rachel: she lives a wonderful life with her husband, who demonstrates incredible composure and understanding of her situation. Then, as a result of a chance encounter one afternoon, everything changes, and Rachel realises she’s been involved in a massive conspiracy; a deception unlike anything she could’ve possibly anticipated. To face the truth, and to survive it, she must overcome her greatest fears. 

Lehane’s latest is a satisfying physiological thriller that becomes utterly relentless once it gains traction. The background into Rachel’s past seems excessive at times, even though it’s ultimately necessary information for readers to fully understand her motivations. But once you get through it, when you reach the moment, the plot comes together in exhilarating fashion. The tension is ratcheted up to the nth degree, and readers will be turning the pages as fast as they possibly can to see how the story plays out. 

Dennis Lehane’s novels are at the top of the genre’s food chain. Since We Fell is blessed with a compelling narrative and top-notch writing. It will satisfy Lehane’s legion of fans and convert new ones. At a time when our bookstore shelves are packed with titles trying desperately to be the next Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, Since We Fell will satisfy fans of both, but remains its own distinct beast.

Camino Island by John Grisham

John Grisham forgoes his trademark courtroom drama for a multi-layered caper story. 

Camino Island opens with a daring heist. The prize? The five manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s only novels, valued at $25 million, under lock-and-key in a high-security vault located deep beneath Princeton University. But there’s no such thing as the perfect crime, and this gang of five made mistakes, which result in a couple of arrests. Despite pressure from the FBI’s Rare Asset Recovery unit, the remaining thieves vanish without a trace, and for a time, their investigation stalls, until a man on their watch list – an infamous bookseller on Camino Island named Bruce Kable – comes to their attention. More specifically, his collection of rare manuscripts. Determined to employ a mole to get close to Kable and assess his possible criminality, Mercer Mann, a struggling writer burdened by debts – and coincidentally, a former frequent-traveller to Camino Island – is somewhat reluctantly pulled into the fold.

Camino Island is a fun cat-and-mouse thriller. The manner in which Grisham ties his various plot threads is impressive, and showcases his skillful plotting. More than anything, it's a love letter to booksellers and readers, the author revealing some insider secrets that folks not "in the know" will be tickled by. 

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Sydney Writers' Festival 2017

The Sydney Writers' Festival programme was announced last Thursday night and there is lots to be excited about.  Here is a round up of our picks of the best books and authors to watch. 

For more information on events with these authors visit

Insomniac City by Bill Hayes
The Potts Point staff are rarely unanimous but on special occasions we all fall in love with the same book. Bill Hayes' tender, witty and intimate memoir is a love letter to New York and his late partner, the wise and compassionate Oliver Sacks. 

The Mothers by Brit Bennett
This is a masterful debut novel from a vibrant new voice in fiction. It tells the story of a determined young black woman, trying to find her way in the world after losing her mother. With frankness and humanity, Bennett tackles friendship, ambition, adulthood and the support and suffocation of community.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2016 National Book Award. A haunting, visceral novel that never flinches from the aberrations of history, while still singing with imagination and heart. Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning story is about giving voice to those who need to be heard, perhaps now more than ever. 

The Return by Hisham Matar
Counting Hilary Mantel and Chimamanda Adichie among his readers, Hisham Matar is an essential voice in non fiction today. The Return is an extraordinary memoir that revisits Matar's childhood in Libya and dives into the difficult personal and political story of his father's life. 

I'm Supposed to Protect You From All This by Nadja Speigelman
This powerful memoir is force of nature, just like its provocative author and subject. Speigelman sets out to explore the stories and secrets of her mother and grandmother - both fiercely intelligent, French and a little bit nuts. The book is a wild ride filled with emotional intensity and dark humour.

In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi 
When Susan Faludi received a matter-of-fact email from her estranged father informing her that he'd become a woman, she decided to revive a relationship that had long fallen away. The result is a fascinating, compulsively readable book which raises as many questions as it answers, and proves that there is no such thing as a singular identity. 

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Potts Point Top 50 Books for 2016

We always suspected that the Potts Point crowd had the best literary taste in town and now it's confirmed. We've tallied our best-selling 50 books for 2016 and the verdict is in - you buy the best books and we love selling them to you.

1. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Set in the art world, this is an addictively interesting story of forgery, betrayal and the history of a very special painting. There was a lot of love for this excellent novel in store, and we're proud to say it's our number one pick for 2016. 

2. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Commonwealth was one of the all time customer and staff favourites from last year. It's a tale of blended families, dysfunctional relationships, but above all the redemptive power of love and loyalty. Put simply, we worship Ann Patchett and would read the back of a cereal box if she wrote it.

3. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

This is the book that got everyone talking last year. And crying. Yanagihara follows four young college friends as they grow up, fall in love, fail, succeed and attempt to find real estate in New York City. Be warned, this novel is more than it seems and has a disturbingly dark underbelly that only the bravest will make it through without tears.

4. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

FERRANTE FEVER. We have it, and so do you apparently. And yes, it's contagious. If you haven't yet read this Italian four-novel series about Lila and Lena, the fiercest, smartest and strangest little girls in Naples you are missing out on an immersive world of violence, politics, proto-feminism and dirty words in dialect.

5. Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Helen Garner, praise! This time our national treasure has turned her acute, witty eye to all sorts of topics from friendship and writing to the indignities of old age. The woman can write a sentence hoo boy. 

6. Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

Graham Swift's new fiction is a sensual novella that you will no doubt gobble up in a single sitting. Set in 20th century Britain at a time of intense change, but covering just one afternoon, Mothering Sunday is a little window a world of a simple housemaid, whose life is anything but straightforward. 

7. The Course of Love by Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton shares his thoughts on love, relationships and marriage in this poignantly realistic novel featuring all of our deepest fears, flaws and desires. Love has never sounded so logical than in de Botton's capable hands.

8. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This moving historical novel has been enchanting staff and customers for a while now. If you haven't had a chance to read it - it's not too late to sink into Doerr's stunning sentences and meet characters who will stubbornly lodge in your heart and never leave.
9. Australian Fish & Seafood Cookbook

Delicious fish and seafood. People who know what they're doing tell you how to make it taste good. That is all. So basically, perfection in a cookbook.

10. The Road to Ruin by Niki Savva

Scandal. Controversy. Onions. The Abbot Credlin saga is stranger than fiction and Sava's vicious wit and stable of untold stories will keep you reading and disbelieving until you've thrown your hands and eyebrows up in the air so often you don't bother taking them down again.

11. The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
12. Nutshell by Ian McEwan
13. Dinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent
14. Midnight Watch by David Dyer
15. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
16. Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
17. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
18. Farewell to the Father by Tim Elliott
19. The Noise of Time by Julian barnes
20. The Sellout by Paul Beatty
21. Aunts Up the Cross by Robin Dalton
22. The Secret Recipe for Second Chances by JD Barrett
23. The Dry by Jane Harper
24. The Girls by Emma Cline
25. The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
26. Kings Cross: A Pictorial History by Anne-Marie Whitaker
27. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling
28. The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson
29. Talking to My Country by Stan Grant
30. The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
31. Truly, Madly, Guilty by Liane Moriarty
32. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
33. The Mothers by Brit Bennett
34. Rod Campbell's Aussie Animals
35. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
36. Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty
37. The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick
38. Quarterly Essay 63: The Enemy Within by Don Watson
39. Oi Frog! by Kes Gray
40. Exposure by Helen Dunmore
41. The 78-Story Treehouse by Andy Griffiths 
42. Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance
43. The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest
44. Between a Wolf and a Dog by Georgia Blain
45. The Good People by Hannah Kent
46. A Divided Spy by Charles Cumming
47. Ghost Empire by Richard Fidler
48. Mr Chicken Arriva a Roma by Leigh Hobbs
49. The Riviera Set by Mary Lovell
50. Waters of Eternal Youth by Donna Leon

Happy reading for 2017!

Love the PPBS team