Newcomer by Keigo Higashino
Crime , Recommended , Review / 14/12/2018

Keigo Higashino is one of Japan’s best selling crime novelists. He has won and been nominated for a number of Japanese and international crime awards, has a number of long running series and a number of books turned into films. His latest book to be translated into English (by translator Giles Murray), Newcomer, shows again why that is the case. Helpfully, Newcomer opens with a cast of characters. Most of the list are associated with one of a number of shops – a rice cracker shop, a Japanese restaurant, a china shop and so on. And the action for the most part happens in and around these shops clustered in the central Tokyo suburb of Nihonbashi. A woman has been murdered, she was a newcomer to the area. The murder is being investigated by the Tokyo Metropolitan police homicide division with the help of newly transferred local detective Kaga, a regular from Higashino’s fiction. Kaga, himself new to the area, works the case by chasing down connections with each of the shops listed in front of the book, at the same time dipping into the lives of the people who work in them. And each shop hides not only a…

November Road by Lou Berney
Crime , Historical , Recommended , Review / 07/12/2018

The Kennedy assassination is the literary gift that keeps on giving. Authors like Don Delillo, James Ellroy, Norman Mailer, Tim Baker and Stephen King just to name a few have used the assassination as the jumping off point to tell bigger stories. Lou Berney goes the other way. In November Road, the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath is used to tell an intimate tale of love and loss, with plenty of blood and violence along the way. Frank Guidry is a hood with not a huge serving of morals. Based in New Orleans, he works for the Marcello crime organisation. When November Road opens he is selling out his friends and sleeping with a string of women. Then the Kennedy assassination happens and it turns out that he may have tangentially been involved, having a few days before organised for a car to be waiting at a particular spot in Dallas. This was the getaway car for the actual shooter and before long Guidry has been given the job to make that car disappear. Only he quickly realises that, as a loose end, once this is done he too will be made to disappear. While he does not know it…

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Pat Barker came to prominence in the 1990s with her trilogy of novels set in the First World War (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road), the third of which took out the Booker Prize. In The Silence of the Girls she goes much further back in time, to the Trojan Wars. This story, told in The Iliad, has been reinterpreted and retold many times. Barker takes a new tack, telling the story not from the perspective of the soldiers but the women who were their chattels and their prizes and their slaves. The Iliad opens with an argument between Achilles and Agamemnon over a woman. That woman is Briseis, a prize of war claimed by Achilles earlier in the campaign. Barker opens her book earlier in time, with Briseis watching as Achilles and his troops sack her city and kill her family. She and the other women are taken back to the Greek camp and distributed as prizes. Briseis, the biggest prize, is ‘awarded’ to Achilles. Through Briseis’s story, Barker explores how women are used, abused, marginalised, ignored and blamed. Early in the book,  Briseis is brought as a child bride to King Mynes and ends up…

The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell
Crime , Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 30/11/2018

Paraic O’Donnell’s debut novel The Maker of Swans was one of the standout fantasy novels of 2016. In a genre that often deals in warmed over tropes, The Maker of Swans was a work of beguiling originality. So the question was, how would O’Donnell follow this debut up. Much like another debutant of the previous year, Natasha Pulley, he does so with an emphatic change in direction which maintains the features that made his debut so enjoyable. The Maker of Swans was set in a more contemporary time but always had the feel of a more Victorian novel. The House on Vesper Sands is Victorian so allows O’Donnell more licence to lean into period flourishes (also drawing further comparisons with Pulley’s works which are both set in this era). In the cold open a seamstress, suffering from some undisclosed medical condition, who is brought to the house of Lord Strythe late at night to complete a secret commission commits suicide. The story proper opens with young Gideon Bliss coming down from Cambridge to see his uncle and failing to find him runs into a young woman from his past. At the same time, society reporter Octavia Hillingdon has happened on…

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson has spent a bit of time recently in the Second World War. While researching her previous book A God in Ruins she came across the story of Jack King, a bank clerk who helped in the early days of the war to entrap Nazi sympathisers in Britain. This true story became the inspiration for her latest novel, Transcription, which has the feel of a spy novel although one that is on occasion slyly winking at its audience. Transcription opens in 1981, ageing Juliet Armstrong is knocked over while crossing the road. Nesting backwards, the accident sends her memory back to 1950 when she worked at the BBC and then, remembering how she caught site of someone she worked with during the war, back further to 1940. In 1940, Juliette was recruited by MI5 to help them with a sting operation. Godfrey Toby has been cultivating local fascists and Nazi sympathisers. Juliet’s job is to sit in the flat next door and transcribe the conversations between Toby and his marks. Later she is also recruited to go undercover and infiltrate a circle of sympathisers. Neither job ends quite the way Juliet expects and she is concerned that the repercussions…

The Cold Summer by Gianrico Carofiglio
Crime , Recommended , Review / 19/11/2018

Much like the spy thrillers penned by former head of MI5 Stella Rimington, Italian author Gianrico Carofilgio brings a significant amount of authenticity to his crime novels. Carofiglio was an Italian senator but before that he was an anti-mafia prosecutor. He is best known for a crime series featuring lawyer Guido Guerrieri but in his new book The Cold Summer he comes even closer to home with a protagonist who is a police investigator and an investigation that takes place during an internal mafia war in the early 1990s. A war seems to have broken out in the Apulian mafia of the Bari area. Due to the codes of silence and honour the police are playing catch-up. But then a rumour gets around that the son of the mafia godfather Grimaldi has been kidnapped and everything heats up. The first third of the book deals with the police trying to get to the bottom of a kidnapping that no one will talk about and which has tragic results. The second third explores the mafia war in detail. One of the instigators  of that war hands himself in to the police to prove he had nothing to do with the kidnapping…

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Ghost Wall, the sixth book by British author Sarah Moss, is as short and sharp as a flint knife. The book is a coming-of-age tale that explores the power of the past to inform and drive action. Along the way, Moss deeply questions the Brexit movement and gender power dynamics. Ghost Wall opens in prehistoric times, with the death of an Iron Age woman at the hands of her tribe. Cut to almost modern day, sometime not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and teenage Sylvie and her parents have joined a university project conducting an experiment in living archaeology in the Northumbrian countryside. The aim of the project is for the family, along with the professor and his three young adult students, to live as far as possible as people did in the Iron Age. As Sylvie observes: … that was the whole point of the re-enactment, that we ourselves become the ghosts, learning to walk the land as they walked it two thousand years ago, to tend our fire as they tended theirs and hope that some of their thoughts, their way of understanding the world, would follow the dance of muscle and bone. To do…

The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

It has been over 65 years since Asimov published the first of his Foundation series in which a group of scientists come up with a plan to save a dying galactic federation. While the Foundation trilogy is seminal science fiction, many readers these days find it a bit of a slog. John Scalzi’s Interdepency series takes a similar premise but has given it a modern spin in the vein of contemporaries like James SA Corey, Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee but with his own brand of verve and wit. The Consuming Fire picks up not long after the end of The Collapsing Empire. The flow lanes, which connect the planets of the Interdependency and are necessary for their survival, are shutting down and the route to the one planet that might sustain survivors is blocked. While the first book concerned itself with the discovery of the impending end of everything and for that reason sometimes felt like a lengthy prologue, this book gets down into the consequences of knowing that the Empire is under threat and exploring how people respond to that knowledge. The book opens with the emperox, Grayland II, announcing that she has had visions of the…

Severance by Ling Ma

When Severance opens the apocalypse is underway and people are madly googling survival tips before the internet ‘cave[s] into a sinkhole’ and the electrical grid shuts down. Yes, it is another post-apocalyptic survival tale. But like many recent post-apocalypses, the humanity-ending event is kind of beside the point. Instead, in Severance Ling Ma has written an ode to the Millennial generation and the intensely, insanely capitalist world in which they live, but with zombies … sort of. When the book goes back to the beginning of its tale, Candace is contemplating her future. She is in a fading relationship with Jonathan. Disillusioned with life in New York, he wants to leave the rat race and move to the country. He wants to avoid the future, which he sees as: … more exponentially exploding rents. The future is more condo buildings, more luxury housing bought by shell companies of the globally wealthy. The future is more Whole Foods, aisles of refrigerated cut fruit packaged in plastic containers. The future is more Urban Outfitters, more Sephoras, more Chipotles. The future just wants more consumers. The future is more newly arrived grads and tourists in some fruitless search for authenticity … But their…

The Lost Man by Jane Harper
Crime , Recommended , Review / 23/10/2018

Jane Harper burst onto the crime scene with The Dry, a book set in a small Victorian rural community beset by drought. Her second book, Force of Nature returned with the character of Aaron Falk as investigator and while there are few easter egg connections to The Dry, her third book The Lost Man is a standalone mystery. In some ways it covers similar territory to The Dry – a rural community, an apparent or possible suicide and plenty of secrets – but shows a development in confidence and style. The book opens with the discovery of a body. Cameron Bright has been found, dead from dehydration, at the lonely single grave of a long forgotten stockman. It appears that he walked nine kilometres from his vehicle, became disoriented and never made it back. The place is outback Queensland, 1500 km west of Brisbane where pastoral properties are the size of, well, pick any smallish country in Europe. It is a large, empty landscape in which it is easy to go missing, cars are sporadic and people stay in touch by radio. And in summer the heat is relentless, unforgiving and potentially deadly. Cameron is the middle of three brothers…

Snap by Belinda Bauer
Crime , Recommended , Review / 15/10/2018

The members of the Booker Prize Committee were very proud of themselves when they longlisted a crime novel for the 2018 Booker. With Peter Temple having won a Miles Franklin a few years back it feels like Australia might be a little ahead of the game in recognising that crime genre fiction can be (and often is) “literary” enough to be considered for these awards. Unfortunately Belinda Bauer’s Snap did not make the Booker shortlist, but hopefully this represents a chink in the armour. The book opens with a tragedy. It is 1998 and eleven year-old Jack and his two younger sisters have been left in a broken-down car by the side of the M5 while their mother goes to find a phone. Their mother never returns. Three years later the children are living on their own, their father having left them, all still traumatised in some way by the events of that day. Jack has become a thief to support his siblings and he always holds on to the idea that he can find his mother’s killer. At the same time, heavily pregnant Catherine scares off a burglar but returns to her bed to find a wicked looking knife…

At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong
Literature , Recommended , Review / 10/10/2018

In At Dusk, award winning Korean author Hwang Sok-Yong delivers another beautifully observed tale of lives impacted by the developments that have swept his country in the last fifty years. The book opens with Park Minwoo, a successful architect receiving more than one call from the past, forcing him to revisit and reconsider the path he has taken to success and what it has cost him. At the same time, a young, struggling playwright Jung Woohee lives a hand to mouth existence in the pursuit of her craft and slowly gets drawn into Park’s story. At Dusk is a book about memory – how we remember things and the spin we put on those events. Park Minwoo, on the way to visit an old friend from the village where he was born considers this on the way: … I’d long ago resolved not to care too much about a world that didn’t care about me in return, and had therefore distanced myself from him aswell… After a while, being ambitious means having to sift out the few values we feel like keeping and toss out the rest, or twist them to suit ourselves. Even the tiny handful of values that…

Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Rosewater is a first contact story, an alien encounter story, but it takes a while to get there, a story about humans with mutant-style powers, at times a zombie story. Tade Thompson takes his time, delivering a multi-dimensional mosaic that reveals as much as it hides. But he makes the journey worthwhile and the pay-off sticks hard. Kaaro lives in the town of Rosewater, a donut shaped metropolis, only a few years from being a shanty town, that has grown up surrounding a giant alien dome.  Rosewater sits in the middle of Nigeria, a few hours drive from the capital Lagos. The dome was not the first arrival of aliens, but appears to be the most permanent. The first contact occurred back in 2012 in London and brought with it a seeding of the atmosphere with a fungus that has led to a range of powers in certain individuals. Since that time America has “gone dark” – nothing and nobody comes in or out and no one knows is this is because aliens have taken over or whether America has quarantined itself against invasion or infection. No one goes in or out of the dome but once a year the…

The Plotters by Un-Su Kim
Crime , Literature , Recommended , Review / 04/09/2018

Move over Scandi-crime and possibly even Aussie-crime – the next wave of page-turning, gut wrenching, crime fiction might well be coming out of Korea. Although this is probably something the Koreans already knew given that Un Su Kim’s novel The Plotters, his first to be translated into English, was released in Korea in 2010. The Plotters is a pitch black look at a world of assassins and assassinations but it is much more than this, as Kim delves into the lives of not only the main character but those around them. Kim’s text has been skilfully translated by Sora Kim-Russell who has also translated the works of celebrated Korean author Hwang Sok-yong. When the book opens assassin Reseng is on a mountainside, watching his next victim through the scope on his rifle, deciding whether or not to pull the trigger. He doesn’t and ends up spending the night drinking with the old ex-general, hearing a long, shaggy story about a whale hunter. This opening sets the tone for the whole book, bleakly fatalistic leavened with moments of profound character revelations. Reseng, it turns out was abandoned as a baby and raised in an old library by an assassin runner called Old…

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

In Becky Chambers’ previous Wayfarer books she has taken some standard science fiction tropes – space truckers, galactic confederacies, aliens, artificial intelligence – and given them a thoughtful and humanist spin. In Record of a Spaceborn Few she does the same again, this time tackling another scifi standard – the generation ship. While it is set in the same universe as the previous Wayfarer books and there are some tangential connections, Record can easily be read as a standalone. Many generations ago, humanity packed up its collective belongings and fled a crumbling Earth in a fleet of thirty-two generation ships headed to parts of the galaxy unknown. Following contact with advanced alien species, the Exodan Fleet parked itself around a star and humanity slowly spread out again. While no longer travelling, the Fleet remained, as did much of its population, continuing to live the way their ancestors did (with a little alien technological assistance). Record follows a group of characters aboard one of the remaining Fleet ships. They are of all ages and from all walks of life. Chambers uses these characters to dig deeply into Exodan society and in particular the constant tension between development and tradition. They go…

The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan
Crime , Recommended , Review / 10/08/2018

It has been another great year for Australian crime debuts and Derval McTiernan’s The Rùin continues this run. Much like Adrian McKinty, McTiernan sets her first Cormac Reilly novel in the old country, aka Ireland. But her take, while still procedural, is more contemporary and less overtly political. The book opens twenty years before the main action. Reilly, a fresh faced rookie policeman, is driving down a dark country road looking for the source of a call about a domestic. He does not expect what he finds – Maud, a self-possessed fifteen year old girl, her five year old brother Jack and their single mother, dead of a heroin overdose. Reilly takes the children to a local hospital where Maud disappears and Jack goes into the care system. Twenty years later, now detective Reilly moves back to Galway from Dublin where, for his sins, he is put on cold cases. After the apparent suicide of now twenty-five year old Jack and the reappearance of his sister Maud, Reilly is handed their mother’s cold case to reinvestigate. The narrative follows not only Reilly but Aishling, Jack’s pregnant girlfriend. Aishling believes the original theory that Jack may have committed suicide but is…

The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers

The Seventh Cross is not a new book, at least not in the usual sense. It is a new translation of a book written by Anna Seghers, an author from a Jewish family that had fled Germany and was living in Paris in the late 1930s. The book itself, written before the start of the Second World War is not about that war or the Holocaust. But Seghers could see all of these coming and her novel allows readers to trace a line from the totalitarian, anti-semitic, fascist attitudes of the mid-1930s to the Germany that plunged the world into war less than five years later. The Seventh Cross is set in 1935 and centres around an escape from the concentration camp. The camp had been established to punish political prisoners. Although it turns out that the definition of a political prisoner is anyone who the local authorities don’t particularly like. Seven men escape and, as they are recaptured they are strung up against a row of trees at the entrance to the camp as punishment and warning to others. These are crosses of the title. The seventh cross is reserves for George Heisler, the escapee that Seghers spends the most…

Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth
Historical , Recommended , Review / 01/08/2018

Australian author Paul Howarth’s debut novel is a blood soaked, confronting exploration of the Australian frontier of the late nineteenth century. Not for the faint of heart, this coming of age story is reminiscent of the works of modern American western writers like Cormac McCarthy. When the book opens it is 1885, Billy and Tommy are sixteen and fourteen year-olds living on their family property in the drought affected wilds of central Queensland, in North-Eastern Australia. Their father is just managing to eke out a subsistence living on a slowly dying property while also feuding with his much more powerful neighbour John Sullivan. The boys’ world is thrown into disarray when they come home from a day out to find their mother and father dead and their younger sister shot. They ride to the neighbouring Sullivan property where they are quickly convinced that the culprits are members of the local Aboriginal tribe, the Kurrong. Sullivan has been steadily trying to wipe the Kurrong out and uses the boys to bring in the sadistic head of the Native Police, Noone. The two, fuelled by thoughts of revenge, are allowed to ride out with Sullivan, Noone and his posse of Aboriginal trackers…

Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh
Crime , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 18/07/2018

Steve Cavanagh’s Eddie Flynn legal thrillers have been one of the best thing to happen to the courtroom drama in a long time. Part of the reason is that Cavanagh is continually trying to work out how to top himself in terms of upping the tension on his protagonist. And when the first book, The Defence, started with Flynn being strapped into an explosive vest and having his daughter kidnapped, the bar has always been pretty high. The premise of the fourth Eddie Flynn novel is irresistible. Joshua Kane is a high functioning, socially disconnected serial killer who does not feel pain. And he has a plan. But while Kane’s story is very much part of the narrative, his connection to the high profile case that Flynn has been brought in on only emerges slowly. Flynn has been hired by high flying lawyer Rudy Carp to second chair on the defence of movie star Bobby Solomon, accused of murdering his wife and their security guard. Flynn, with his radar for guilt and innocence, believes that Bobby is innocent and takes the case. Before long Kane’s roll in this affair becomes clear as he is not only the actual killer but…