The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley
Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 19/09/2017

Natasha Pulley burst onto the fantasy scene last year with her stunning debut The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. This slightly steampunk tale of Victorian London was full of charm and whimsy but also beautifully observed, historically fascinating and populated with interesting characters. Now she follows this up with The Bedlam Stacks, and while one character from Filigree Street, at least, makes a brief appearance, no familiarity with that book is required. In fact The Bedlam Stacks, while in some ways initially resembling its predecessor and  a kind of prequel to it, turns out to be a very different beast. It is the 1850s and the East India Company is desperately trying to find a reliable source of quinine to treat malaria. The Peruvians have a monopoly on the cinchona tree, the bark of which is used to produce quinine. Numerous expeditions to the Peruvian interior have failed to bring back viable cuttings of the plant. The company approaches Merrick Tremayne to lead an expedition into the Peruvian interior. Tremayne is a former employee injured in the opium trade and has family connections to Peru through both his father and grandfather. He is to be accompanied by his old naval colleague…

Her by Garry Disher
Historical , Recommended , Review / 14/09/2017

Garry Disher is probably best known for two crime series – the Peninsula Crimes books centred around the police in Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula and the Wyatt books, recently rebooted, which focus on a career thief. But he has other strings to his bow, with both contemporary and historical “literary” novels in his long career. Her, a historical novel set in the northern Victorian countryside in the years following the turn of the century, gives a blunt and confronting look at of the time.   The main character of Her does not even have a name for the first third of the novel. In 1909, at a young age the protagonist is sold by her family to the local scrap man and for years she is only known as “You”. The scrap man already has a wife and a teenager (known as Big Girl) who he possibly acquired in a similar way and who he later gets pregnant. You is put to work, catching rabbits, making items out of scrap and rags for sale and learning how to be a pickpocket and a thief. Life is already tough for the three women and the abusive, manipulative actions of the scrap man towards them make it even tougher.   Disher follows You as she grows up in this environment. When she is older she names herself Lily and goes travelling with the…

On the Java Ridge by Jock Serong
Recommended , Review , Thriller / 11/08/2017

Jock Serong seems to determined to shine a light on every dodgy part of Australian culture. In his Ned Kelly Award winning debut Quota it was the illegal abalone and drug trades in a small coastal town. In his follow up, The Rules of Backyard Cricket it was corruption in professional sport. And now, in On The Java Ridge, he takes on Australia’s border protection attitudes, policies and practices. The Java Ridge is a tour boat for rich Australian surfers. Built to represent an Indonesian fishing vessel, it is taking seven surfers out to remote Indonesian Islands in search of perfect waves. At the same time, people smuggling boat the Takalar has left Indonesia, its passengers, including ten year old Roya, hoping to find refuge in Australia. The two crews come together when the Takalar is wrecked on the fringing reef of a tiny island where the surfers have made camp. Serong has crafted an incredibly tense novel. He does not pull any punches in the plight of the refugees and the surfing party, both thrown into disarray by the wreck and dealing with significant injury and death. And their subsequent search for safety is nerve wracking. At the same time,…

The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham
Crime , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 18/07/2017

Michael Robotham’s crime thrillers stand out from the crowd for a number of reasons. One of these is the psychological depth that he often gives to his “bad guys”. They may do the wrong thing, they may do evil things, but as a reader we can understand at least some of their drivers and motivations. But they are still for the most part, secondary characters. In The Secrets She Keeps, both the criminal and victim are front and centre and the focus is squarely on their motivations and actions. It is the police and investigators that are kept in the background. The Secrets She Keeps alternates its narrative between Agatha and Meghan. At the start of the book both are eight weeks pregnant and both have secrets, damaging secrets, that they are keeping from their families and from the world. Agatha, who opens the book, works in the local supermarket and clearly is having a tough time. You initially have some sympathy for her as she watches successful Meghan and her mothers’ group but the creepiness factor comes in early when it turns out that she is doing more than causally watching Meghan. Meghan, on the other hand, seems to…

Wimmera by Mark Brandi
Crime , Literature , Recommended , Review / 11/07/2017

Mark Brandi’s Wimmera comes with an impressive pedigree even before it was published. It won a Debut Dagger from the British Crime Writer’s Association while still unpublished. Much like Dodgers, another recent Dagger winner from the US, it is takes the coming of age narrative to a dark place, dealing compassionately with a range of contemporary issues along the way. Wimmera starts with a killer first line: “Dad told us never to cross the highway.” The highway, rattling with giant trucks is clearly a dangerous place to hang out. The prologue, which sets the action firmly in country Victoria, hints at something more dangerous, but all we see at that point is a wheelie bin in the river. So that when the main story opens, focussing on 12 year old Ben and his best mate Fab starting Grade 6 in the late 1980s, a pall hangs over the narrative, darkening even further with the suicide of Ben’s young neighbour. Wimmera is told in three acts. The first focusses on Ben and Fab and has a slow decent into darkness. The second jumps forward to Fab as an adult, still living with his mother, working pushing trolleys in the supermarket managed…

Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit was one of the most immersive, original and engaging science fiction books of 2016. It, deservedly, ended up on a number of award shortlists and heralded the arrival of an exciting new voice in the genre. But for all that, Ninefox Gambit felt a little like table setting for a much larger story. The heart of Ninefox Gambit was a military campaign around a particular station that had been captured by the enemy Hafn. This focus left a feeling of so much more of the universe and its various factions and races left to explore. But it was necessary table setting and while it takes a while to get accustomed to the Yoon Ha Lee’s universe in this first book it is an essential primer for the second. Raven Stratagem starts straight after the action of Ninefox Gambit. In the first book, Kel General Cheris was bonded with the disembodied personality of a crazy but extremely effective long dead general Jedao. At the start of Raven Stratagem, Jedao, on the run from his superiors, is fully in control of Cheris’s body and uses his rank to take over a battle fleet. It appears that he…

Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald

The first book of Ian McDonald’s Luna series, New Moon, started slowly but ended with a bang, an all-out attack on one of the five families that control the Moon. After this, readers might have expected McDonald to rest a little on his laurels, calm the pace down, and perhaps slowly build to another climax. But Wolf Moon is not that book. Early on is another massive destructive/action scene which blows any supposed status quo out of the water. And from that point things only get more intense with numerous pay-offs, twists and developments. As the reader keeps being reminded – there are a thousand ways to die on the moon – and McDonald seems intent on exploring all of them. McDonald’s Luna continues to be a masterful piece of world building while being respectful of his fictional predecessors there – particularly Robert Heinlein. Luna is a frontier, an “economic colony” where pretty much anything goes so long as the resources keep flowing. McDonald’s developing world sensibility continues to shine through the polyglot influence on Lunar culture of the five families who controlled those resources – Brazilian, Ghanaian, Russian, Chinese and Australian. McDonald explores this milieu through a large cast…

Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan
Fantasy , Recommended , Young Adult / 23/06/2017

Singing My Sister Down could have been subtitled Margo Lanagan’s Greatest Hits. The title story, which also opens this collection, won a bunch of national and international fantasy awards and was short listed for a number of others. This and nine of the others stories come from earlier collections of Lanagan’s work, the multihued – White Time, Black Juice, Red Spikes and Yellowcake – many of which were also shortlisted for or won their own awards. So these hand picked stories might be considered the best of Lanagan’s best, clearly putting her in an international league of great fantasy short story writers. Singing My Sister Down, the story of a family come to watch the ritual killing of one of their members – consigned to sink into a tar pit – is starkly effective. Many of the other stories are built around ideas that can only lead to trouble – a man who kills clowns, the person who ferries the dead, a magician spurned. Some of the others, particularly two new stories written for this collection are off-kilter retellings of well known fairy tales – Sleeping Beauty in Not Quite Ogre and The Princess and the Frog in The Wood-Queen’s…

Gravity Well by Melanie Joosten
Literature , Recommended , Review / 14/06/2017

Melanie Joosten won the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist Award in 2011 for her first novel Berlin Syndrome which has recently been made into a film. Her second novel, Gravity Well is the story of two women wrapped around a tragedy that has impacted on both of their lives. Lotte, an astronomer is planning to come home from Chile after five years working at a mountaintop observatory. She has been searching the skies for exoplanets, Earth-like planets orbiting distant stars but, for reasons that only later become clear, is now coming home to Australia. Nine months later, Eve is running away from her life. Hastily equipped with a tent and basic supplies she pitches up at a quiet caravan park on the southern coast of Victoria where she immerses herself in her grief. Something tragic has happened to Eve, but the details of that tragedy unfold only slowly as Eve herself comes to terms with her life. Spinning backwards from these events is the long and rich history between Lotte and Eve. Lotte, the daughter of a woman who instilled in her a love of the stars but died from a cancer that she herself may have inherited. And…

House of Names by Colm Toibin

Plenty of modern authors have taken their hand to mythology. Neil Gaiman and AS Byatt have both had a go at Norse Mythology and recently Margaret Atwood retold the story of Penelope. Now Booker Prize winning Irish novelist Colm Tóibín, possibly better known for more sedate novels such as the recent Brooklyn, takes a turn at some bloody Greek mythology. House of Names retells the story of Clytemnestra and her children Iphigenia, Electra and Orestes. Clytemnestra was the wife of Agamemnon, known for winning the Trojan wars. But it was not an easy start to his campaign, the gods prevented his ships from leaving and he was told that he would need to sacrifice his oldest daughter Iphigenia to appease them. Tricked into bringing Iphigenia to the camp to be married to Achilles, Clytemnestra has to watch as her daughter is taken for sacrifice. She spends the next years plotting her revenge against her husband, allying herself with the slippery Aegisthus to do so. But the killing of Agamemnon puts in motion another round of revenge and retribution when Orestes is taken captive and, on his return, plots with his sister Electra to kill their mother. Tóibín uses different narrative techniques for Clytemnestra,…

A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert

Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy in Winter, explores the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine and the impact on its Jewish population by focusing on one small village.  There is always a question whether we need more books set in World War II. But in an age of continuing Holocaust denial and ongoing genocidal wars, reliving, remembering and investigating this time becomes more and more important. When the book opens two small boys are running through the night, it will be some time before Seiffert catches up with them again, by which time they will be truly on their own. The next morning, the SS and the Ukrainian police round up all of the Jews in the village and march them to a holding area. In keeping with the sharp focus of this book, the process is told through the eyes of the elderly school master and his elderly mother who are beaten as they are herded through the town. The rest of the local populace does nothing but watch through shuttered windows as their former neighbours are taken from their homes. Seiffert’s narrative ranges across a diverse cast of characters. One is Otto Pohl, an engineer who has been employed by…

The Liar by Steve Cavanagh
Crime , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 17/05/2017

Eddie Flynn, con man turned lawyer is back and once again it is not long before he is in all types of trouble. Trouble that only a man with his unique skill set and view of the world can even begin the sort out. The combination of roguish law breaking and courtroom antics are what have made the previous two Eddie Flynn outings (The Defense and The Plea) so much fun. The Liar is no exception. The first third of The Liar charts the course of one night that Eddie would probably rather forget. Besides being served with a subpoena in a lawsuit that is going after his old mentor Harry, Eddie is called to help out Lenny, an old family friend from his grifter days. Lenny has made his money specialising in helping with kidnap cases and ransoms. When his own daughter is kidnapped Lenny looks to Eddie to help him outsmart not just the kidnappers but the FBI and police who he believe will get her killed. Immediately, Eddie is using his conman skills to help Lenny out. He may be on a legal retainer but the law is a long way away. Six months later, the action…

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag
Literature , Recommended , Review / 09/05/2017

Vivek Shanbhag has published eight works of fiction and two plays in his native South Indian language of Kannada. Ghachar Ghochar is the first of these to be translated into English, the translation by Srinath Perur. The title itself, which sounds like it could be the name of an Indian pickle or dessert, does not actually translate. It is a phrase invented by the family of one of the characters used to describe a situation where something has become completely tangled to the point where it cannot be easily untangled. The narration starts in a café called Coffee House. The narrator, who is never named, spends much of his days there, seeking respite from “domestic skirmishes”. He is supported in this by his wealthy uncle (“chikappa”) whose business acumen in creating a spice company has raised the family from near poverty into the Indian middle class. It is clear early on that the extended family will do anything to protect that source of wealth. In this short tale, the narrator works his way through the family history and through the family charting their change in circumstances and the effect that it has on them all. As he observes: “We thought…

The Restorer by Michael Sala

When The Restorer opens, Richard, a neighbour, is watching a family move in to the burnt out wreck of the house next door. From the outside this is a nuclear family – father Roy, mother Maryanne, an eight year old boy Daniel and a teenage girl Freya. But both Richard and the reader can sense from his first interactions with Roy that something is not quite right. Michael Sala’s new novel, part coming of age story, part (recent) historical fiction centres around abuse within a family. Domestic violence is emerging as a theme of some recent Australian literature. Not long ago we had Katheryn Heyman’s Storm and Grace which focused on an abusive, destructive relationship. But domestic violence has also raised its head in recent debuts by Holly Throsby and Cassandra Austin. As the family move their possessions into the house a storm is brewing. The narrative that follows reflects that on coming storm. Roy is trying to be the man that his wife desperately wants him to be. He throws himself into the restoration of the house as if it is his personal metaphor and that its renewal will be enough to demonstrate his fidelity and love. But as the…

Spoils by Brian van Reet
Historical , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 28/04/2017

In Spoils, Brian Van Reet returns to the early days of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. By following the lives of two US soldiers and one of the mujahideen, he creates a visceral but nuanced exploration of that conflict. The book opens with a firefight at a road crossing outside an Iraqi village which the American troops have nicknamed Triangletown. Specialist Cassandra Wigheard, a female gunner is wounded and captured by the mujahideen. Van Reet then flicks back in time to explore how she and the mujahideen arrived at that point, including the view of a second soldier, Sleed, who fails to support Cassandra’s platoon as he was too busy looting an Iraqi palace. About half way through, van Reet returns to this present and the plight of Cassandra and her two crew mates captured by the mujahideen cell and occasionally on the army’s hunt for them. Inside the mujahideen cell itself there is dissent around what to do with the prisoners, their new leader seeing opportunity for propaganda. This is a small story in the context of the broader war. The initial conflict is a limited roadside firefight and the characters are a long way down the chain of command….

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

John Scalzi kicks off his new space opera series with a mutiny, gun running and the potential of space pirates. There is also plenty of exposition about hyperspace lanes known as the Flow but delivered with such verve that it is a joy to read. The mix of high concept science fiction and a slightly tongue in cheek tone should come as no surprise from the author who gave us both the Old Man’s War series and the award winning Redshirts. Scalzi is not backwards in building his universe from some fairly common tropes – there is an empire ruled by an emperox who is also head of the church and the most powerful trading guild, there are noble families, mainly also connected with trading guilds, and arcane trade relationships. The empire itself, known as the Interdependency is a bunch of planets that can only exist by relying on trade with each other facilitated by the mysterious and not well understood Flow lanes. But the Flow is breaking down, potentially isolating and condemning to failure, all of the interdependent outposts of the Empire. So that even before his scenario is fully understood, Scalzi has started to tear it all apart…

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel
Crime , Literature , Recommended , Review / 06/04/2017

Right from the prologue, Amy Engel’s first novel for adults announces itself as, well, a novel for adults. A young girl has a dream about the place in Kansas that her mother came from. Was it a nightmare? Her mother asks. No, she replies. Then it isn’t right, her mother says. And as the story of Lane, her mother and her mother’s extended family unfolds, as a reader, you can not help feeling that her mother knew what she was talking about. Lane is fifteen when her mother commits suicide and she is taken to live with her grandparents and cousin Allegra on the family estate called Roanoke in rural Kansas. For reasons that become abundantly clear fairly early on, Lane ended up running away but is drawn back, eleven years later when Allegra disappears. The story alternates between that long ago summer and the present, building to some explosive revelations along the way. Lane is one of the latest in a line of Roanoke girls, including her mother, aunt and great aunt  who either died or ran away from the place. So that Allegra’s disappearance should not come as a great surprise. That Lane and Allegra are both damaged…

Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel

Lovers of books about giant, human driven robots rejoice! Sylvain Neuvel has delivered a worthy and engaging sequel to his giant robot building debut Sleeping Giants. Waking Gods takes up the story ten years after the end of the first book – the giant robot Themis has become a promotional tool for the Earth Defence Corp and while individual countries would love to get their hands on it for themselves has stayed under the control of the UN. Mystery still surrounds the (SPOILER!) reappearance of scientist Rose Franklin, who is trying to deal with the fact that another version of herself was the one who got the project off the ground. Neuvel immediately shakes up the status quo with the appearance of another giant robot in the centre of London. This sets the second book up to be very different to the first. These new robots are as powerful as Themis and have a seemingly deadly intent. With Themis outnumbered and outgunned, Waking Gods becomes a race against time as the world tries to discover what these invaders want or destroy them before humanity is wiped out. Waking Gods is told in the same style as the first book –…

Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty
Crime , Historical , Recommended , Review / 27/03/2017

It is a common trope in crime fiction that the protagonist detective often finds themselves in some sort of mortal peril. So much so that it starts to feel like a bit of cliché.  But for Sean Duffy, a Catholic policeman in a mainly Protestant police force in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, mortal peril is just a fact of life. From the first book in this award winning crime series Sean has been checking under his car for mercury tilt switches every time he leaves his house. So it comes as no surprise to long term fans that book 6, sporting the mouthful name Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly, opens with Sean being marched to his execution through a remnant patch of Irish forest. But, being Sean, as he puffs his way asthmatically through a bog he still manages to keep his mordant sense of humour: “A bullet in the head will fix an incipient asthma attack every time.” Flashback to Sean visiting his parents with his girlfriend and new baby Emma and being relieved to be called back to Carickfergus to investigate the murder of a small time drug dealer. From the start his…

City of Secrets by Stewart O’Nan

Stewart O’Nan explores the world of terrorists and terrorism in a historical context in City of Secrets. Set in Jerusalem in 1946, O’Nan focuses on the exploits of Jewish resistance fighters, working to end the British Mandate of Palestine. The central player in City of Secrets is Brand, a Lithuanian survivor who lost his wife, parents and sister in the Holocaust. Brand only survived himself due to his mechanical skills and a survival instinct that saw his fellow prisoners die while he stood by, a failure that still haunts him. Washing up in post-war Palestine he joins the Haganah, a group of Jewish resistance fighters and takes on a false identity as Jossi, a taxi driver in Jerusalem. The Haganah was a more moderate resistance force and had joined with the British during World War Two, while the more extreme groups Irgun and Stern Gang continued their bombing campaign. Now, with the war over and the British turing away Jewish refugees, Brand and his fellow activists are drawn into the Irgun. As the violence of their campaign escalates so do the risks of getting caught. At the same time Brand is in a desperate relationship with Eva, a fellow survivor…