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…

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet, Becky Chamber’s eye-opening debut, brought a bit of humanism into science fiction. Like recent film Arrival, and much of Star Trek, Chambers was interested in using science fiction to explore elements of the human condition through science fiction. You would expect that the sequel would build on Chambers’ rich universe and diverse cast. But Chambers, bravely and successfully, takes a different approach. Focusing on two of peripheral characters from the original book and based mainly in a familiar locale. At the end of Planet, rebooted Artificial Intelligence Lovelace had been illegally installed into a human body-kit and spirited away by fix-it guru Pepper, leaving the crew of the Wayfarer to go on their way. Chambers tells the story of Lovelace, now Sidra, as she adjusts to being in human form and the history of Pepper, who started her life as a throwaway clone and was rescued and raised by a ship’s AI called Owl. Whereas Planet had some semblance of a plot and some secrets among the crewmates to drive the action, Orbit is almost pure character drama. While there is some tension in the fact that Sidra is effectively illegal and…

Crimson Lake by Candice Fox
Crime , Recommended , Review / 13/02/2017

Candice Fox announced herself as an Australian crime writer to watch with her Ned Kelly Award winning debut Hades, followed up a year later by its award winning sequel Eden. The Archer and Bennett series took a couple of fairly recent crime fiction tropes (including the serial killer cop) but Fox made them completely her own. After a shortlisted third in the series and a humdrum collaboration with one-man crime fiction factory James Paterson, Fox launches what is potentially a new series with Crimson Lake. And is, in a few words, absolutely back on form. Crimson Lake is a small tropical town outside of Cairns. It is where Ted Conkaffey has gone to ground after his life fell apart. Conkaffey was a policeman, charged with the brutal assault on a teenage girl but never convicted. He continues to protest his innocence but is scarred by his experience on the other side of the justice system and, not cleared of the crime, is still suspected of being a paedophile. His lawyer hooks him up with local detective Amanda Pharrell. Amanda is in some ways more damaged than Ted, having spent ten years in prison for stabbing a fellow teenager to death….

Fair Rebel by Steph Swainston
Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 30/01/2017

Steph Swainston burst onto the modern fantasy scene back in 2004 with the first of the Fourlands novels The Year of Our War. While there were some familiar elements, Swainston, much like fellow English fantasy authors like China Mieville, created a new type of fantasy world that was undeniably modern. There were no orcs, no elves, no dwarves and no dragons. Instead, the main character was a drug addicted immortal with the ability to fly, wore t-shirts and jeans and helped to fight a centuries long war against an implacable, insectile enemy. Now, ten years after the last main narrative book and five years after a backstory prequel, Swainston explosively returns to the Fourlands. Following a funeral, the narrative drops straight into the most recent push on the insect-dominated Paperlands. Fifteen years have passed since the events of The Modern World, and after a fair gap, even those who have been following the series probably need a reminder of the key elements of this world, although it’s uniqueness makes these details easier to remember. Swainston and her main narrator Jant, also known as Comet the messenger, acknowledge that it has been a long time between drinks and drop in refreshers…

Gemina by Kaufman and Kristoff

The elevator pitch for Gemina goes something like this: imagine a cross between Aliens, Die Hard, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Romeo and Juliet. Not surprising given this is the sequel to the Aurealis-award winning Illuminae (reviewed here), a book that managed to mash up elements from Battlestar Galactica, 2001, 28 Days Later and possibly something by Nicholas Sparks. Gemina, a geek’s delight, has all of these elements and plenty more (even Firefly gets a shoutout). It advances the corporate conspiracy plot of Illuminae while focussing once again a few incredibly resourceful teens. At the end of Illuminae (spoiler alert) the survivors on the Hypatia are heading towards a wormhole that will jump them to a space station called Heimdall. Gemina opens on Heimdall on the eve on an invasion organised by the Beitech Corporation trying to clean up its mess by destroying the Hypatia. Hanna, the daughter of the station commander, Nik, a member of the House of Knives crime gang, and his cousin Ella end up being the only ones standing between the twenty-four armed to the teeth mercenaries and destruction of the Hypatia. Well, them an a bunch of hungry, slimy, four-headed aliens loose on the…

To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

Eowyn Ivey, known for her first novel The Snow Child, takes readers back to a no less mystical Alaskan frontier in her follow-up novel To the Bright Edge of the World. The novel is centred around an expedition in the 1880s to the source of the wild and little known Wolverine River. But it is much more than that, it is a love story of sorts that also touches on the issues of changing nature of the landscape and the relationship that people have with it and the destruction of indigenous Alaskan cultures that followed the arrival of Europeans. The tale is told in a number of strands. The first is mainly through the diaries of Allen Forrester, a military man charged with leading a very small expedition (himself, two men and their guides) to navigate the Wolverine. The second is the diaries of his younger wife Sophie, left behind at a military camp in Canada, and having to deal with her own personal struggles. All of this is set in a meta-narrative of a correspondence between a latter day relative of Forrester’s and the curator of a museum in the modern Wolverine town of Alpine to whom he has sent…

The Waking Fire by Anthony Ryan
Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 03/11/2016

There are many who credit Game of Thrones with the resurgence of the dragon in modern fantasy. But let’s face facts, dragons never really went away. A global fantasy staple from ancient times, (dragons are all over both Eastern and Western mythologies) they have also been the mainstay of some classic modern fantasy classics other than GoT including The Hobbit, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series to name a couple. Despite this venerable history and plenty of pretenders, Anthony Ryan has managed to bring something new to the table with his swashbuckling, vaguely steampunk and hugely entertaining The Waking Fire. Ryan’s world is divided into the Blood-blessed and the non-Blessed. There are few Blessed but they are able to channel power in the blood of the dragons which live only on the remote continent of Arradsia. The blood of different dragons – blue, red, green and black – confers different temporary superhuman powers on the user. But captive breeding and over-hunting has seen the power of dragon blood diminishing. Meanwhile war is brewing between the Corvantine Empire and the rest of the capitalist-driven world ruled by individual corporations. Through these rising tensions Ryan focusses on three characters – Lizzane, spy for the…

Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds is probably best known for multi-book space operas including the Revelation Space series and more recently, Poseidon’s Children. While these books can sometimes be a little ponderous, Revenger is anything but – it has a plucky heroine, space battles, cliffhangers, double crosses, buried treasure and an implacable, violent and possibly mythic foe. Revenger is pre-steampunk far-future retro pirate-homage – from the space craft that fly under sail to the antiquarian speech (people are “coves”, eyes are “lamps”) to the clothes. And while the concept of space pirates is not a new one, the setting is the type of deep, fascinating and ancient-feeling piece of universe building that sets Reynolds’ novels apart. In this universe, the human (aka “monkey”) civilization is spread across a myriad of artificial habitats, in a single solar system that has survived numerous rises and falls. This includes previous and continuing interactions with aliens given common names like Ghosties, Crawlers and Clackers. Sisters Adrana and Arafura Ness, seeking to rebuild the family fortune, sign on with Captain Rackamore (shades of Calico Jack Rackham, a real pirate famous, among other things, for inventing the Jolly Roger) who with his crew, hunts for ancient treasures. But when…

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Literature , Recommended , Review / 20/10/2016

After spending time in the Amazon in the magnificent State of Wonder, Ann Patchett comes home in her latest novel, Commonwealth. The book at first feels like an example of the old Tolstoyan cliché that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. Not that the families in Commonwealth are unhappy, per se, but they are complex. And while at first blush their members seem to fall into identifiable types, nothing is that simple. Commonwealth opens at a christening in 1964. Policeman Fix Keating is celebrating the birth of his second daughter Frannie, little knowing that this party will bring with it a seismic upheaval not only to his life but the lives of two families. Attending almost by accident while trying to escape his own wife and children, Bert Cousins catches sight of Fix’s wife Beverly and the rest is history. In a sometimes circular fashion, Patchett traces the lives of the six Cousins and Keating children who ended up spending summers together in Virginia as they grew up until a tragedy throws them all apart. Patchett’s strength in this book is charting the growth of these characters. All of their life choices and decisions are informed by character and circumstance…

Slaughter Park by Barry Maitland
Crime , Recommended , Review / 07/10/2016

The first book in the Harry Belltree series Crucifixion Creek (reviewed here) signalled a change of pace and setting for Australian crime writer Barry Maitland. He forsook his long running very British Brock and Kolla procedurals for the faster paced, more morally ambiguous Belltree. At the same time replacing the more staid and cool streets of the UK with the brashness and bright sunshine of Sydney. It was a brave move and it paid off. Crucifixion Creek was a great piece of Australian crime fiction, involving shonky developers and bikie gangs in Western Sydney it garnered a nomination for the Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Fiction in 2015. But there was always a deeper story at play connected to the death of Belltree’s famous father, a member of the stolen generation and the first Aboriginal judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court. The second book of the series, Ash Island (reviewed here), also made the Neds short list in 2016. Ash Island broadened out the conspiracies only glimpsed in the first book and provided more clues to the mysteries surrounding the death of the Belltrees senior. But the story suffered a little from middle book syndrome, raising more…

Darktown by Thomas Mullen
Crime , Historical , Recommended , Review / 23/09/2016

A crime novel set in Atlanta in 1948, Darktown uses the genre to shine a light on a point in time in American history and, in doing so, on present day America. Thomas Mullen uses as his jumping off point the true story of the appointment of the first eight black policemen in Atlanta. They do not have an office, instead they are forced to operate out of the basement of a local YMCA. They were not given cars and had to call in white detectives when a matter needed investigation. Distrusted almost as much by the locals in their own, segregated neighbourhoods as by their fellow police officers, they were nevertheless part of the vanguard of a nascent civil rights movement. Lucius Boggs, son of the local preacher and recently returned from the Second World War, is one of the first eight black policemen in Atlanta. He and his fellow recruits are keen to clean up their part of town, rife with bootleggers, gambling and prostitution. To add to their problems, many of those enterprises are either sponsored or actively managed by their white police colleagues who make money from turning a blind eye and who are not keen to see any change to the…

Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

Hot on the heels of Colson Whitehead’s magical realist version on slavery in the antebellum south The Underground Railroad (reviewed here) comes Ben Winter’s alternate history exploring similar issues. Ben Winter’s version of the present is one in which Abe Lincoln was assassinated before the civil war and in the aftermath of that event a compromise was reached in which the Southern states were allowed to maintain slavery. Modern day America still has four slave states (the Hard Four) and has spent the twentieth century as an economic pariah, suffering trade embargoes from Europe but finding alternative markets for its goods in Africa and Asia. The Underground Airlines of the title describes the system in place to help escaped slaves, known in the vernacular as People Under Bond or Peebs, reach the safety of Canada. They are unable to stay even in the free states of the US because of laws which allow Federal Marshalls to recapture and return them. The book opens on Victor, a former slave who managed to escape to the North only to be blackmailed and trained into working for the Marshalls to track down other escaped slaves. But all is not what it seems with…

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

With Black Lives Matter in the news in the US it is perhaps no surprise that fiction and non-fiction explorations of slavery are once again coming to the fore. Fiction which focuses on slavery, while important to an understanding of historical context, also casts a light on current events. Recent films like 12 Years a Slave, the remaking of Roots on TV and now, among a number of new books which take slavery as their focus, comes Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad begins with the origins of the slave trade. The story of Cora’s grandmother who was transported to America and passed through a number of hands before arriving at a cotton plantation in Georgia from which she never left.  But the focus of the novel is on Cora, forced to find her own way after her mother escaped from the plantation, when she was eleven, leaving her behind. Cora, encouraged by a fellow slave, also decides to flee despite the severe and violent consequences of failure. When she does, Cora discovers the underground railroad used to transport escaped slaves North. In Whitehead’s world this is no metaphorical device but an actual railroad dug into the earth by unknown hands, run by white station agents committed…