And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 15/11/2018

You could imagine the elevator pitch for Patrick Ness’s new novel And the Ocean Was Our Sky: “Think Moby Dick, but from the whale’s point of view”. But while Moby Dick is a touchstone, fantasy writer Ness, responsible for A Monster Calls, the Chaos Walking trilogy and the Doctor Who spinoff Class, takes this well known story into new territory. The book opens with “Call me Bathsheba” a riff on that famous opening line. Bathsheba is a whale who has been told that she has a destiny as a hunter of men. In Bathsheba’s world, whales hunt humans as much as humans hunt whales in a war that seems to never have an end. The whales carry harpoons and drag boats behind them underwater as a way of storing and transporting human bodies which they use as resources. These whales have developed an underwater civilization and have a breathing technology that enables them to only venture to the ocean’s surface, known as the Abyss, infrequently. Bathsheba’s story centres around a hunt for the great white ship of legendary whale killer Toby Wick. After picking up the lone survivor of a massacre of humans which hints at the work of Wick,…

Wintering by Krissy Kneen
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 13/11/2018

People have been disappearing in the Australian fictional landscape for years. In Picnic at Hanging Rock, the disappearance and of a group of girls is seen through the eyes of those left behind, having to deal with the “menace” of the unknowable bush. Wintering starts with a similar premise. Jessica is a PhD student researching glowworms in the far south of Tasmania. She lives with Matthew, a local who, it emerges fairly quickly, completely dominates her life. But then Matthew disappears in mysterious circumstances, his car abandoned by the side of the road, impenetrable forest on either side and a strange video on his phone. With his disappearance, Jessica finds herself both trapped by grief and free at the same time. Krissy Kneen sets the creepy tone of this book early with Jessica’s discovery of a possum corpse impaled on a stalagmite in a tourist cave. After Matthew’s disappearance the creepiness ratchets up as Jessica finds herself isolated in her shack, unable to shake the feeling that she is being watched by something malevolent. Once she starts to establish a connection with the local townsfolk she also learns that she is the thirteenth “widow” whose husband or boyfriend has vanished…

Tree Spirits and Other Strange Tales by Michael Eisele
Fantasy , Review / 09/11/2018

Michael Eisele’s latest book of short stories, as the name suggests, is full of spirits and fae creatures and is rich in mythology. The opening story “Mouse” is one of many stories in this collection where humans interact with otherworldly beings and so sets the tone for most of the book. In this story, a struggling artist finds that his mentor is caring for a small spirit creature that has lived in the town from when the town was still a forest. The artist is inspired to paint a canvas of the spirit creature’s lost world, a painting that opens up much more. In “Tree Spirit”, a wood carver makes a deal with the spirit of a fallen tree to turn her into a boat so they can both see the world. In these, and many of the other tales of deals with the spirit world, the outcome is driven by the mythology that the spirits inhabit and is never quite what the humans might have expected. Many stories follow a similar trajectory of discovery, interaction and twisted resolution but draw on a range of different traditions, including Irish, Germanic and Native American. While many of the stories feel like…

The Anomaly Michael Rutger
Review , Thriller / 08/11/2018

The Anomaly is an old school adventure story, if your school is action movies of the 1980s and 1990s. A cross between Indiana Jones, the works of Dan Brown and the X-Files, The Anomaly follows a group of documentary makers in search of the unknown who, never thinking they will actually find it, stumble on an ancient mystery. What follows is a thriller that ticks all of the haunted house boxes. Nolan Moore is a washed up screenwriter who is scraping by making a web-based TV series called The Anomaly Files. In the show he pursues hidden secrets, myths and conspiracies. He never actually finds any but he tells a good story. In this case he is planning to tell the story of a mysterious cave found in the depths of the Grand Canyon by some explorers in the 19th Century. Bankrolled by a new sponsor, Nolan sets off with his crew and a journalist, to see if he can locate the cave. But when he actually manages to find it and is trapped inside with his crew, an ancient mechanism is triggered and all hell breaks loose. Michael Rutger (pen name of British novelist Michael Marshall Smith) is, according…

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…

Thin Air by Richard Morgan
Review , Science Fiction / 05/11/2018

Richard Morgan returns to science fiction after a bit of a break with a sequel of sorts to his last scifi outing Black Man (called Thirteen in the US). That break has seen the Netflix adaptation of his best known scifi work (and debut) Altered Carbon. Those who have read or seen Altered Carbon might find themselves experiencing a strange sense of déjà vu when reading his latest book Thin Air. Hakan Veil is an overrider. Genetically engineered from before birth to be a supersoldier, he is forced to spend four months of every year in hibernation. When he emerges from that state he “runs hot”, prone to anger and violence. When Thin Air opens, Veil has just been woken and is on an assassination mission in the nightclubs of Mars. Veil was decommissioned from the overriders and exiled to Mars where he makes a living working for underworld figures. Mars is a frontier world, riddled with gangs, corruption and vice, a milieu that Veil slots into perfectly. At one level Thin Air is a crime story and political thriller although it takes a long time to get there. Veil is assigned to one of the auditors who has come…

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…

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
Literature , Review / 31/10/2018

Washington Black is the second book for Esi Edugyan to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It mixes brutal realism and social commentary with a quixotic fantasy with steampunk trimmings that takes its protagonist across the globe. Washington Black is a young slave on a Barbados sugar plantation called Faith in 1830. The reader finds out that he is soon to be free but the sting is in the journey that gets him there and the way he is treated once he attains that status. Life on Faith is hard and becomes harder when the plantation owner dies and the running is taken over by the violent Erasmus Wilde, a man who sees the slave population as inhuman and expendable. Erasmus arrives with his brother Christopher, a dreamer and scientists who is building a flying machine that he calls the Cloud Cutter. Christopher, aka Titch, asks for and is given the young Black as a servant and goes to work making his dreams a reality. When the brothers learn that their father has died, Titch flees with Black in tow beginning a years-long odyssey. Black’s journeying takes him to Virginia, the arctic where he is abandoned by Titch, Newfoundland, England,…

Thylacines by Deborah Sheldon
Review , Science Fiction / 26/10/2018

The characters in Deborah Sheldon’s new horror novella Thylacines had clearly never read or seen  Jurassic Park. Scientist Rose Giuliani works in the Resurrection Lab at the usually sleepy Fraser University outside of Melbourne. Rose and her team have brought the extinct thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, a marsupial carnivore extinct since the 1930s, back to life through DNA extraction and cloning. This work has actually been postulated in real life by Professor Mike Archer, formerly of the Australian National Museum. But, as readers (and viewers) of Jurassic Park already know, bringing extinct species back to life is an endeavour fraught with risk. Rose has managed to raise a successful litter of five thylacines. But even she admits that these are not ordinary thylacines. They are more than twice the size of the original animal and super-aggressive.  At the same time as a visit by representatives for the company that funds their research, a group of incompetent animal libbers break in and manage release the animals. The groups collide, the animals escape and it quickly turns out the super-thylacines really enjoy the taste of human blood. The rest is mayhem, cliffhangers and gore. There are more Jurassic Park echoes as 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…

Time Was by Ian McDonald
Review , Science Fiction / 19/10/2018

British author Ian McDonald is best known for his futuristic novels set in India (River of Gods) or South America (Brasyl) or Turkey (Dervish House) or his more recent kick-arse Game of Thrones on the Moon series Luna. In Time Was he shifts a gear. This novella is an intimate time travel tale. Emmett, an antiquarian bookseller in London, comes across a letter tucked into an old book of poetry. The letter, written in World War II, sends Emmett on a quest to find out more about its author. Emmett’s research takes him to a woman named Thorn who lives in an old house in the Fen country where he learns the name of the author of the letter (Tom Shadwell) and its recipient (Ben Seligman). But when he takes a photo of the two that Thorn has given him to a contact at the British War Museum and it exactly matches a picture of two young men from the early years of World War I, things start to get weird. Emmett becomes obsessive about solving the mystery of the two men and following their path as it seems to take them in and out of different parts of the…

A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White
Science Fiction / 17/10/2018

Most science fiction books have short, punchy names. Think Dune or Foundation or, more recently, The Martian. But when Becky Chambers came out in 2014 with a book titled The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet it appears she might have started a trend in long, easy to grasp science fiction book titles. Now we have Alex White’s A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe, a book which, with its high-octane, action-oriented approach is pretty much a polar opposite of Chambers’ more thoughtful, emotional and humanist work. Nilah Brio is a driver in the intergalactic version of Formula One. When a fellow driver is killed in the middle of a race, she barely escapes and is implicated in the murder. At the same time Elizabeth ‘Boots’ Elsworth, an expert in salvage and mysteries, is running from both a mysterious attacker who has destroyed her office and the crew of her old ship, the Capricious, who she sent on a wild goose chase to find non-existent relics. Nilah and Boots end up joining the Capricious’ ragtag crew, both on the run from their attackers and on the hunt for a legendary warship. From this point in the story,…

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 Last Brother by Andrew Gross
Historical , Review , Thriller / 04/10/2018

Thriller writer Andrew Gross dips into his own family history for inspiration for his latest book The Last Brother. While there is plenty of action and a little suspense this is down the line historical fiction exploring the growth of the rag trade in New York in the early twentieth century and the organised crime that grew up around it. The Last Brother opens with a tragedy. One child of a Jewish immigrant family of six children dies in an accident putting Harry, the twin of the boy who died, on a different course to his siblings. Sol, the oldest son goes on to study accounting while the youngest brother Morris at thirteen goes to work for a coat maker and his wife. The narrative proper starts years later when Morris and Sol are running a successful business and Harry is running with some petty criminals. Morris and Sol are under pressure from the unions who are backed by the local mob and when one of his fellow coat makers is attacked and his stock destroyed Morris takes it on himself to see the mob boss Buchalter. It turns out that Morris and Buchalter have a long history, which Gross…

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry
Crime , Historical , Review / 02/10/2018

Ambrose Parry is the pen name of multi-award winning Scottish crime writer Chris Brookmyre and his wife Marisa Haetzman. It was Haetzman’s research into medical practice in Edinburgh in the 1850s that put the two down the track of collaborating on a novel set in the period. Being a crime novel, The Way of All Flesh opens with a death – a prostitute named Evie, found by one of her regular clients, but also friend, Will Raven. Raven runs from the scene, straight into the arms of the debt collectors looking for repayment of the money he had borrowed to help Evie out. Raven is hoping that his new apprenticeship with famous “male midewife” (aka obstetrician) James Simpson, will help him earn the money that he needs. In Simpson’s house, which also serves as his clinic, is housemaid Sarah who has the capacity to be more and yearns for something better. It takes some time for the murder mystery to come into focus. Some news about other deaths slowly builds in both Raven and Sarah a suspicion that something strange is afoot. They form a loose partnership as they tentatively investigate. Both characters are engaging and distinctive enough to avoid…

The Quantum Magician by Derek Kunsken
Review , Science Fiction / 28/09/2018

Derek Künsken makes clear right from the outset that The Quantum Magician is a heist story. Belasarius is a self-confessed conman who is contracted to do the impossible – get a fleet of warships carrying game changing technology through a protected wormhole without being captured or destroyed. In order to do carry out his plan he puts together a team of misfits. Künsken leans heavily into heist tropes as Belasarius recruits an old flame, an crazy AI, an old mentor, a slightly unhinged demolitions expert, a geneticist and representatives of each of humanity’s new genetic branches. The Quantum Magician then follows Belasarius and his crew through the heist with its requisite double and triple crosses and unexpected turns. Künsken uses the heist as a scaffold on which to do a prodigious amount of universe building. He introduces four new human species – homo quantus (of which Belasarius is one) who have the capacity to go into a fugue state and see quantum-based probabilities, Puppets (who are genetically programmed to serve and worship another human subspecies called Numen) and Mongrels, descendants of ancient settlers genetically altered to be able to live in the extreme depths of icy interplanetary oceans. The key…

Suicide Club by Rachel Heng
Review , Science Fiction / 26/09/2018

A man commits suicide on film by drinking a flammable liquid and setting his insides alight. This is the stunning, disturbing setup for Rachel Heng’s Black Mirror-style debut Suicide Club. What if technology progressed so that people could live for considerably longer, potentially forever? Given the number of people now living longer due to pacemakers, hip and knee replacements this is not an impossible idea. In Suicide Club, this potential for immortality is known as Phase 3 and is the deepest wish of those in Phase 2 whose lifespans have already been extended well into their second century. Lea has just celebrated her hundredth birthday. Lea is a Phase 2, living an ascetic life to try and ensure that she is chosen for Phase 3. But her life is thrown into disarray when she spots her criminal father, missing since she was a child, and due to an accident is placed under surveillance and into counselling where events from her childhood come back to haunt her. At the same time she meets Anja, who is deeply involved in the Suicide Club, a group dedicated to challenging the orthodoxy of the long lived. However, it is never clear which side Lea…