The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
Fantasy , Historical , Review / 15/01/2018

Gothic horror is back in vogue and it does not get much more gothic than Laura Purcell’s debut The Silent Companions. Purcell has thrown everything at her scenario – an opening scene in an asylum, a pregnant widow still in mourning, a creepy village outside of an even creepier manor house, whispers of witchcraft, surly servants, disappearing curio shops, mysteriously locked doors, black cats and strange noises. And the icing on this decidedly black cake are the unnerving, lifelike wooden figures, the silent companions of the title, that seem to move on their own and leave wood shavings and splinters in their wake. It is 1865 and Elise Bainbridge is in mourning for the loss of her husband Rupert. She is retreating to the family estate known as The Bridge with Rupert’s young cousin Sarah and from the start things go wrong. There is only a skeleton staff in the house and locals from the village will not work there due to historical rumours of witchcraft. Almost immediately strange things start to happen – including odd noises in the night – and they become stranger when a previously locked door to the attic comes open revealing the lifelike wooden figure…

Top 5 – 2017
Literature , Top Fives / 27/12/2017

So many great books this year (see also Top 5 Crime, Science Fiction and Fantasy).   This is an all Australian Top 5 fiction for 2017 (in no particular order and with four international honourable mentions).     Jock Serong’s On The Java Ridge moved away from crime and created a humanist thriller out of Australia’s border protection policies.               Michael Sala’s The Restorer centred on a family trying to put a violent past behind them in 1980s Newcastle.               Mark Brandi’s debut, Wimmera, was a timely exploration of child sexual abuse and its impacts.                 In City of Crows, Chris Womersley explored the power of belief in seventeenth century Paris.                 Another great debut, Tony Jones created Australia’s very won Day of the Jackal in The Twentieth Man.                 Honourable (international) mentions: House of Names by Colm Toibin was a retelling of Greek myth. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, a historical novel set in the New York shipbuilding yards in World War II. Spoils by Brian van Reet…

Top Five Fantasy – 2017
Fantasy , Top Fives / 15/12/2017

Very different fantasy novels make up the top five (plus three honourable mentions) for 2017: Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird was fantasy that was also a little bit Dickens and a little bit Monty Python and centred around a forgotten town with a strange past and stranger residents in the middle of England.             Australian fantasy author Angela Slatter delivered the second installment of her engaging noir-crime meets urban fantasy series starring half-weyrd detective Verity Fassbinder on the mean streets of Brisbane in Corpselight.             Natasha Pulley continued to impress with her second novel – a historical and mystical journey into deepest darkest Peru in The Bedlam Stacks.               Joe Hill’s novella collection Strange Weather was part horror, part fantasy, part science fiction and all class.               And Margo Lanagan’s best-of short story collection Singing My Sister Down reaffirmed why she is one of Australia (and the World’s) best fantasy writers.               Honourable mentions: It Devours by Fink and Cranor – a novel set in the world of Night Vale Red Sister by Mark Lawrence…

Top Five Crime – 2017
Crime , Top Fives / 13/12/2017

In 2017, most of the top crime was Australian. Adrian McKinty took out the Ned Kelly Award for the sixth novel in his Sean Duffy series – Police at the Station and they Don’t Look Friendly.               Candice Fox was shortlisted for the same award for Crimson Lake – the first book in her new series set in steamy far north Queensland.               Michael Robotham’s The Secrets She Keeps was a stand-alone page turning thriller with two intriguing women at its centre.               Mark Brandi’s debut novel Wimmera, a story of the impacts of child sexual abuse, not only on the victim but on all those around them, was a revelation.               And Attica Locke went to rural Texas and revealed the deep seated vein of institutionalised racism in the United states in Bluebird Bluebird               Honourable mentions: Under the Cold Bright Lights by Garry Disher Too Easy by JM Green Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyer Corpselight by Angela Slatter  

Top Five Science Fiction – 2017
Science Fiction , Top Fives / 11/12/2017

Some great science fiction reads in 2017 – here are five of the best (and three honourable mentions):   Claire G Coleman’ stunning debut Terra Nullius was speculative fiction that shone a new light on the colonisation of Australia.               John Scalzi created an empire just to start destroying it in the enjoyable space opera The Collapsing Empire.               Yoon Ha Lee continued to impress with Raven Stratagem, the mathematically-driven by deeply humanist sequel to last year’s standout debut Ninefox Gambit.           Becky Chambers also impressed with the follow up to her debut with A Closed and Common Orbit.               Ann Leckie gave us Provenance, a stand alone novel set in the same universe as her award winning Ancillary series.                 Honourable Mentions: Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyer Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel

Unearthed by Kaufman and Spooner

Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, together and separately have been staking out the science fiction corner of the young teen, young adult market. In the Illluminae Files, together with Jay Kristoff, Kaufman showed a willingness to recycle tried and tested science fiction tropes into a new format. Unearthed is a similar sort of hybrid – part Indiana Jones, part Tomb Raider, part Contact, part Arrival and part, well every science fiction novel that has humans exploring strange new worlds (with a dystopian back story that also involves a generation ship for good measure). And in the middle of it, two snarky, flirty, intelligent, likeable teens from opposite sides of the tracks who fall for each other while saving the day. An alien signal from a race called the Undying has opened the way to a barren planet called Gaia which contains potentially world-changing technology. Amelia is a sixteen-year-old scavenger who has gone to Gaia to find her fortune and Jules, slightly older, is a genius academic who wants to solve the riddle of the alien tombs. They meet cute and are forced to travel together. And while their attraction grows, they have to navigate a tomb by solving alien puzzles,…

The Core by Peter V Brett
Fantasy , Review / 06/12/2017

Back in 2008, Peter Brett released The Painted Man (also known as The Warded Man in some countries), the first of his Demon Cycle series. Brett’s world was intriguing and unique. In it, demons of different forms and with differing powers would rise at night to attack mankind who were able to repel the attacks using symbols known as wards. Over the course of the series, the use of wards has become more sophisticated and the demons have become smarter, upping the stakes of each battle leading to this final volume and the ultimate war between man and demon. But each volume also became longer and less focussed, spinning out with backstory and new point of view characters.  Like the last couple of instalments of this series, The Core needed a serious edit. Brett is unable to let any character or locale go. Dedicated fans of this series may appreciate the amount of detail and the sheer number of characters that Brett catches up with. But this means it takes over 450 pages before the main characters start on their ultimate quest to end the demon war. And even then there are 400 pages left. Most of these side stories and characters have little relevance to this main plot and most are eventually abandoned as the focus returns. That said, once the action starts it does not let up, as humans previously at each other throats join forces against the demons…

Artemis by Andy Weir
Review , Science Fiction / 05/12/2017

With his debut, The Martian, such a success, there is plenty of expectation riding on Andy Weir’s second novel, Artemis. Artemis is also set in the near future, in space (on the Moon to be precise) and most of his characters seem a little too obsessed with science (or economics) but narratively Artemis is a very different beast to The Martian. Artemis is the name of the small lunar colony, home to Jasmine ‘Jazz’ Bashara, down on her luck and looking to make her fortune. Jazz keeps her head above water running contraband into the colony but very soon finds herself in the middle of an economic war for control of the aluminium smelter which, as a by-product, produces unlimited oxygen for the station. With sabotage, murder and organised crime in the mix, things start looking bad for Jazz until she takes her life, and the future of Artemis into her own hands. Given the number of big name science fiction authors who have successfully used the Moon as a setting, Weir has set himself a mammoth task from the outset. Artemis is a frontier town where almost anything goes and the law is often in the hands of the…

Nexus by Westerfeld, Lanagan and Biancotti

Nexus is the third and final instalment of the Zeroes trilogy which started with Zeroes and continued last year with Swarm. These books go boldly and with some originality into well explored territory – teens dealing with superpowers while also trying to make sense of their lives. At least, the first book did this. The second broadened out the world of the Zeroes, introduced a new menace and moved a little further away from a straight teens-with-powers scenario. Nexus expands this world even further and takes its protagonists out into the wider world. From its opening interrogation in, and rescue from, a supermax prison to a chase on the streets of Las Vegas, to its explosive finale on the streets of New Orleans. It is hard to talk about Nexus without some spoilers for the earlier two books. Suffice it to say that the six main Zeroes are back, in much more straightened circumstances due to the events of Swarm. But despite being on the run and fractured they still feel the need to use their powers for good as much as they can. And when they learn of “something big” going down in New Orleans involving a Zero called…

It Devours by Fink and Cranor
Fantasy , Review , Science Fiction / 30/11/2017

Fans of the long running Welcome to Night Vale podcast will have been eagerly waiting the new novel from its creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. While the first Welcome to Night Vale novelisation felt like an extension of and introduction to the world of the podcast, It Devours is an experiment in something a little different. Nilanjana is a scientist who came to Night Vale four years earlier but is still considered an outsider. She meets Darryl, a proselytiser for the Church of the Smiling God, a bizarre newish religion which gave him a sense of community when his parents died. But as is always the case in Night Vale, something is not quite right. Pretty soon the town is facing an existential threat and the two come together to try and save Night Vale. While no prior knowledge of Night Vale is required, it certainly helps, and those in the know will get much more out the book. The narrative is partially based on a long running storyline, visits some well known Night Vale locales and features plenty of regular characters from the podcast. To enjoy the ride, those unfamiliar with the bizarre little town of Night Vale…

The Rooster Bar by John Grisham
Crime , Review , Thriller / 29/11/2017

John Grisham delivered not one but two novels this year. While there was some crime and legal shenanigans involved, the first,  Camino Island, was more of an excursion for Grisham into the world of writing and writers. The second, The Rooster Bar, is more in Grisham’s wheelhouse – a thriller of sorts based mainly  around the underbelly of legal training and practice.  Grisham took his inspiration for The Rooster Bar from an article called the Great Law School Scam. This was an exposé of private universities, set up as diploma factories for law degrees that in the end are not worth the paper they are printed on. The Government lends money to the students which goes straight into the coffers of the law school, the students themselves rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, get a substandard education and have no career prospects when they graduate.  The Rooster Bar is about four such students – Todd, Mark, Gordy and Zola. All are in the last year at the not very prestigious Foggy Bottom Law School in Washington DC and all have debts in excess of two hundred thousand dollars which they will have to start repaying as soon as they graduate. But the four have other things on their minds. Zola and…

Strange Weather by Joe Hill
Fantasy , Review , Science Fiction / 27/11/2017

With many short story collections, it is often instructive to read the author’s comments before diving in. At the front of Neal Gaiman’s recent collection Trigger Warning there was a general overview and then some insight into the genesis of each story in the collection. Joe Hill references Gaiman in his afterward where he talks about the idea behind this collection. And that reason is that after producing a couple of massive tomes (including 2016’s post-apocalyptic doorstop The Fireman) he wanted to get back to writing that was “lean and mean”. As he says, short novels are “all killer no filler”, and goes on to list some of his favourite authors at this length including Gaiman, David Mitchell and even HG Wells.  In Strange Weather, Hill has delivered four novellas which, if nothing else, serve as a great advertisement for his range. The four stories traverse a range of ideas and character and each is, in its own very different way, a killer.  The first story, Snapshot, starts out feeling very genre. Set mainly in 1988 it features A thirteen-year-old nerdy narrator (although the knowing narration itself comes from when he is an adult), a mysterious dark force that threatens him and people he loves. Possibly a bit of a Stranger Things vibe to it, which is not a bad thing. Hill effectively uses his horror tropes to…

The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Crime , Review / 24/11/2017

Graeme Macrea Burnet’s first novel was presented as the translation of an obscure French crime novel written and published in the early 1980s by French author Raymond Brunet (note the anagram). The conceit of that novel – The Disappearance of Adéle Bedaeu – was deepened by the creation of a faux trailer for the film version of the book. After his Booker prize nominated His Bloody Project, Burnet returns to the world of Brunet. The Accident on the A35 is, according to the preface, the translation of an unpublished Brunet manuscript, released after his mother’s death. Once again, the book centres around detective George Gorski and the small, seemingly dead end town of Saint Louis in which he lives. When the book opens, Gorski’s wife has left him and he is called to the scene of a car accident on a nearby road. The scene appears to be an open and shut case but there are some odd details and Gorski allows himself to be charmed by the dead man’s widow into investigating further. At the same time, the dead man’s son Raymond, after finding an address in his father’s drawer of a house in a nearby town, is also…

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 23/11/2017

Dystopia has a long history in literary fiction. A breakdown in social order, or a reshaping of society, is a useful lens through which we can examine our own society and actions. So it comes as no surprise that Native American author Louise Erdrich is another in a long line of literary writers who have taken on dystopia. The dystopian present creeps up slowly in Future Home of the Living God. The opening passage has narrator Cedar Hawk Springmaker – ‘the adopted child of Minneapolis liberals’ – heading to an Ojibwe reservation to meet her Native American birth-family. She does mention in this opening passage that ‘Our world is running backward. Or forward. Or maybe sideways, in a way as yet ungrasped.’ Cedar is four months pregnant but this is a secret that she has kept from her adopted family. Of all the sections of the novel, Erdrich treats those on the Ojibwe reservation with a refreshing naturalism. Cedar arrives to find very few of her preconceptions of her birth family met. While she seems to have a very Native American name, her birth name was Mary Potts. Her mother is welcoming but not apologetic about Cedar’s life and her…

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Historical , Recommended , Review / 22/11/2017

Jennifer Egan is best known for her creative, experimental Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Visit From the Goon Squad. That book was a series of connected short stories in a range of styles including, famously, a PowerPoint presentation. A historical drama, Manhattan Beach is a long way from Goon Squad stylistically (mostly) but still demonstrates Egan’s literary flare to great effect. The book opens in the middle of the Depression, twelve year-old Anna Kerrigan is accompanying her father Eddie on business. He is going to visit a man called Dexter Styles. Eddie is a bagman for the union and his visit to Dexter is an attempt to change his fortunes. Eight years later, it is the middle of World War II, Eddie disappeared without a trace many years before and Anna, living with her mother and disabled sister, is part of a female workforce at the docks building and repairing warships. Dexter Styles, meanwhile, runs a series of nightclubs and gambling dens on behalf of a Chicago mobster. Both are haunted to some extent by Eddie’s disappearance. The plot itself is part coming of age, part mystery story, part gangster story. Egan masterfully juggles the various plot elements around the…

Under the Cold Bright Lights by Garry Disher
Crime , Recommended , Review / 16/11/2017

It has been a big year for Garry Disher. Late 2016 saw the release of Signal Loss, the latest in his Challis and Destry/ Peninsula Crimes series. Then, mid this year, he published Her, a historical drama set around World War I in the Victorian countryside. And now, a return to crime and potentially, a new series, in Under the Cold Bright Lights. Alan Auhl has come out of retirement as a detective to join a cold case team. The body is found in the intriguing cold open when a concrete slab is cracked open to try and drive out a potential nest of brown snakes. But Slab Man, as the body becomes known, is not Auhl’s only case. He is also dealing with a long unsolved murder of a farmer and a current not-so-cold case which links to one of his own, older cases, of a doctor who’s wives keep mysteriously dying on him. Auhl is another great crime protagonist from Disher. Auhl has an abiding need to see justice done, fuelled by his won pain, darkness and regrets. He lives in “Chateau Auhl”, a rambling old house and takes in “tenants, waifs and strays”. This includes Neve Fanning,…

Star Wars: From A Certain Point of View
Review , Science Fiction / 14/11/2017

Forty years ago, in a galaxy not so far away, was launched one of the world’s most successful and influential science fiction franchises. Star Wars, later renamed Episode IV: A New Hope, to fit in a with an expanded timeline and planned prequels, blasted into cinemas in 1977 and blew up not only the Death Star but blockbuster cinema. Even before the first sequel was on the screen there was additional fiction in the Star Wars universe. Characters who were not named, who did not even have any dialogue, appeared as toys and their backstories started to be fleshed out by eager fans.  So that now, forty years later, there is a rich vein of story to mine. But you don’t have to go in knowing about any of these characters to enjoy From A Certain Point of View. From a Certain Point of View is a series of love letters to that original film. It takes that relatively simple story of a farm boy with a destiny who becomes a hero by rescuing a princess with the help of a loveable rogue and infuses it with greater depth. The conceit of this book is forty short stories, each from…

The Stranger by Melanie Raabe
Review , Thriller / 10/11/2017

One of the keys to a good thriller is the hook, a tense situation that can only ramp up. Melanie Raabe showed herself a dab hand at this in her debut novel The Trap. Even the title hinted at something menacing and the execution paid off. Her follow up does the same. Just the title, The Stranger, hints at danger. And again, she manages, for the most part, to pull her execution off. Sarah has been living alone with her son for seven years since her husband went missing in Columbia. It has taken all that time but she is just starting to get her life back together. She has new friends and has developed relationships with her work colleagues. Then the call comes – her husband has been found and is being flown home the next day. Only when she goes to the airport, despite smiling and saying all the right things, she is convinced that the man who has come home is not her husband Philip. When the two go back to their house the stranger threatens to reveal her darkest secret if she goes to the police and a cat and mouse game between the two begins….

The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi
Historical , Literature , Review / 08/11/2017

Wu Ming-Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle (translated by Darryl Sterk) is only the second of his books to be translate into English. Wu Ming-Yi is a Tawainese author, described as an artist, designer, photographer, literary professor, butterfly scholar and environmental activist and many of these concerns and interests emerge in The Stolen Bicycle. The Stolen Bicycle is pitched as a companion piece to another book written by the book’s narrator about workers from Taiwan who went to work in Japan building fighter planes during World War 2. He included in that earlier book a scene where an ancient bicycle was left propped against a sign at the entrance to a forest. The narrator thought nothing of it until a reader wrote to him to ask him what happened to the owner of that bike. From this inquiry sprung The Stolen Bicycle, the story of one man’s search for origins of a machine that might have a connection to his missing father. Due to a close family history involving bicycles, used and stolen at various times, the narrator of The Stolen Bicycle, Ch’eng,  is obsessed with the machines. The narrator starts with the various terms for the vehicle – his preference is for the Taiwanese…

The Ship Beyond Time by Heidi Heilig
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 06/11/2017

Heidi Heilig opens The Ship Beyond Time mere minutes after the cliffhanger end of its prequel The Girl from Everywhere. It is 1884 and sixteen-year-old Nix, her father and the crew of their ship, the Temptation are on the run from Hawaiian forces, unhappy about the robbery that they were involved in. What their pursuers do not know, but readers of this series do, is that Nix and her father are Navigators, they have the power to send their ship to any time and any place (including mythical places) so long as they have a map to guide them. After a bit of map hopping early in the piece, The Ship Beyond Time settles down for most of its length in one locale. In this case it is the mythical utopian island of Ker-Ys, somewhere off the coast of France. They have come there on the promise of another Navigator, Crowhurst, that he has the power to change time. For Nix, who spent the last novel trying to prevent her father going back in time to save her mother for fear that she would never be born, this is a temptation too great to turn up. Once again, there is…