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…

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…

The Toymaker by Liam Pieper
Historical , Literature , Review / 08/07/2016

The opening of Liam Pieper’s The Toymaker is fairly confronting. Adam Kulakov, a successful middle aged man is thinking of ending his affair (not his first) with a sixteen-year-old school girl. This is just the start of Adam’s problems, problems that are juxtaposed against the struggles of his wife Tess to keep their family business afloat and the traumatic history of his grandfather, transported to Auschwitz during World War 2. The Toymaker has some finely observed, if not always particularly likeable, characters. Adam Kulakov is the epitome of the privileged Australian male. Second generation, living high on the money generated by a company started and grown by his grandfather, arrogant and entitled. Adam’s problems, which become his family’s problems, are grounded in his own hubris and stupidity, in his belief that he is somehow better than those around him. His wife Tess has come from a different direction – her family fortune squandered, and finding herself in a loveless marriage she finds meaning in the company and her connection with Adam’s grandfather. All this is held against the struggle of Arkady Kulakov, a young man transported to Auschwitz and blackmailed into working on medical experiments, finding some meaning by bringing…

The Girl in Green by Derek B. Miller
Historical , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 01/07/2016

There have been plenty of thrillers in recent years that use the conflicts in the Middle East as a setting and jumping off point. And for thriller authors there is plenty of material to draw on: a volatile situation, plenty of excuse for violence and action and often a grey moral zone in which characters operate. The Girl in Green at first blush, seems like one of these. But while it cloaks itself in the trappings of a thriller, author Derek B. Miller has serious concerns. The Girl in Green opens in Iraq at the end of the first Gulf War, also known as Operation Desert Storm. An American company is set up at Checkpoint Zulu, on the outskirts of an Iraqi town and close to the Kuwaiti border. When Saddam’s death squads arrive to slaughter the inhabitants of the nearby town in order to quell a nascent uprising, the troops are ordered not to interfere. This approach, and its consequences, will haunt two men, one a young soldier, Arwood Hobbes, and the other an English journalist, Thomas Benton, so that over twenty years later they are still trying to make amends. The bulk of the novel is set in…

The Long Count by JM Gulvin
Crime , Historical , Review / 08/06/2016

JM Gulvin is initially a little coy about the timeframe of The Long Count, the first in a new series centered around Texas Ranger John Quarrie, or John Q to his friends. Hints are dropped through the early text – Vietnam gets a mention and it appears that student rioters are taking up the time of the police – slowly building a picture of the late 1960s.  The secrets that drive this book are also closely held and sparingly doled out, through to the startling revelations left to the very end of the book. When the book opens, John Q, his young son James and his friend Pious are grabbling – freediving for catfish in the submerged wreck of a train. The long count of the title refers to the length of time an experienced grabbler can stay submerged. But their idyll is disturbed by the discovery of bones in the wreckage. This is closely followed by John Q being called out to investigate the killing of a policeman. That killing, followed a separate murder, and spirals out into a wave of other crimes and John Q starts to track the killer across Texas. Soon the trail points to Ishmael, an…

A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald by Natasha Lester
Historical , Review , Romance / 31/05/2016

Natasha Lester’s latest novel takes readers into the heart of Jazz Age New York. Despite the promise of the title, F Scott Fitzgerald does make an appearance even as a cameo, although a few historical figures appear or rate a mention. The reference to Fitzgerald in the title, dropped fairly heavy handedly at the beginning of the novel, is the idea of the more modern woman, unshackled from the Victorian mores that pervaded American society through the early twentieth century. Evie Lockhart, the protagonist takes this approach to life to heart. After being unable to save a woman in childbirth, she determines to become an obstetrician despite all of the pressures on her to not even apply, never mind succeed. Evie joins the Zeigfried Follies to fund her way through medical school, despite an undertaking to the school not to do anything to bring it into disrepute. At that time only one woman had graduated from medicine and was not celebrated for her achievement. Evie’s struggles to succeed against a disapproving establishment and its escalating attempts to remove her, coupled with her double life as a singer and dancer is one of the highlights of this novel. Lester has other…

The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis
Historical , Literature , Review / 23/05/2016

Georgian London, Summer 1763, a year in which, to quote Janet Ellis’s note, “nothing much happened”. This means there is nothing to distract the protagonist of The Butcher’s Hook or her family from their seemingly ordinary, upper middle class lives. The Butcher’s Hook is a fairly macabre character study. Anne Jaccob, eldest daughter of the Jaccob family, bursts from the book from the first page. She appears contemporary but is also very much of her age. The way she and her family behave, though, is shaped by the mores and expectations of the time. Anne is a clever girl but is not sent to school, she has a tutor who leaves her father’s service under a cloud. Left to her own devices, Anne becomes a singular personality, finding it hard to make connections with other girls her age when the opportunity is presented and creating an intense inner life. Anne is a teenager and full of passion, unwilling to be shackled to the odious Onions, the man who her parents have chosen for her. Instead, she falls deeply for the butcher’s nephew and they begin a clandestine relationship. She then bucks against a system that forbids this relationship, going to extreme…

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

Chris Cleave opens his forth novel with a sentence that sums up his main character: “War was declared at 11:15 and Mary North signed up at noon”. Mary does not get what she expects, ending up in the teaching service and helping to evacuate children from London to the countryside. Mary is just one of the rounded and unforgettable characters in Cleave’s new novel set in the first half of World War Two. But she is the heart and soul of this work – a jaunty but fierce, undaunted young woman trying to find her way in a world that is coming apart around her. Mary is not the only character that Cleave follows into the war. There is Mary’s best friend Hilda, her new boss Tom, who is happy not to fight, and his friend Alistair Heath, an art conservator with the Tate who has gone to war and ends up defending Malta from the Germans. Also trying to survive the war is ten year old American boy Zachary. Zachary is African American and does not fare well when evacuated to the country with the other children. Zachary ends up back in London during the Blitz with his father…

Fever City by Tim Baker
Crime , Historical , Review / 10/03/2016

There is nothing more certain than death, taxes and books about the assassination of JFK. This event had everything – sex, drugs, mafia, movie stars, the FBI, the CIA, communists. And to top it all off, as Tim Baker does not hesitate to point out in Fever City, it was an event that changed the course of America and world history. The shooting of JFK  has always been the motherload for conspiracy theorists but also for crime writers. So if an Australian debut writer is planning to explore this event it has to be a case of go big or go home. In Fever City, Tim Baker, if nothing else, goes big. Fever City is told through a number of narratives over different time periods. In 1960, private detective Nick Alston is brought in to help solve the kidnapping of the son of Max Bannister, one of the richest men in America with fingers in almost every pie. In 1963, contract killer Hastings is one of a number of hit men recruited to assassinate the president by a shadowy cabal of interests. These two characters live in the grey zone always with the potential to be saints or sinners. And…

The Midnight Watch by David Dyer

The sinking of the Titanic, now over one hundred years ago, is still one of the most famous disasters in history. So it is no wonder that it has been the subject of countless books and films. Given this, the question has to be whether there is the appetite for yet another novel exploring this incident. The answer, strongly given by David Dyer in his debut The Midnight Watch, is an unqualified yes. The Midnight Watch is not primarily the story of the Titanic itself. Its focus is on the SS Californian, the ship closest to the Titanic on the night that it hit the iceberg. The Californian had stopped due to the pack ice and its radio operator had warned nearby ships, including the Titanic, of the danger. The second officer, on the midnight watch, saw white rockets, traditionally a distress signal, coming from the distant ship, which he had not identified as the Titanic. He reported his observations to his captain who did not order any response and so the Californian did not do anything to respond until the following morning. The question that emerged later, and that David Dyer explores, is what stopped the Californian going to…