Here Comes Trouble by Simon Wroe
Literature , Review / 26/04/2017

It is tempting at the moment to look at every piece of art, be it book, movie or TV series, that has anything vaguely political to say and claim that it is symptomatic of the time. But trying to reflect and understand the times we live in has been one of the roles of the arts since people were drawing on cave walls. Writers often hold a mirror up to the world and allow their audience to consider their situation in a safe fictional space. Not that there is anything particularly safe about Kyrzbekistan, the hybrid Eastern European country that forms the backdrop of Simon Wroe’s second novel Here Comes Trouble. Kyrzbekistan, held the title of “Most corrupt country 2011 and 2012” and was formerly home to the record holder for heaviest weight lifted by a beard (until both honours were taken by neighbouring Uzbeks). It is currently home to one Ellis Dau, a sixteen year old son of a newspaper editor, expelled from school for an act of extreme vandalism. With nothing else to do, Ellis ends up working for his father’s newspaper, The Chronicle. The Chronicle aims to prick the conscience of the populace as opposed to its rival paper…

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
Literature , Review / 10/04/2017

There have been plenty of books about art and artists – painters, novelists, musicians, film makers – but not so many about cartoonists. Animation as an art form has often been seen as something for children and so less worthy of consideration. And while the main characters of The Animators grew up on 1940s Loony Tunes they also discovered the very adult oriented animation of the seventies and eighties. The Animators is a book about the art form, how it works and what it means for the people who love it. The story of The Animators revolves around two very different women both from lower class, rural America. Mel is the wild card, the rule breaker but also extremely gifted animator while Sharon, from rural Kentucky, is more straight down the line, as she says: “my virtue is in my constancy”. After a brief description of their meeting in college, Whitaker skips forward ten years to their ongoing successful collaboration as animators. Mel continues to be the wild and original one while Sharon keeps the enterprise together while deep down believing that Mel is “the real artist.”.  As Sharon herself notes: “Mel’s having all the fun… while I’m the steady…

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…

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
Literature , Review / 22/03/2017

The early parts of John Darnielle’s second novel, Universal Harvester have the feel of a horror story. Set in the age of VCR and starting behind the desk of the local Video Hut, it is not long before elements of Japanese horror story The Ring creep in an even a reference to Blair Witch Project. But Darnielle has other things on his mind, the videotape mystery opening up into something more profound than straight horror. Unsettling and sad, and possibly able to be described as American Gothic, but far from the horror that could have flowed from the premise. People returning videos to the Video Hut in Nevada Iowa are complaining that their movies contain snippets of other films in the middle of them. Jeremy Heldt, stuck in a dead end job while he still tries to process the six year gone death of his mother, takes the tapes home and finds disturbing sections of black and white footage spliced into the middle. Both his friend Stephanie and his boss Sarah want to investigate and Jeremy is slowly drawn in to their obsession. Before any answers come clear, Darnielle returns to the 1960s and the story of Irene and Peter…

A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 08/03/2017

As if many of the names don’t give it away (“The Punish”, “The Moans”, “The Blood Drip”), this is a particularly creepy short story collection. The collapse of horses of the title is the vision of a man with a possible brain injury. Four horses lying still in a field, possibly dead, possibly alive and another man at the water trough keeping his back to them. Imagining himself as that other man “unable to turn and look” the narrator considers this scene to be the “state of the whole world, with all of us on the verge of turning around and finding the dead behind us”. This is before he goes and (possibly) burns down the family home, possibly (and possibly not) killing his family. It is not hard to see why Evenson chose this image as the title of this collection of horror stories. The terror in many of the stories comes from a type of existential angst. An inability of the narrator to make sense of a world that does not work the way they think it should, an unwillingness to turn around to see if the dead are in fact behind. Evenson, even in the space of…

Storm and Grace by Kathryn Heyman
Literature , Review , Thriller / 06/03/2017

Kathryn Heyman never hides the fact that Storm and Grace is a tragedy. From the opening pages she manages to instill a feeling of dread. And if the text is not hint enough, a literal Greek chorus – “We are here. We will not leave.” – who reappear at times through the narrative should be another tip off. Grace, a young woman studying for a marine science degree is swept off her feet by “The Deepest Man in the World”. She is sent to interview world famous free diver Storm Hisray, for a diving magazine and the sparks fly from the first meeting. Storm is a charismatic force and before long he has convinced Grace to abandon her life in Sydney and come to live with him and his crew on a Pacific Island, supporting his attempt to break another world record for freediving. Not long after that Storm starts training her to become a freediver herself, using her desire to be close to him in order to challenge another female freediver. From Grace’s perspective, her story has all the hallmarks of a romance novel. She finds herself, falling into the role of the heroine of her own story, encouraged…

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…

All Fall Down by Cassandra Austin
Literature , Review / 27/02/2017

Australian gothic has a long history in Australian fiction – both written and visual. Think of books (and films) like Picnic at Hanging Rock and Wake in Fright or more recently The Dressmaker and you start to get a sense of this genre. It is a particularly European take of the Australian landscape, a dark, dangerous view full of strange characters and potentially evil goings-on. But it is also used to illuminate the dark side of Australian culture. In The Dressmaker there was bullying and corruption, more recently Holly Throsby’s Goodwood had elements of Australian gothic and delved into domestic violence, alcoholism and gambling. Cassandra Austin’s debut All Fall Down sits squarely in this tradition but feels in no way derivative of its predecessors. The town of Mululuk somewhere in the desert north of South Australia, an opal mining town spitting distance from Lightning Ridge, is separated north and south by a chasm. As All Fall Down opens, the bridge that connects the two sides of town collapses, severely injuring Janice who was driving over it while fleeing her husband and baby to see her lover Shane. Weeks later Janice is still in hospital having been in a coma and…

NK3 by Michael Tolkin
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 20/02/2017

Another day, another literary Armageddon. While there are already a plethora of genre Post apocalypses (zombies, robots, diseases, environmental cataclysms), it seems that there is a conga line of ‘literary’  authors looking to get in on the act, some more successful than others. Recently, just to name a few, we have had  Margaret Atwood’s third in a Post-apocalyptic trilogy Maddaddam, Good Morning Midnight, a quiet contemplative apocalypse, The Fireman, a horror thriller style apocalypse, and Gold, Fame, Citrus, set in California and its surrounding desert. NK3, by Michael Tolkin, best known for The Player, most resembles the last of these. Set in and around a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles in the wake of a genetically engineered plague released by North Korea dubbed NK3. NK3 is an inventive plague at least. Designed by North Korea to subdue the South by wiping the will of their enemies it has mutated and spread. NK3, now four years gone essentially reset the minds of anyone it came in contact with. They forget everything about themselves and become mindless drones. A method was developed to partially restore people and the process was used first on technicians and tradesmen to ensure things kept running. But those who were…

The Possessions by Sarah Flannery Murphy
Fantasy , Literature , Review , Romance / 08/02/2017

Sarah Flannery Murphy’s debut novel is a difficult one to pigeon-hole. It is on its face a high concept speculative fiction that could almost be described as literary fantasy but with a dark, contemporary edge. But it also has shades of romance and thriller. Even the name of the book provides a number of ambiguous entries into the themes that Murphy explores. But first, the concept. In Murphy’s world there are people who are able to channel the souls of the deceased. By taking a particular drug and using certain triggers they can allow their bodies to be possessed by someone who has died. Eurydice, or Edie, is a ‘body’, working in an establishment known as Elysium, the only sanctioned game in town for people who wish to spend time with their departed loved ones. Edie is the longest serving of the bodies at Elysium, the work causing most to burn out. While there is nothing physical about the trade, the analogies with prostitution run strongly through the narrative. Two things happen to shake up Edie’s world. The first is a man who comes to spend time with his wife Sylvia who accidentally drowned while they were on a holiday….

The Woman on the Stairs by Bernhard Schlink
Literature , Review / 23/01/2017

With so many disposable thrillers with the word “Girl” in the title on the market it could possibly be taken a marker of some quality that the title of Bernhard Schlink’s new novel references a “woman”. There are no murders, no unreliable narrators and no sneaky plot twists. The Woman on the Stairs fits more in line with recent books that take the art world as their focus and as a jumping off point to explore deeper issues such as The Last Painting of Sara de Vos (which also, coincidentally, also featured both a stolen art work and Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales). The narrator, an aging mergers and acquisitions lawyer from Germany is in Sydney stitching up a deal when he comes across a painting from his past. That painting, The Woman on the Stairs, was in the middle of a formative event in his life as a young lawyer. The subject of the painting, Irene Gundach, had left her husband for the artist Schmidt and the two men were in a dispute over the painting. The lawyer caught in the middle, found himself falling in love with Irene and helping her to get out of the…

The Terranauts by TC Boyle
Literature , Review / 17/01/2017

Two of TC Boyle’s long running themes collide in his latest novel The Terranauts. On the one hand is his continuing exploration of the power of visionaries to create a following (read cult) and bring people along with their vision (The Road to Wellville is a good early example of this). And on the other, the environment, its fragility, and man’s continuing struggle to both live in harmony with it and destroy it (When the Killing’s Done is a good recent example of this). And like many of his previous books, The Terranauts is built around a true story, because sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up. It is the mid 1990s and eight intrepid explorers, the Terranauts of the title, have been chosen from a group of 16, to spend two years inside a completely sealed habitat known as Ecosphere 2 (the “2” because the Earth itself is Ecosphere 1). Just a note that in the real world, the original was called Biosphere 2 and is still going strong reinvented as a research facility. Ecosphere 2, built in the middle of Arizona, has been established with different biomes – a rainforest, a desert, a small ocean – and…

The Good People by Hannah Kent
Historical , Literature , Review / 13/12/2016

Hannah Kent rose quickly to justified prominence with her stunning first novel Burial Rites. That book, set in the harshness of Iceland took a true story and brought it viscerally to life. While the method is the same, and there are similarities between the two books, The Good People explores a very different landscape and a very different culture. The Good People opens in a small village in Ireland in the 1850s. Norra and her husband have been eking out an existence and trying to look after their disabled grandson Michael. The four-year-old cannot talk or use his legs, he was left with them by their son-in-law when their daughter died. When her husband dies suddenly Norra is left adrift. In the highly superstitious villages this death is seen as evidence that Michael is a changeling, a child stolen by the fairies, or Good People. The village itself is caught between the old ways and the new. Kent effectively captures the tension between the desire to put the old superstitions aside and the pressure on villagers from the new priest to fully commit to Christianity. The old ways are represented by Nance, a woman who understands the fairy lore and…

Goodwood by Holly Throsby
Crime , Literature , Review / 06/12/2016

Fictional characters have been mysteriously disappearing in the Australian landscape for years. Despite efforts to colonise and urbanise, the land continues to swallow people up, particularly in fiction. So that when eighteen-year-old Rosie White disappears at the beginning of Goodwood there is a distinct Picnic at Hanging Rock feeling in the air. And like that book, Goodwood is for the most part more interested on the effect of that disappearance, and another a few days later, on the psyche of a small town than it is on solving the mystery. Although unlike its famous predecessor, Holly Throsby does provide a solution. Singer and songwriter Holly Throsby goes back to 1992 for her debut novel set in Goodwood, a mythical but typical NSW south coast town. Goodwood is a quirky town built on logging, fishing, a large coastal lake and a struggling dairy industry. With its bowlo and pub, Goodwood is too small to have a proper supermarket, but big enough to have a school. Full of the types of oddball characters, many harbouring dark secrets, that readers (and TV viewers of shows like Seachange) have come to expect from these literary country towns. Narrator Jean Brown is sixteen, on the cusp…

The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 30/11/2016

Thinking about it afterwards it was kind of obvious that pairing new weird novelist China Miéville and with surrealist movement was perhaps inevitable. The Last Days of New Paris not only celebrates Surrealism but brings it to life in a way that only the imagination and verve of Miéville could possibly achieve. New Weird and Surrealism, a match made in heaven, which, of course, as this book posits, also implies the existence of Hell. It is 1950 and, as a result of the detonation of an occult weapon in 1941, the war still rages in Paris. The bomb – “the weaponised soul of convulsive beauty” – made real the Surrealist dreams of Europe on the streets of occupied Paris. The landscape of Paris has been remodelled in line with a Surrealist thought experiment and manifestations of Surrealist art (known as ‘manifs’) wander the streets. To stop this strangeness spreading, Paris has been walled off from the rest of the world and so the Second World War rages on between the Germans and the French on its streets. The story centres on Thibault, a member of the surrealist resistance, who is caught up in stopping a German plot to harness the…

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
Literature , Review / 25/11/2016

Jonathan Safran Foer has the literary equivalent of a mid-life crisis in his latest novel, the intensely Jewish Here I Am. The title, explained early on in the novel, refers to Abraham’s answer when asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. But it could just as easily refer to Safran Foer himself, waving his literary arms and putting his head over the parapet ten years after his well received debut Everything is Illuminated and its post-9/11 follow up Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Here I Am is essentially two stories – a domestic tale of the end of a marriage and the global crisis foreshadowed in the first line of the book – the destruction of the State of Israel. The domestic tale centres around Jacob, a writer for television married to Julia for sixteen years with three children, suffering from a mid-life crisis and looking down the barrel of a separation from his wife. The metaphorical earthquake in Jacob’s life is paralleled by a real earthquake in the Middle East leading to an array of Arab forces moving in on a weakened Israel. The global crisis comes halfway through the book and both heightens and throws a spanner into…

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…

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…

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami
Literature , Review / 18/10/2016

Hiromi Kawakami is one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists but only a few of her works have been translated into English. She is known for “offbeat” fiction and in some ways her latest novel, set in a small ‘thrift shop’ in Tokyo, fits that bill. But it is also beautifully observed and the characters, while odd, feel real. Mr Nakano, the ageing shop owner surrounds himself with what can only be described as bric-a-brac – old ashtrays, bowls, paperweights – and has a growing on-line auction businesses. The Nakano Thrift Shop has a strong ongoing narrative (although one that takes a while to get going) but is told as a series of tales, often based around an item in the shop or one of the odd range of customers who frequent the store. The narrator of these tales is Hitomi, a young woman who works in the shop and finds herself becoming besotted by her fellow worker Takeo. Takeo is a taciturn character and the two develop a fairly chaste on again off again relationship. In the meantime, Mr Nakano is having one, and possibly more, affairs and his sister Masayo, who also spends time in the shop and provides…

The Windy Season by Sam Carmody
Crime , Literature , Review / 28/09/2016

Sam Carmody’s debut novel, The Windy Season, runner up for last year’s Vogel award, takes readers deep into what has become Tim Winton territory. A dangerous coming of age story set on the wild Western Australian coast, The Windy Season plumbs the depths (literally at times) of the regional Australian experience. Seventeen year-old Paul’s brother Eliot has gone missing. Paul, is unsure how to react but wants to find Eliot and, not knowing what else to do, packs up and follows in his brother’s footsteps. Eliot had been working on his uncle’s crayfish trawler operating out the West Australian coastal town of Stark so Paul follows. At the same time as following Paul’s life, Carmody charts the journey of a group of bikies across the country. Led by The President and narrated by a character called Swiss (after the army knife), the group flee from a bust in Sydney, heading west across the desert to exact some form of unspecified revenge. Besides Paul, Carmody gives some insight into the lives of the people who drift in and out of towns like Stark. The people who work on the trawlers, those running from some aspect of their lives, and the tourists…