The Maker of Swans by Paraic O’Donnell
Fantasy , Review / 04/05/2016

The Maker of Swans, Paraic O’Donnell’s debut novel, takes readers deep into modern-gothic British fantasy territory. Its old-world tone is reminiscent of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and, more recently, Tim Clare’s The Honours, although it is set in more modern times than either of these (possibly the ‘60s, although it is hard to tell). The book opens with a murder. Witnessed by Eustace, the factotum to the mysterious Mr Crowe, whose job it is also to clean up after the act. Only the act itself has brought some unwanted attention to Crowe and his young ward Clara. Crowe has used his powers to kill and, as a result, has to pay a forfeit to the mysterious Dr Chastern. The forfeit involves the use of his powers and also revolves around Clara. But Clara has powers of her own. The narrative is in two very distinct parts. The first half slowly builds up to the visit of Dr Chastern and its aftermath. The second half puts the characters in very different places, explores Clara’s developing powers and dips into the lengthy history between Crowe and Eustace. The Maker of Swans maintains its deeply mysterious atmosphere throughout and this…

A Dying Breed by Peter Hanington
Review , Thriller / 29/04/2016

A Dying Breed is an intelligent thriller set in present day Afghanistan. By focussing on journalists and their work it avoids a lot of the guns and gunplay aspects of many thrillers set in this part of the world. And informed by Peter Hanington’s many years as a foreign correspondent, there is an air of veracity around the characters and their interactions. The plot of A Dying Breed runs along some fairly well-worn lines. The killing of an Afghan politician is picked up as a story by William Carver, an on-the-skids journalist. While it appears the killing was the work of the Taliban, some irregularities and the appearance of some shady military characters point to what could be a much bigger and more complex story. But when Carver starts to dig, the British apparatus of State turns its attention to preventing his further investigation. There are a number of aspects of this novel that sets it above the fray. The first is the characters. William Carver is irascible, heavy drinking and unlikeable, still carrying some guilt about his role in boosting the Iraq war and impossible to deal with. But while it first appears that he will be the centre…

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…

The Girl on the Liar’s Throne by Den Patrick
Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 22/04/2016

Den Patrick concludes his Erebus Sequence with more of what made the rest of this series so enjoyable. Plenty of sword play, a little bit of politics, great dialogue and characters to care about, even if you disagree with what they are doing. The series, which started surprising with The Boy with the Porcelain Blade (reviewed here) and continued to impress with The Boy Who Wept Blood (reviewed here), has been a welcome reprieve to the often cookie-cutter worlds of epic fantasy. The finale is no exception. It is difficult to talk about the plot of The Girl on the Liar’s Throne without giving away some of the key plot points of the earlier novels. While The Boy Who Wept Blood advanced ten years on the first volume, this book opens only months after the events of that instalment. Anea, the Silent Queen of Landfall is in the oubliette, a dungeon in which the waters erase memories. On her throne is an imposter, Eris, under the sway of the mysterious Erebus and undoing all of the good work that Anea had started. This is again a shift for this series which has focussed on a group of Orfino, strange hybrid creatures…

The Travelers by Chris Pavone
Review , Thriller / 21/04/2016

Much like its titular magazine, The Travelers is a whirlwind journey that takes readers to some of the world’s most desirable places. For starters – America, France, Argentina, England and Iceland. But for all of the glamour, fine wine and food, these places just provide the backdrop on an engaging, twisted and compulsive thriller. Will Rhodes is a writer for Travelers magazine. His job is to fly around the world to places that his readers would like to go, take photos, eat good food, drink expensive wines and attend A-list parties. This not only keeps the readers and advertisers happy but supports Travelers’ side business as an exclusive travel bureau to the rich. But right from the cold open, Will is in trouble and the first part of the story just highlights how deep that trouble is. Soon he finds himself lying to his wife and his colleagues and becoming involved in clandestine operations which seek to use his real work as cover for espionage. Will is a likeable hero – he is no James Bond but is just resourceful enough to feel like a real person trying to work his way out of trouble. Chris Pavone puts a lot…

Eleanor by Jason Gurley
Fantasy , Literature , Review , Young Adult / 18/04/2016

Eleanor is a book steeped in loss and grieving. It opens in 1963 when the pregnant mother of a small child abandons her family and moves quickly to a tragic car accident involving the woman’s daughter and her own children twenty-two years later. Jump again to 1993, and fourteen-year old Eleanor is living with her alcoholic mother, trying to hold the household together in the face of her mother’s pain and cobble together some type of normal life. So far so naturalistic, and Gurley handles these early scenes well, engaging the reader in Eleanor’s world and tragic history. And then the book takes a swerve to the fantastic. As Eleanor herself observes – “over the rainbow, down the rabbit hole, through the cupboard”. It turns out that Eleanor is being watched by strange, otherworldly beings and, in their attempt to communicate with her, they pull her out of the world into other realities. Each time they do this, Eleanor disappears for long periods of time and, on a couple of occasions, ends up dangerously injured on her return. But she is determined, with the help of her friend Jack, to find out what exactly is happening to her. Secrets and…

Where the Trees Were by Inga Simpson
Literature , Review / 14/04/2016

Inga Simpson’s Where the Trees Were is a story that, at its heart, is about growing up and living in modern Australia. Its connecting tissue, the issue of cultural appropriation and the ongoing tousle between preservation of Aboriginal culture and land use, gives the story a depth and resonance beyond the individual characters and their lives. It is 2004 and Jayne is a conservator at a major cultural institution in Canberra. As the book opens she is organising the theft of a carved tree from the museum collection. The tree, once one of many that dotted the Australian landscape and marked places of cultural significance to the Aboriginal communities who lived there, has been reduced from its previous significance to an exhibit. Why Jayne does this and how she deals with the fallout are examined through the rest of the book. Flashback to Jayne’s childhood, told in first person, growing up the only child of a farming family in the Lachlan Valley, central New South Wales. Starting in 1987, this aspect of the novel follows Jayne and her close group of friends, all boys.  In alternating chapters, Simpson follows the group as they leave primary school and enter the adolescent…

Fellside by MR Carey
Fantasy , Review , Thriller / 13/04/2016

Women’s prison dramas are the new black. While there is plenty of realistic women’s prison drama about at the moment it also turns out to be a pretty effective place to set a modern gothic horror tale. MR Carey’s follow up to The Girl With All the Gifts takes the reader into the high security wing of a private women’s prison set in foggy North Yorkshire. Into this mix he adds more than a sprinkling of the supernatural and stands back to watch the results. Jess Moulson has been accused of starting a fire which severely disfigured her and took the life of the young boy who lived in the flat above her. Addicted to heroin at the time, Jess sleepwalks through the trial, believing herself to be guilty and seeking punishment. Once convicted she is sent to the private, high security women’s prison Fellside. Once there, however, she is brought out of her personal fog by the intervention of a dreamlike presence assuring her that she was not responsible for the boy’s death and urging her to find his killer. It turns out that Jess has more power than just communing with the dead. She also has the ability to…

Day Boy by Trent Jamieson
Fantasy , Recommended , Review , Young Adult / 08/04/2016

With so much second-rate material around, the vampire genre has become a little anaemic. Trent Jamieson’s Day Boy provides a welcome and much needed infusion of new blood into the genre. The focus of Day Boy is not the Masters (the word vampire is never used), who rule a post-apocalyptic Earth, but their Day Boys. Each Master has a Day Boy to do their work during daylight hours. Part servant, part protégé, part surrogate child, part confidante, the Day Boys epitomise the Masters rule and wield some power over other humans as a result. Mark, the narrator, is Day Boy to Dain, exiled with four other Masters to the regional town of Midfield. The world that Mark inhabits has a wild-west steampunk feel. Midfield is a farming community, connected to the Master’s more advanced capital city by steam train. However, this is a world that is also recognisably Australian, complete with heat, dust, flies and deadly creatures lurking in the bush. Day Boy is a twisted coming of age story. Mark experiences all of the usual tropes – fights with his peers, a girl he is keen on but not supposed to spend time with, and important decisions to be…

Dangerous to Know by Anne Buist
Crime , Review / 06/04/2016

Anne Buist’s Natalie King novel Dangerous to Know could be described as a true psychological thriller. But only because the two main characters are psychiatrists. Most of the plot is taken up with the psycho-personal tousle between bipolar-recovering-depressive forensic psychiatrist King and potentially-homicidal-manipulator academic psychiatrist Frank Moreton. And while it takes a fair while for this joust to develop any heat it does build to a satisfying and twisty resolution. Natalie King, still recovering from the events of Medea’s Curse, has taken herself away from the pressures of Melbourne and her full time practice. Moving to a house in Lorne, on the Victorian coast, she seeks a research position at the local university working for Frank Moreton. Frank is married to a very pregnant Alison, an old adversary of King’s from their university days. And when Alison dies in much the same circumstances as Frank’s first wife Reeva, Natalie feels duty bound to investigate. As with Medea’s Curse, the character of Natalie King is the strongest element of this novel. Fiercely intelligent but struggling to deal with her psychological disorders, trying and failing to downplay the motorcycle riding, rockband singing wild girl as a way of managing her condition. Her…

Radiance by Catherynne M Valente

Retrofuturism is an area of sci-fi with proliferating sub-genres. First there was steampunk, Victoriana sci-fi usually replete with airships, flying goggles and cogs. But now other time periods are muscling in on the act. There is clockpunk, based on an area before a steam. But there is also dieselpunk and atompunk taking the retrofuturistic baseline deep into the twentieth century. Catherynne M Valente’s latest novel for adults Radiance (she has been spending much of her recent time writing for children about a Fairyland of her own making) is self-described as decopunk. Decopunk replaces Victorian crinolines and grime with the high fashion and flashy chrome of the Art Deco era. Also sometimes known as raygun gothic, decopunk is flashy, pulpy and overall lighter than its steam-driven cousin. Radiance is more than just retrofuturism, though. Valente has created a complete alternative not only of our world but of our solar system. In the Radiance universe, all of the planets and many of their moons are both habitable and inhabited (including Pluto which in our universe was not even discovered until 1932). People zip between these strange and unique environments in rocket ships. They survive partly due to their reliance on a substance…

Ten Days by Gillian Slovo
Crime , Review , Thriller / 01/04/2016

Gillian Slovo’s Ten Days started life as a play that explored the London riots of 2011. The play itself was based on a series of interviews and transcripts. The novel follows the outline of these events but ficitionalises them, which gives Slovo a broader scope than that original piece and some licence with her exploration of character and motivation. But it still centres around a week of intense heat in which the disaffected and disenfranchised went on a rampage in London, in a wave of violence that spread across the country. Ten Days opens ominously. An early morning discussion between single mother Cathy and the man who has spent the night in her tower block apartment is photographed by a passing police helicopter. Slovo litters the narrative with redacted extracts from the inevitable investigation into the events she depicts, giving the personal view of the events and emotionless and stilted counterpoint. The Lovelace Estate, Cathy’s home, is slated for demolition and already the estate is riddled with empty, boarded up flats. A heatwave is driving people onto the streets at all hours and the police, expecting trouble from this part of London, are already in a heightened state of alert,…

The Trap by Melanie Raabe
Crime , Review , Thriller / 30/03/2016

Good thrillers often stand or fall by their initial concept. Think the missing wife and the diary of Gone Girl. Or the woman with amnesia and a journal in Before I Go To Sleep. A simple, possibly plausible, plot driver that is able to twist and flex as the circumstances change. In The Trap, that concept is the reclusive novelist, seeking revenge for the murder of her sister eleven years before.Because she cannot bring herself to leave her house, Linda addresses the issue of drawing out the man she believes responsible for her sister’s murder in the only way she knows how – she writes a book about it. To say too much about the plot of this short, muscular thriller would be to step well into spoiler territory. But the setup has Linda believing that it is a television journalist she saw on the night of her sister’s death and uses the offer of an interview to lure him into a situation in which she can question him. Sections from Linda’s novel pepper the narrative, giving a fictionalised version of the events surrounding her sister’s murder. Raabe uses two layers of unreliable narration to keep everything out of kilter….

Illuminae by Kaufman and Kristoff

Illuminae states its intention right from the cover, which is covered in scraps of partially redacted documents. The book itself is told through a series of recovered documents of varying types, many flagged with introductory comments. The form of narrative has been done before and it is worth saying at the outset that Kaufman and Kristoff do it very well. Despite lots of goriness and evil goings on, all swear words are redacted to keep this closer to PG than MA territory. The main characters are two seventeen-year-olds who have just broken up when they have to survive an attack that destroys their home planet – an illegal mining colony in the far reaches of the universe. They are rescued and end up on separate ships in a fleet of three trying to outrun a battleship bent on their destruction. Both are likeable characters – Kady the techno-hacker chick with a healthy disregard for authority and Ezra, the jock with a heart of gold – and the narrative constantly flicks between the two. Through all the mayhem that follows, their relationship issues are never far from the surface. Kaufman and Kristoff have fun with a bunch of sci-fi sub-genres. Illuminae…

Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

A long line of science fiction classics, including Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Arthur C Clark’s Moondust, through to more modern writers like Ben Bova (Moonrise and Moonwar) have focussed on life on a settled or developed Moon.  In Luna: New Moon, Ian McDonald brings his hardscrabble, developing-world sci-fi sensibility to the Moon to dazzling effect. As could be expected after books like River of Gods and Brasyl, McDonald’s Luna (as Heinlein also styled it) is no westernised utopia, but rather a heady mix of Asian, European, Caribbean and African influences. Luna has been corporatised and is a major source of raw materials for Earth. It is a highly stratified and monetised society, where even the air you breathe must be paid for and the dead are recycled for the benefit of the living. Under the rule of the Lunar Development Corporation sit five families, the Five Dragons, each responsible for a different aspect of Lunar profit. McDonald’s story focusses mainly on the Brazilian Corta family, the upstart fifth dragon, whose Helium3 operations keep Earth’s lights on. The Corta matriarch has political issues not only within her own family but with her rivals, particularly the Australian Mackenzie…

Welcome to Night Vale by Fink and Cranor

The extremely strange town of Night Vale will be familiar to listeners to the popular podcast which has been going since 2012. For those who have never heard about the town of Night Vale – which is ruled over by a glow cloud (all hail the mighty glow cloud), where the most dangerous place is the library, it is subversive to believe in mountains, the most popular dish at the diner is invisible pie and where the police have been replaced by secret police who are always listening – this novelisation of the podcast is an eye opening and brain-tingling experience. Jackie Fierro and Dianne Crayton are both searching for something. Jackie, a perpetual nineteen year old, is looking for a man she can’t remember who gave her a slip of paper that she can not get rid of with the words KING CITY written on it. Diane is searching for a missing work colleague who no one remembers and is side-tracked when she spots the father of her shape-shifting teenage son Josh, who left town when Josh was a baby. The narrative alternates between their separate and then shared quests. There is a plot to Welcome to Night Vale,…

Steeple by Jon Wallace

Jon Wallace’s debut novel, Barricade was a blistering, visceral ride through a post-robopocalyptic Britain. It dropped readers into a nuclear blasted landscape and an ongoing war between the ravaged, disease-ridden survivors of humanity (the Reals) and their implacable, seemingly indestructible android foes (the Ficials). Barricade’s protagonist, a Ficial called Kenstibec, emotionless and virtually indestructible, was the perfect guide to this milieu. When Steeple opens Kenstibec, now just Ken, is pretending to be a Real after losing the nanotechnology that allows him to repair himself. Much like Barricade, Steeple wastes little time before sending Kenstibec off on a quest. Sent with his partner-in-crime Fatty (aka Phil) and a woman called Belinda to ascend Hope Tower, a massive residential building in the heart of London that has somehow survived the nuclear exchange. Kenstibec, never one to take orders, has his own reasons for going. Steeple is all action – Kenstibec and his companions lurching from one nasty, violent, stress-filled situation to another. But it is also, as its predecessor was, full of mordant humour and sly social commentary – exploring attitudes towards housing, development and consumerism. Flashback sections detail Kenstibec’s involvement in the design and creation of Hope Tower, reflecting Britain’s historical…

The Silent Inheritance by Joy Dettman
Crime , Review / 14/03/2016

Joy Dettman delves into a world of crime in her latest novel. Over a wide cast of characters she manages to fit in a whole spectrum of crime and general meanness into a small space: from a serial killer through to a hit and run, perjury and drug dealing. The Silent Inheritance ranges across a large group of characters so it takes a while to get going. Sarah Carter, deaf since birth, is trying to get a promotion but is passed over for her boss’s mistress, Barbara. Freddy Adam-Jones is a criminal barrister defending the indefensible. And Ross Hunter is tracking down a serial killer dubbed the Freeway Killer by the press. And, because no book involving a serial killer is complete without it, there are the requisite italicised chapters from the Freeway Killer’s point of view. When Barbara’s daughter is taken by the Freeway Killer, Freddy does something unforgivable and Sarah comes into a windfall, their worlds start to shift. But in order to make the plot work, Dettman has to dial the coincidence factor up to eleven. Many of the characters are connected in ways that do not become obvious until late in the piece, others are thrown…

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…

Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn
Fantasy , Review / 06/03/2016

Lian Hearn returns to her best-selling faux-Japanese fantasy world in a new four book series being published in Australia in two volumes. Set three hundred years before her Tales of the Otori, The Tale of Shikanoko is pure sword and sorcery fantasy with a Japanese twist. As with her Otori series, the setting is not Japan, or even a Japanese version of ancient Japan, but it is a Japan-like world heavily based on the myths, legends and style of Japanese mythological tales. As the book opens, a young boy loses his father to forest goblins and then, before he can come of age, his uncle tries to kill him in order to inherit his lands. Saved by a forest sorcerer, Kazumaru is renamed Shikanoko (“the deer’s child”) and is given a stag’s mask of great power and a new destiny. At the same time, moves are afoot to unseat the emperor, kill his son and heir and put his brother on the throne of the eight islands. When Shikanoko emerges back into the world, he is thrown right into the middle of this conflict. Being a mythological tale there is little room for too much character development. Characters tend to…