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…

The Poison Artist by Jonathan Moore
Crime , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 06/03/2016

Many crime novels straddle the line between crime and horror. Serial killers, on the whole, are the stuff of nightmares and crime writers have been falling over themselves for some time to up the gore factor. While horror novels usually rely on some form of supernatural agency and do not necessarily have the neat resolution of the crime genre, the bloody results are often the same. And so it is with The Poison Artist – a crime novel with the feel of a horror novel or a horror novel with crime elements – it is often hard to tell. Although in this case that ambiguity is not a bad thing. Before the reader gets to the crime there is the pain. Dr Caleb Maddox, toxicologist and pain researcher, has been dumped by his girlfriend after a fairly vicious fight which involved flinging of glass. Caleb is drowning his sorrows in the bar of the San Francisco hotel in which he is taking refuge when he catches sight of a beautiful woman. He moves on to a smaller nearby where he encounters the same woman who thoroughly bewitches him to the extent that he begins a city-wide search for her. At…

How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball
Literature , Recommended , Review / 06/03/2016

It is easy to compare any novel narrated by a disaffected American teenager with the seminal Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield has become the archetypical American teen – intelligent, insightful and with plenty of promise but constantly fighting against a system which seeks to pigeon hole and repress. Lucia, the eighteen year-old narrator of How to Set a Fire and Why, fits into this mould but this is a very different tale and a very different world. Lucia has been dealt what can only be described as a losing hand by life – her father is dead, her mother is in an asylum, she lives with her elderly aunt in a garage and she has just been kicked out of school for stabbing another student with a pencil. But Lucia, despite all of her protestations to the contrary, still tries to find a place where she can fit. In her case, that place is the school’s mythical Arson Club – a group of students who are keen to burn things down. Lucia’s character comes across strongly from the first sentence. Jesse Ball’s first person narrative absolutely inhabits the mind of this troubled teen. While sometimes not as smart as…

Down Station by Simon Morden
Fantasy , Review / 06/03/2016

Doorways into magical lands are a venerable fantasy tradition going back centuries in English fiction. Think Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan. In the Twentieth Century we had the seminal Narnia series and plenty of imitators followed. More recently we’ve even seen a modern deconstruction of that mythology in books like Lev Grossman’s Magician’s series. In this context, Simon Morden’s Down Station seems a little staid. The central idea is an old one, any interest here is what he manages to do with it. Down Station opens naturalistically. Troubled teen Mary is working as an after hours garbage collector in the London Underground and young engineering student Dalip is similarly working on a rail replacement team. When an unknown disaster strikes above ground Mary, Dalip and a few of their fellow workers escape through a door that takes them into another world from which there is seemingly no return. They soon discover that they are not the first people to come to the world of Down from London and that the magic of the world will allow them to reinvent themselves. So far, so clichéd. But a couple of aspects save Down Station. The first is the main characters. There…

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…

Fall by Candice Fox
Crime , Recommended / 23/01/2016

  Eden Archer, Australia’s answer to Dexter Morgan, and her damaged partner Frank Bennett are back at work in Fall, investigating a series of murders of women joggers. Underlying this investigation is another one by Frank’s lover (and former psychologist) Imogen, who solves cold cases in her spare time and is closing in on Eden’s true identity. There is plenty else going on in Fall, with Eden’s ex-crimelord father Hades having a cameo and a potential new recurring character added to the mix. In some ways, Fall feels like the novel that Fox might have written as the follow up to her debut Hades. It features another serial killer, and in some respects follows the pattern of other procedurals of its type. But the continuing impact of events in her follow-up, Eden, the investigation into Eden’s past and Fox’s style lift Fall out of the usual serial killer chase genre. With every novel, Fox is more in control of her craft. While her mix of first and third person narration in Hades sometimes felt forced, by this third outing the constant shifts of point of view happen effortlessly and serve to ratchet up the narrative tension. Particularly amusing and effective…

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 05/01/2016

Patrick deWitt has gone into fractured fairytale territory in his latest novel. Undermajordomo Minor, set somewhere in Europe, sometime in the nineteenth century comes complete with castles, dukes, battles, pickpockets, chambermaids and the titular majordomo. Lucien “Lucy” Minor needs to leave home. He lands himself a job as assistant to Olderclough, the majordomo  of the Castle von Aux. On arrival, Lucy finds that Olderclough’s previous assistant has disappeared in mysterious circumstances and that only one other member of staff is left in the once grand castle. Even the Duchess has left, and the Duke himself is never seen. Lucy is warned to lock his door at night as strange creatures haunt the castle. Lucy befriends two of the villagers – Memel and Mewe and falls hard for the beautiful Klara who is betrothed to a soldier fighting a not too distant war. Lucy Minor is a fascinating protagonist while being a hard character to like. A liar, a coward, a man who really does not much from life but passionate nonetheless. These are the traits that make Lucy the perfect guide through deWitt’s gothic world. Just as fascinating is the cast of minor characters. Each initially comes across as a…