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…

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…