Fear by Dirk Kurbjuweit
Crime , Review , Thriller / 24/03/2017

In his first novel to be translated into English, German journalist Dirk Kurbjuweit delivers an urban thriller and ethical minefield. The novel, based partly on personal experience, asks how far a person might go to protect their family. And more importantly, how much does society, history and culture inform that reaction. Fear starts with a quick bait and switch. Randolph is visiting his elderly father in what could be an old age home but turns out to be a prison. Randolph’s father is serving time for the manslaughter of Randolph’s neighbour Dieter Tiberius. The narrative is Randolph’s reflection of how his family has come to this point and how, bit by bit, they were driven from civilization to barbarism. Randolph, an architect, has moved with his wife and two children into a block of flats in Berlin. Soon they have attracted the attention of the neighbour who lives in their basement. What begins innocently quickly gets out of control when Dieter starts writing suggestive poems to Randolph’s wife and then publicly accusing the couple of child abuse. They quickly find that there is little the social or legal systems that they rely on can do to help them manage the…

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…

The Dark Room by Jonathan Moore
Crime , Review / 20/03/2017

Jonathan Moore’s The Dark Room is the second panel in his “triptych of San Francisco’s nighttime scenery”. After the psychological twistiness of his debut The Poison Artist, The Dark Room comes across a fairly down the line procedural. But as before, one that plumbs the depths of human depravity. Just to get the atmosphere established, The Dark Room opens with the exhumation of a thirty year old grave sometime after midnight. Detective Gavin Cain is called away from this scene at the request of the Mayor, who has received a series of disturbing photographs and a note from a potential blackmailer. The photographs, also thirty years old are of a woman in fear. It does not take long for Cain to wonder if the two cases are connected. The Dark Room is an effective procedural. Cain has to navigate the political landscape of his boss’s connection to the Mayor and the involvement of the FBI, time increasingly becomes a factor as the pressure mounts and the case unravels in strange directions. Par for the course in this genre, Cain himself eventually comes under threat. Cain himself is a well drawn character. An experienced detective, he is not a basket case…

The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred by Greg Egan
Review , Science Fiction / 17/03/2017

Australian novelist Greg Egan has delivered some mind blowing sci fi novels.  The Four Thousand The Eight Hundred does not have the inventive scope of some of these works. Being a novella, Egan doesn’t have the room to develop his universe too deeply.  But by relying on some familiar science fiction settings and universal ideas as a base, Egan still manages to deliver a fair punch in a small space. People are fleeing Vesta. Strapping themselves to giant stone blocks and putting themselves in stasis to drift through space over a three year trip to Ceres, hitching a ride illegally on a trade that swaps the stone for ice. These refugees are fleeing a regime in which they are treated as second class citizens. They are welcomed by Ceres, a move that creates some tension with Vesta where they are considered to be criminals. There are no big or new scifi ideas in this novella, Egan takes shortcuts to create a complete and believable but contained corner of the solar system.  For example, dwarf planet and asteroid belt mining concerns have a long history in science fiction.  But Egan uses these science fiction tropes to explore elements of the human…

Caraval by Stephanie Garber
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 15/03/2017

Stephanie Garber’s debut novel is a finely wrought Young Adult Italianate fantasy. It has elements of gameplay, cautious romance and danger but is always keen to assure characters and readers that it is ‘only a game’. The book opens with seven years of letters from Scarlett Dragna to the mysterious ‘Legend’. Legend runs an annual event called Caraval. Not much is known about Caraval except that it involves players and magic and possibly a little adventure. But all Scarlett can do is dream, stuck on an island with an abusive father, engaged to marry a nobleman who she has never met and sworn to protect her impetuous younger sister. When tickets arrive for Caraval a week before her wedding, Scarlett baulks at the chance but her sister has other ideas. Caraval, it turns out is a giant game. For five days, competitors try to solve a mystery in a magic city that is a little reminiscent of Venice. Gameplay can only take place at night and it turns out very quickly that the object of this year’s quest is Scarlett’s missing sister Tella. Scarlett is helped by the mysterious, good looking sailor who helped them travel to the island and…

The Nowhere Man by Gregg Hurwitz
Review , Thriller / 13/03/2017

The world seems to be full of highly trained, disaffected, black ops, renegade loners who are trying to do good deeds while being hunted down by their government. Last year, Orphan X, also known as Evan Smoak, joined the ranks of the likes of Jason Bourne and Jack Reacher as the latest highly skilled loner on the block. But there is no need to have read Orphan X to get right into this novel as Gregg Hurwitz covers all of the necessary detail in one paragraph: “…the Orphan Program, a deep-black project buried inside the Department of Defense. It had identified the right kind of boys [and as it turns out, girls] lost in the system of foster homes, covertly culled them one by one, and trained them to do what the US government could not officially do in places where it could not officially be. A fully deniable, antiseptic program run off a shadow budget.” When the book opens Smoak has turned his back on the Program and has taken his budget and skills to the street. He is “The Nowhere Man” and will help people in trouble, asking in return only that they pass on his phone number when…

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…

The Tourist by Robert Dickinson
Review , Science Fiction / 23/02/2017

It is probably an indicator of the publisher’s lack of faith that Robert Dickinson’s The Tourist sells itself as a thriller rather than a time-travel tale. Because how thrilling can things be when the future is already written? Spens is a rep for a tour company that takes people from the 24th century back in time on quaint early 21st century expeditions to English shopping malls and pubs. The enterprise is not a secret – the 21st century community know that the future tourists are among them and have adapted to serve the market. Meanwhile, back in the future, a prisoner is asked to be guide for an operative who has been sent forward from the recent past to track down some high value people lost in the Badlands. For no apparent reason, the two narrative streams are differentiated by being told in first and second person. The two plots intersect when one of Spens’ tourists goes missing and all hell starts to break loose in 21st century UK. Time travel makes it difficult to generate any tension. People in the book keep talking about not wanting to know the future so as to have some form of agency. And…

The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch
Crime , Fantasy , Review / 21/02/2017

After a sojourn in the country, PC Peter Grant returns to the heart of London and back into this series’ central mystery in The Hanging Tree. Once again, Ben Aaronovitch manages the entertaining high wire act of police procedural, urban fantasy, wry social commentary, and geek Easter egg hunt. Lady Tyburn, one of the river goddesses of London, asks Peter to help her daughter Olivia who has been found at the scene of a death by drug overdose. Along with Olivia, the victim, Christina Chorley, is one of a group of ultra-rich school girls looking for thrills and trouble. The plot allows Aaronovitch to explore the wealthy side of London – he stages an action scene in Harrods and PC Grant gets to visit country estates and London terrace houses with subterranean swimming pools straight out of Grand Designs. Aaronovitch also spends some time expanding his universe further with a group of special forces American practitioners (wizards) appearing on the scene, hereditary witches who have no truck with the patriarchal wizarding world and a deeper dive into the demi-monde. In amongst these new players, Peter is once again tousling with his old foe the Faceless Man and his old colleague…

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 Jekyll Revelation by Robert Masello
Fantasy , Historical , Review / 17/02/2017

The Jekyll Revelation is a strange hybrid of a novel. It constantly flicks between the diaries of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, and the struggles of a present day environmental scientist tracking coyotes in Topanga Canyon outside of Los Angeles. In the process deep secrets are revealed. The Robert Louis Stevenson story line is told in diary form. It starts with a murder then flashes back to Stevenson’s sojourn with his family in a Swiss health retreat while he writes Treasure Island. Stevenson was seeking (and received according to his diary) radical treatment for a chronic lung condition. The story of Stevenson’s stay at the sanitarium and his bizarre treatment is told in the best tradition of gothic horror. The results provide more than the inspiration for the novel about Jekyll and Hyde which, once published and adapted for the West End stage, draws Stevenson into the Jack the Ripper investigation. The Jekyll Revelation leans heavily on historical record to create a fictional Stevenson. And Robert Masello effectively manages to blur the line between what is likely to be the truth, fictional licence and out and out fantasy. Meanwhile, in the bright sunshine of Topanga Canyon, Rafael Salazar is dealing with…

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet, Becky Chamber’s eye-opening debut, brought a bit of humanism into science fiction. Like recent film Arrival, and much of Star Trek, Chambers was interested in using science fiction to explore elements of the human condition through science fiction. You would expect that the sequel would build on Chambers’ rich universe and diverse cast. But Chambers, bravely and successfully, takes a different approach. Focusing on two of peripheral characters from the original book and based mainly in a familiar locale. At the end of Planet, rebooted Artificial Intelligence Lovelace had been illegally installed into a human body-kit and spirited away by fix-it guru Pepper, leaving the crew of the Wayfarer to go on their way. Chambers tells the story of Lovelace, now Sidra, as she adjusts to being in human form and the history of Pepper, who started her life as a throwaway clone and was rescued and raised by a ship’s AI called Owl. Whereas Planet had some semblance of a plot and some secrets among the crewmates to drive the action, Orbit is almost pure character drama. While there is some tension in the fact that Sidra is effectively illegal and…

Crimson Lake by Candice Fox
Crime , Recommended , Review / 13/02/2017

Candice Fox announced herself as an Australian crime writer to watch with her Ned Kelly Award winning debut Hades, followed up a year later by its award winning sequel Eden. The Archer and Bennett series took a couple of fairly recent crime fiction tropes (including the serial killer cop) but Fox made them completely her own. After a shortlisted third in the series and a humdrum collaboration with one-man crime fiction factory James Paterson, Fox launches what is potentially a new series with Crimson Lake. And is, in a few words, absolutely back on form. Crimson Lake is a small tropical town outside of Cairns. It is where Ted Conkaffey has gone to ground after his life fell apart. Conkaffey was a policeman, charged with the brutal assault on a teenage girl but never convicted. He continues to protest his innocence but is scarred by his experience on the other side of the justice system and, not cleared of the crime, is still suspected of being a paedophile. His lawyer hooks him up with local detective Amanda Pharrell. Amanda is in some ways more damaged than Ted, having spent ten years in prison for stabbing a fellow teenager to death….

Marshall’s Law by Ben Sanders
Crime , Review , Thriller / 09/02/2017

Ben Sanders is a New Zealander but you would not know it from his all American gun-fest that is the Marshall Grade series. These books steeped in the American super hard-boiled tradition, usually anchored by a violently proficient loner, popularised by authors like Lee Child. Marshall’s Law opens months after the events in American Blood. There is still a contract out on Marshall, Sander’s Jack Reacher style loner and former cop who went into witness protection after an undercover operation gone wrong. Unable to find him, they go after his US Marshal contact Lucas Cohen in Santa Fe. Cohen survives a kidnapping attempt and alerts Marshall who then leaves his hiding spot in LA to travel to the East Coast to try and get some information. For no real reason, Cohen also heads to New York with a view to helping Marshall out. Meanwhile, a violent crime boss called Dexter Vine is looking to capture or kill Marshall for the bounty which he needs to pay off debts to a bigger crime boss. Much of the narrative focusses on the cat and mouse games between Vine’s goons and Marshall with Cohen providing some related back-up as he puts things together….

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 Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith
Historical , Review / 06/02/2017

Martin Cruz Smith takes a break from his long running Arkady Renko Russian crime series which started with Gorky Park to explore a different corner of history. The Girl from Venice takes readers to Italy in the dying days of the Second World War. Italy is being bombed by the allies and is riven by division as Mussolini and the fascists cling on to power. At the same time the country is playing host to the German Western Front command and an increasingly desperate German army, many of whom can see the writing on the wall. But the focus of the novel is Innocenzo, or Cenzo, a fisherman of Pallesteria, a small town across the lagoon from Venice. When Cenzo picks up what he thinks to be a dead girl floating in the lagoon he steps into a world of trouble. The girl, Gulia, very much alive, has escaped from a German attack that killed her Jewish family and the two end up in the middle of a number of power plays as various people try to manoeuvre as the war ends. Chief among these is Cenzo’s brother, a famous actor and propagandist for the Mussolini regime. Cenzo, while having…

Kill The Next One by Frederico Axat
Crime , Review , Thriller / 03/02/2017

Kill the Next One, Argentinean author Frederico Axat’s first novel translated into English literally has a killer premise. Ted McKay has put a gun to his own head, prepared to commit suicide when there is a knock at the door. A stranger enters and offers him a deal – to become part of a club where he kills someone who deserves to die and then kills someone who themselves is looking to commit suicide. He will then be killed in turn by an anonymous stranger, saving his family the torment of dealing with a suicide. This premise is just the start of a twisty turny psychological thriller.  Every fifty pages or so Axat overturns the previous section and delves deeper into the mind and history of Ted McKay. Because of this structure it is hard to get a handle on the character.  The book depends on constantly wrong footing the reader and confounding expectations. Kill the Next One is a strange proposition. It is, in the end, an onion-like puzzle built around a bizarre history and mental illness so that it is difficult to talk about any more of the plot without heading into spoiler territory. Axat successfully shifts tonally from…