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…

Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry
Crime , Review , Thriller / 14/10/2016

Under the Harrow is a short sharp psychological thriller in which a woman investigates the murder of her sister and in doing so needs to confront the secrets of their shared past. The book practically opens with Nora finding the bodies of her sister Rachel and her dog brutally murdered in their house in a small village outside of Oxford. Not able to fully trust the police, Nora decides to stay in town and try and uncover the murderer herself. There are secrets in the sisters’ shared past. Rachel was beaten by a stranger on her way home from a party when they were in their teens. When no assailant was found the two girls kept watch over all similar assaults and haunted the courts of North Yorkshire, trying to identify the assailant. Despite Nora warning her off, it seems that many years later Rachel was not only still looking but also living in fear that the man will return. Nora at first comes across as one of the many cut-out domestic thriller protagonists currently appearing across crime fiction. She has issues with alcohol and finds herself losing her identity as she immerses herself in her sister’s world. But she…

Aftermath: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig
Review , Science Fiction / 11/10/2016

Life Debt, the second book in Chuck Wendig’s Star Wars sequel/prequel trilogy reintroduces some much loved characters from the Star Wars Universe. The Aftermath series is set not long after the events of Return of the Jedi but Wendig liberally sprinkles it with Easter eggs and foreshadowing of The Force Awakens. Being part of the new official Star Wars canon, Wendig also throws in connections to other official books, comics and TV series. Life Debt, like Aftermath (reviewed here) before it, focusses on Norra Wexley, ex Y-Wing pilot. Norra and her bunch of misfits go round the galaxy capturing former imperial officers so they can stand trial. The team, includes an ex-imperial officer, a bounty hunter, a soldier and Norra’s son Temmin “Snap” Wexley (who, as Star Wars aficionados know, grows up to be Poe Dameron’s wingman in The Force Awakens). The group formed in the previous book but were not particularly memorable and so it takes a while to reacquaint with them. To do this, Wendig throws in an opening action sequence that serves to highlight the strengths of this series. While the characters grow through this book, they still feel like “types” when the final credits roll. The plot itself…

Slaughter Park by Barry Maitland
Crime , Recommended , Review / 07/10/2016

The first book in the Harry Belltree series Crucifixion Creek (reviewed here) signalled a change of pace and setting for Australian crime writer Barry Maitland. He forsook his long running very British Brock and Kolla procedurals for the faster paced, more morally ambiguous Belltree. At the same time replacing the more staid and cool streets of the UK with the brashness and bright sunshine of Sydney. It was a brave move and it paid off. Crucifixion Creek was a great piece of Australian crime fiction, involving shonky developers and bikie gangs in Western Sydney it garnered a nomination for the Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Fiction in 2015. But there was always a deeper story at play connected to the death of Belltree’s famous father, a member of the stolen generation and the first Aboriginal judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court. The second book of the series, Ash Island (reviewed here), also made the Neds short list in 2016. Ash Island broadened out the conspiracies only glimpsed in the first book and provided more clues to the mysteries surrounding the death of the Belltrees senior. But the story suffered a little from middle book syndrome, raising more…

Dead in the Water by Tania Chandler
Crime , Review / 04/10/2016

Tania Chandler’s debut Please Don’t Leave Me Here, did not feel like the start of a series. That story (reviewed here) explored the life of Brigette, married to Sam, the policeman who many years before investigated the death of a music promoter that she had been having a relationship with. While it had crime stylings, Please Don’t Leave Me Here was more of a character study of Brigette as she tried not descend back into drug abuse, with second half of the novel focussing on the shady past that she was trying to leave behind. So it was surprising, but not unwelcome, to find Brigette as the centre of Chandler’s second novel Dead in the Water. A quick search of the Internet reveals that Dead in the Water is a very popular name for some decidedly B-grade crime fiction. But this aspect of the novel turns out to be a bit of a meta-commentary on crime fiction. Dead in the Water is also the title of a crime novel within this novel, in which a hard-bitten, hard drinking detective has to investigate the murder of his wife. The novel in the novel is the fourth of a series of procedurals…

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…

The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel
Literature , Review / 28/09/2016

The Summer That Melted Everything is a novel that defies characterisation. Part coming of age story, part American gothic, part social commentary. And it manages to be all of these things at once while plumbing the depths of the worst of humanity with poetic prose. It is 1984, a year of wonders, and Autopsy Bliss, long time prosecuting attorney in the town of Breathed, Ohio, puts an ad in the newspaper inviting the devil to come to the town. And the devil appears, possibly, in the form of a lost thirteen-year-old African American boy who instantly befriends Autopsy’s youngest son Fielding. Whether Sal, as he calls himself based on the S from Satan and L from Lucifer, is actually the devil remains ambiguous through the book. Certainly he seems to know things that he should not know and his presence seems too impact on the weather of the town which becomes unbearably hot. But in many ways, Sal is just a thirteen-year-old boy. The story of that summer is narrated by Fielding from a remove of seventy years. An ageing Fielding lives in an Arizona trailer park in a very sparsely described mid-twenty first century. But the affect of those…

The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 27/09/2016

Heidi Heilig’s The Girl From Everywhere is a heady mix of time travel, fantasy, romance and historical fiction for young adults. Nix Song, a sixteen year old lives on a tall ship called the Temptation, captained by her father Slate. Slate has the power to navigate the ship anywhere in time and space so long as he has a written map to guide him. But there is only one thing Slate wants – to return to Honolulu in 1865 and prevent his partner from dying just after she gave birth to Nix. The question that troubles Nix is what might happen to her and her life if he succeeds. Nix is probably the least interesting character in the book. A plucky teenager with father issues and a burgeoning but fairly chaste love life, caught between her roguish shipmate Kashmir and the more straightlaced, shore-bound Blake. But this blandness also makes Nix the perfect guide to this world for the intended audience of the novel, which would be teenage girls at the younger end of the young adult spectrum. As if the time travel element is not enough, there is more than a smattering of fantasy in The Girl from Everywhere…

Darktown by Thomas Mullen
Crime , Historical , Recommended , Review / 23/09/2016

A crime novel set in Atlanta in 1948, Darktown uses the genre to shine a light on a point in time in American history and, in doing so, on present day America. Thomas Mullen uses as his jumping off point the true story of the appointment of the first eight black policemen in Atlanta. They do not have an office, instead they are forced to operate out of the basement of a local YMCA. They were not given cars and had to call in white detectives when a matter needed investigation. Distrusted almost as much by the locals in their own, segregated neighbourhoods as by their fellow police officers, they were nevertheless part of the vanguard of a nascent civil rights movement. Lucius Boggs, son of the local preacher and recently returned from the Second World War, is one of the first eight black policemen in Atlanta. He and his fellow recruits are keen to clean up their part of town, rife with bootleggers, gambling and prostitution. To add to their problems, many of those enterprises are either sponsored or actively managed by their white police colleagues who make money from turning a blind eye and who are not keen to see any change to the…

Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman
Crime , Review / 20/09/2016

Laura Lippman steps into To Kill a Mockingbird territory in her latest legal thriller Wilde Lake. But this is not a coming of age story about a girl who sees her lawyer father do the right thing. Quite the opposite. Where Wilde Lake delves into the past, and it spends a lot of its time there, it is to highlight how much we miss and reinterpret as children and how those events may look different in the harsher light of adulthood. Luisa Brant has recently fought a bruising political battle with her now ex-boss to become the first ever female district attorney of Howard County, Maryland. The win was particularly bittersweet as it was that same boss who had hired her during a particularly low period in her life. Lu is also the daughter of the most famous, and still loved prosecutor in the state’s history. So expectations are high but from her first murder trial, a seemingly open and shut case involving the killing of a woman by a local with a mental illness, things start to unravel. At the same time as the contemporary case, Lippman takes readers through Lu’s childhood. Starting with an incident involving her brother…

Lord of the Darkwood by Lian Hearn
Fantasy , Review / 15/09/2016

Lord of the Darkwood is the conclusion to the mythological prequel series of Lian Hearn’s bestselling Otori books. As with the previous volume Emperor of the Eight Islands (reviewed here), Lord of the Darkwood is actually a compilation of two shorter books the first called Lord of the Darkwood and the second and final volume called The Tengu’s Game of Go. This again is to the benefit of the overall tale as the first volume of the two is practically all set up for the concluding part. In fact the titular character, Shikanoko, hardly makes an appearance in the first volume and then only in the distance of another character’s point of view chapter. Actually, as the plot progresses it appears that the second title is probably more apt for the whole series. Much like the gods in Terry Pratchett’s early Discworld novels, the story seems to boil down to a game played by superior beings. Some characters actually get a glimpse of the Tengu, or spirits, playing a game of Go with their lives on the board. So that what seems to them like free will often turns out to be either direct manipulation by forces well beyond their…

Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

Hot on the heels of Colson Whitehead’s magical realist version on slavery in the antebellum south The Underground Railroad (reviewed here) comes Ben Winter’s alternate history exploring similar issues. Ben Winter’s version of the present is one in which Abe Lincoln was assassinated before the civil war and in the aftermath of that event a compromise was reached in which the Southern states were allowed to maintain slavery. Modern day America still has four slave states (the Hard Four) and has spent the twentieth century as an economic pariah, suffering trade embargoes from Europe but finding alternative markets for its goods in Africa and Asia. The Underground Airlines of the title describes the system in place to help escaped slaves, known in the vernacular as People Under Bond or Peebs, reach the safety of Canada. They are unable to stay even in the free states of the US because of laws which allow Federal Marshalls to recapture and return them. The book opens on Victor, a former slave who managed to escape to the North only to be blackmailed and trained into working for the Marshalls to track down other escaped slaves. But all is not what it seems with…

Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 08/09/2016

In a time in which postapocalyptic fiction constantly trying to outdo itself in disaster, Lily Brooks-Dalton has produced what might be the quietest, gentlest most heartfelt view of the end of the world to date. The apocalypse in Good Morning, Midnight happens offstage, the view of it is from an extreme distance from which nothing is known other than there is no longer any telecommunications and, later, that all of the world’s lights are off. All that the reader knows of the event is that it has left some people stranded – in particular Augustine, an aging astronomer at a remote Arctic observatory, and Sully, a communications specialist, part of a team of explorers returning home from an exploratory trip to Jupiter. Good Morning, Midnight revolves around the lives of these two characters and those around them. They are different tales of survival and loss, Augustine chooses to remain at a remote arctic outpost when it is hurriedly evacuated and has an eight-year-old girl, accidentally left behind, for company. Food and warmth are not an issue but eventually the need to communicate with the outside world is and Gus decides that has to find a way to navigate them across…

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

With Black Lives Matter in the news in the US it is perhaps no surprise that fiction and non-fiction explorations of slavery are once again coming to the fore. Fiction which focuses on slavery, while important to an understanding of historical context, also casts a light on current events. Recent films like 12 Years a Slave, the remaking of Roots on TV and now, among a number of new books which take slavery as their focus, comes Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad begins with the origins of the slave trade. The story of Cora’s grandmother who was transported to America and passed through a number of hands before arriving at a cotton plantation in Georgia from which she never left.  But the focus of the novel is on Cora, forced to find her own way after her mother escaped from the plantation, when she was eleven, leaving her behind. Cora, encouraged by a fellow slave, also decides to flee despite the severe and violent consequences of failure. When she does, Cora discovers the underground railroad used to transport escaped slaves North. In Whitehead’s world this is no metaphorical device but an actual railroad dug into the earth by unknown hands, run by white station agents committed…

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Rowling, Tiffany and Thorne
Fantasy , Review / 02/09/2016

Probably nothing that is written in this review will affect the juggernaut of what is essentially the eighth Harry Potter book. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the rehearsal script of the new two-part play set nineteen years after the events in the Deathly Hallows, returns readers to familiar locales, spells and situations but with a new generation of teenagers at the helm. The centre of The Cursed Child is two confused, fairly typical teens. Albus Severus Potter, middle child of Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley, is failing to deal with family fame and has been sorted into (gasp!) Slytherin. While his new best friend Scorpius Malfoy, son of Harry’s schoolyard nemesis Draco, is subject to a painful whispering campaign about his parentage. But plenty of loved characters also feature either in main parts of the plot or dream sequences. For long-time fans of the books this is an opportunity to revisit characters like Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny and Draco in their middle age and see how their exploits both define and restrict them. At the centre of the action of The Cursed Child is a tricky narrative device – the timeturner. Rowling used this device to great effect in…

The Medusa Chronicles by Baxter and Reynolds
Review , Science Fiction / 31/08/2016

Then last novella written by Arthur C Clarke, one of the greatest writers of the classic science fiction age, ended with almost an open invitation. Its protagonist, Howard Falcon, half man, half machine was to be an ambassador between humanity and a machine culture, which was not the focus of that story, “in the troubled centuries that lay ahead”. Two of the biggest names in the British sci-fi scene have taken up the challenge of chronicling those troubled centuries. Baxter, off the back of his Long Earth series written jointly with the late Sir Terry Pratchett, and Reynolds revisiting some of the themes from his recent space opera trilogy – Poseidon’s Children. The first thing to say about The Medusa Chronicles is that, without being slavish, Baxter and Reynolds have tried to capture the feel of 1960s science fiction. Although it dips heavily into some ideas from modern physics, the book has a ’60s feel. This is both to their credit and, ultimately to the book’s detriment. The whole narrative exists in an altered imagined future in which a joint space effort in the late ’60s to avoid global disaster kickstarted a much more vigorous space exploration program, landing a…

Heart of Granite by James Barclay
Review , Science Fiction / 29/08/2016

Military sci-fi goes reptilian in James Barclay’s Heart of Granite. But this is not humans versus reptiles as you might think. This is humans using genetically modified reptiles as weapons and transport in a three–way world war over resources. Once the world building is laid out, Heart of Granite settles down into a military mode complete with chains of command, a protagonist with a healthy disrespect for authority and political machinations. After the discovery of alien DNA, mankind used the new technology to bioengineer new weapons of war. A suite of reptilian creatures controlled by humans plugged straight into their brains. Just to set the scene, the Heart of Granite of the title is a kilometer long, thirty legged walking Behemoth, the land version of an aircraft carrier with room for over 1000 crew and equipment inside its genetically engineered body. On board are squadrons of drake pilots, flyboys who plug straight into their dragon-like rides, and ground forces who pilot ‘vehicles’ like the speedy basilisks and slower but more powerful geckos. The plot centres around one drake wing on a single behemoth on the North African front of what is a global war. Max Halloran, a typical cocky flyboy,…

A Toaster on Mars by Darrell Pitt

As the introduction makes clear, A Toaster on Mars in not, actually, about a toaster or any other kitchen appliances. And the plot only meanders to Mars for its finale. The toaster in question is actually a cyborg character called Nicki Steel, wearing the epithet for robots made popular by the recent Battlestar Galactica reboot. Set in the 26th century, A Toaster on Mars is a science-fiction comedy romp for kids. The paper thin plot involves detective Blake Carter and his new partner Steel going up against the universe’s worst bad guy named, unsurprisingly, Bartholomew Badde. Badde, Carter’s long-time nemesis, has kidnapped Carter’s daughter and blackmails him into steeling some high tech equipment. The rest is a series of capers, battles and chases across Neo City, built on the ruins of the US east coast, with brief pauses for additional comedic interludes. Pitt is clearly a Douglas Adams fan. The opening monologue by editor Zeeb Blatsnart (even the name feels Adams-inspired) and many of Blatsnart’s italicised asides during the plot are essentially Adams-light, and many are reworkings of Adams’ ideas. Similarly, many of the plot devices – a killer-mutant cheese sandwich, a pocket universe full of Elvises, snarky artificially-intelligent appliances…

Surrender New York by Caleb Carr
Crime , Review / 19/08/2016

Caleb Carr is probably best known for his historical crime fiction debut The Alienist. That book, and its sequel, Angel of Darkness, set around turn of the century New York City and, later upstate New York, explored the early days of criminal psychology. They had an old fashioned feel which, given their setting, was entirely appropriate and brought the period and locations to life. Carr’s latest book, Surrender, New York is contemporary, also set in upstate New York and ties back loosely to these earlier works through the investigative legacy of their main character, Dr Kreizler. Dr Trajan “LT” Jones is a criminal psychologist. Run out of New York City after showing up the local investigators, Trajan and his colleague Michael Li have set up in Shiloh, his old family estate outside of the little town of Surrender, in upstate New York. Jones and Li now lecture online to students across the country. They are called in to consult by the local sheriff when a teenage girl is found dead in suspicious circumstances, and soon find themselves, again, falling foul of the State investigators who want to see their case wrapped up quickly. Jones and Li, following in the steps…