Company Town by Madeline Ashby
Review , Science Fiction / 17/08/2016

Maybe there is something in the water but the idea of decommissioned oil rigs as places for residence seems to be popping up a bit in science fiction lately (see also Jon Wallace’s Rig, reviewed here). In Madeline Ashby’s Company Town, the rig is off the coast of Canada and is the centre of a sprawling ocean-based town of five towers called New Arcadia. When the book opens, New Arcadia is being taken over by the Lynch Corporation following a disaster which destroyed much of the rig’s production capacity. Go-Jeung Hwa is an outsider. Unlike pretty much everyone else on New Arcadia she has no technological modifications. This makes her both different and very valuable. Hwa acts as a body guard for the local sex workers who engage in a very well managed business. But she catches the eye of Zacharia Lynch, the ageing head of the Lynch Corporation, who wants her to be bodyguard for his teenage son and heir Joel who will be attending the local school. In what is a serious sci-fi twist early on, it turns out that Joel is threatened by time-travelling forces from a Singularity future, that is a future controlled by an Artificial…

Devour by LA Larkin
Review , Thriller / 15/08/2016

L.A. Larkin’s third thriller takes readers back to Antarctica, the setting of her last novel Thirst, but with a new cast of characters and a new global threat. But Devour doesn’t get to Antarctica straight away. Larkin opens in Afghanistan where investigative journalist Olivia Wolfe is tracking down information about a terrorist cell. So while there is a lengthy detour to Antarctica to set up the action this is a globe-trotting thriller that also manages to take in both the United Kingdom and United States. Wolfe is sent to Antarctica by her editor after a disastrous mission in Afghanistan to both give her some distance (literally) and to explore some strange goings on at a British research base. The researchers are using some new technology to drill down to a previously untouched lake that lies under three kilometers of ice. The British mission is also a race against time as a group of Russian researchers are trying to achieve the same objective. But a series of accidents, including the death of one of the team, has given rise to suspicions of a traitor in their midst. Under the guise of a journalistic piece Olivia flies in to investigate. But there…

Smoke by Dan Vyleta
Fantasy , Review / 12/08/2016

Dan Vyleta’s new high concept fantasy novel was inspired by a quote from Charles Dickens that ponders how much worse London’s pollution would be if “moral pestilence” were visible “how terrible the revelation”. In Vyleta’s nineteenth century, Dickensian alternate England, this is exactly what happens. People smoke when they sin or let their passions get away from them, with the soot that is left behind a visible reminder of that sin. Breathing in someone else’s smoke can also cause a loss of control. Smoke opens strongly with a focus on two teenage boys at an upper class boarding school. The Oxford school is where the well-to-do send their children to be trained in how to control the smoke. Clothes are checked for traces of soot and punishments handed out for those who lose control. In Vyleta’s world, despite changes to people’s physiology, their psychology is not changed and a strict class system is in force. The action in Smoke heats up when Thomas and Charlie stumble on to a realisation that all is not as they have been led to believe by their elders. Harry Potter style, the two are hunted and go on the run with a teenage girl,…

Never Never by Patterson and Fox
Crime , Review , Thriller / 10/08/2016

James Patterson best known to adults as the author of the Alex Cross series and to young adults as the author of the Maximum Ride series. But much like Tom Clancy, Patterson has become more than just an author, he is an industry. The back of Never Never lists over eighty novels for which he is co-author. Candice Fox, on the other hand, has written three crime novels in the Archer and Bennett series. But they are three of the best Australian crime novels of recent years, the first two of which took out Ned Kelly Awards for best first novel (Hades – reviewed here) and best novel (Eden – reviewed here) back to back. So what happens when the two get together to write a crime thriller? Well, the answer is the Australian-set Never Never. Never Never opens with a point-of-view character known as the Soldier, killing someone out in the desert at night as part of some sort of sadistic military-style game. Switch to Sydney and Detective Harriet “Harry” Blue is being shunted off to Western Australia to avoid the fallout of her brother being picked up as a suspected serial killer. The next minute Harry is working…

Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi
Crime , Review / 08/08/2016

Michel Bussi has won plenty of crime fiction awards in his native France but his first book to be translated into English only hit the shelves last year. After the Crash (reviewed here) was a twisted, surprised filled eighteen year investigation into the identity of the survivor of an air crash. Following the success of that novel in translation, another of Bussi’s crime thrillers, Black Water Lilies, originally published in 2011, has hit the stands. While it shares some of the twisty-turniness of After the Crash, Black Water Lilies is very different and confirms why Bussi might have won all of those awards. Black Water Lilies does not initially feel like a crime novel, with an opening that is more like a fairy tale or some form of mythology. The prologue introduces three female characters. Much like the various aspects of Fate there is the optimistic young girl, the resigned beautiful woman and the all-seeing wise crone. Each is represented as a different personality and each seem to be in their own way, doomed. The action of the novel is very much tied around the actions of these three characters – the young girl with artistic promise surrounded by equally…

Made to Kill by Adam Christopher
Crime , Review , Science Fiction / 02/08/2016

LA, 1965, a beautiful female movie star walks into a seedy detective’s office and makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Only the detective is a robot. One of the greatest exponents of pulp genre noir detective fiction, Raymond Chandler, reputedly turned his nose up at one of the other popular pulp genres of the time – science fiction. The two trod very different paths – one on the seedy side of reality with hard drinking, smoking, wise talking gumshoes and the other full of chrome flying saucers, ray guns and bug eyed aliens. But even at the time there was a little crossover, Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel and its sequels featured a robot detective, although one constrained from violence by Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. Made to Kill, a perfect mash-up of noir detective fiction and raygun gothic scifi, came out of a question to New Zealand author Adam Christopher about a novel he would like to find. Knowing of Chandler’s dislike of science-fiction, he imagined a science fiction book written by Chandler. But not content with imagining this chimera, he went out and wrote it, first as the short story “Brisk Money” (which can be found here) and…

Bloodline by Claudia Gray
Review , Science Fiction / 29/07/2016

Not long after the first Star Wars film was released, novelists started expanding the Star Wars universe. So that activities in the years following Return of the Jedi, also known as episode six, were very well documented and well understood by hard core fans. When Disney bought the Star Wars franchise it picked up some of the existing threads but essentially negated the existing thirty years of literary universe-building. So that fun as the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, was there was plenty of background detail that made little sense. In particular the relationship between the evil First Order, the New Republic and the Resistance. Or, to be more blunt, if there was a Republic, who were the Resistance resisting and why? But authors are starting to be brought in the fill in the blanks. Earlier this year saw the release of the first in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath series, set just following the events in Return of the Jedi (and reviewed here). And now we have Claudia Gray, who, within the confines of a future already partly mapped out, has tried to fill in some more of the gaps with Bloodline. Bloodline is set about twenty years after…

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
Literature , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 27/07/2016

Noah Hawley has written a number of novels but is probably best known as the writer of the television reimagining of Fargo. While Fargo lives in the American mid-west, in Before the Fall, Hawley is mainly concentrated on the East Coast, the lives of the mega-wealthy and the people with whom they come into contact. But Before the Fall is many things – a mystery and a thriller, a meditation on fate and a critique of modern media. Before the Fall opens with a plane crash. David Bateman, head of a FOX-like 24-hour news and opinion network is flying his family home from a holiday in Martha’s Vineyard on a private jet. Also on board are his personal security guard, another wealthy couple and a struggling artist, Scott Burroughs, who has been offered a lift to New York by David’s wife Maggie. Eighteen minutes later and only Scott and the Bateman’s four year old son JJ are alive, adrift in the Atlantic Ocean. The thriller element comes as Hawley explores the aftermath of the crash. Scott, who manages to rescue both himself and JJ, is caught up in a media and legal storm as people search for answers. And when those…

Rig by Jon Wallace
Review , Science Fiction / 25/07/2016

Jon Wallace returns to his dark post-robopocalyptic world for a third and possibly final time in Rig. This volume takes readers off England’s blighted shores and into the wider world, starting off the coast of a post-nuclear Florida. Once again, Kenstibec, the Ficial (android) who, since losing his nanotech has become increasingly Real (human) is at the centre of a narrative that jumps between his current dire circumstances to his earliest days just off the Ficial production line. Rig is immediately different to its two predecessors, Barricade (reviewed here) and Steeple (reviewed here). The earlier novels were based broadly around a quest. Barricade was an unnerving road trip across a blasted Britain, while Steeple had Kensitbec on a mission, although one in which he had motives of his own. Rig is less straight forward and, as a result, it takes a little longer for the plot to kick in. But there is plenty to catch up on in the meantime, including characters from both the first and second books who have ended up on the strange Ficial-made, lotus-like floating crèche that Kenstibec has also found himself living on when the book opens. In Barricade, Wallace made readers care about Kenstibec…

The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North
Fantasy , Review , Thriller / 21/07/2016

In The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Claire North has put yet another spin on themes and ideas that she explored in her previous two novels The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and Touch (reviewed here) . Identity, belonging, individuality, love and choice. Again, the main character is affected by a high fantasy concept that puts her at odds with the world. In this case, Hope Arden is forgotten by everyone she meets almost as soon as she leaves them. Hope is a more tragic figure than North’s previous protagonists. She has been living on her own and by her wits since she was sixteen and her family forgot her. Unable to make a lasting connection with anyone, existing the eternal now, filling the empty space in her life with knowledge with which she peppers her narrative. In both previous novels there were societies of entities with similar powers, but even when Hope does meet another of her “kind” they keep forgetting each other and eventually drift apart. The Sudden Appearance of Hope does not work as well as North’s previous two novels. Many of the themes, revolve around an insidious app called Perfection that encourages people to give up their…

Vigil by Angela Slatter
Crime , Fantasy , Review / 19/07/2016

Angela Slatter, who has won a number of international awards for her short fiction, goes to Brisbane, or Brisneyland as she prefers to style it, for her first full length novel. Vigil is an urban fantasy which sees the streets of Australia’s third largest city shared between the Normals and the supernatural Weyrd. As is often the case, only a select few Normals are aware of this sharing arrangement. The Weyrd community keeps very much to itself and has put limits on the excesses of its members, which previously included preying on the Normal population. Enter Verity Fassbinder, half-human, half Weyrd able to walk in both worlds, with super-strength from her Weyrd side. Verity works as a freelance investigator, partly in penance for the sins of her Weyrd father Grigor, a kinderfresser, who killed normal children for the highborn Weyrd. Verity is tasked by the Weyrd Council to investigate when children once again start going missing. Soon her troubles mount, with dying sirens (the avian kind), a monster roaming the streets, rampant angels and the search for the missing son of a millionaire. While in genre terms this is strictly fantasy, Vigil plays out strongly along crime fiction lines with…

Nightfall by Halpern and Kujawinski
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 15/07/2016

Nightfall comes with a unique, if bizarre, premise. On the Island of Bliss fourteen years of daylight are followed by fourteen years of night. For the daylight years, humans live on Bliss happily going about their business. But as night starts to fall they prepare to depart, knowing they will not return for fourteen years. These preparations following a series of bizarre ancient rules regarding how they should leave the houses that their ancestors originally found fully furnished. Just as the sun disappears and the tide goes out to the horizon, the local fur traders come by boat to take the populace away to the desert lands where there is a constant cycle of three days light to three days dark. Marin is a teenager, born as her parents returned to Bliss fourteen years before she has never seen the total darkness. Her twin brother Kana has always had trouble with his vision, trouble that seems to be alleviated by the approaching dark. And their friend Line is struggling to bring up his seven year old brother Francis following his parent’s death. When the trio are left behind on Bliss, their relationship to each other and their survival skills are…

Black Teeth by Zane Lovitt
Crime , Review / 13/07/2016

In 2010, Zane Lovitt won the Sandra Harvey Award for Crime Fiction Short Story at the Ned Kelly Awards. That story went on to form part of a connected short-story anthology, The Midnight Promise, which won the Ned Kelly for best debut crime novel in 2013. With Black Teeth, a highly original, dark Australian crime novel, Lovitt is once again looking to be a strong contender for the Neds. Black Teeth has an intriguing cold open. Rudy Alamein is trying to purchase life insurance. He is intending to kill someone and does not expect to survive the experience. When he dies he wants the insurance money to go to his only friend. The insurance agent takes this all in and promises to help as he knew Rudy’s father in prison. Only nothing about this conversation is quite what it seems. Cut to narrator Jason Ginaff, a loner who spends his life online and is hired by big firms to do checks on the social media history of potential employees. Jason has anxiety issues and a range of aliases to protect himself from perceived threats. He is also trying to track down his biological father, a retired policeman who was involved…

The Toymaker by Liam Pieper
Historical , Literature , Review / 08/07/2016

The opening of Liam Pieper’s The Toymaker is fairly confronting. Adam Kulakov, a successful middle aged man is thinking of ending his affair (not his first) with a sixteen-year-old school girl. This is just the start of Adam’s problems, problems that are juxtaposed against the struggles of his wife Tess to keep their family business afloat and the traumatic history of his grandfather, transported to Auschwitz during World War 2. The Toymaker has some finely observed, if not always particularly likeable, characters. Adam Kulakov is the epitome of the privileged Australian male. Second generation, living high on the money generated by a company started and grown by his grandfather, arrogant and entitled. Adam’s problems, which become his family’s problems, are grounded in his own hubris and stupidity, in his belief that he is somehow better than those around him. His wife Tess has come from a different direction – her family fortune squandered, and finding herself in a loveless marriage she finds meaning in the company and her connection with Adam’s grandfather. All this is held against the struggle of Arkady Kulakov, a young man transported to Auschwitz and blackmailed into working on medical experiments, finding some meaning by bringing…

Ruins by Rajith Savanadasa
Literature , Review / 06/07/2016

As the war in Sri Lanka ended and a kind of normality slowly returns to the country, a number of novels have emerged exploring the war and its effects. Last year saw The Island of A Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera (reviewed here). That book followed a family touched by the violence who choose to leave their country behind. In his debut novel, Australian author Rajith Savanadasa takes readers past that time, to the middle classes of the “new” Sri Lanka. But the war is never very far from the surface. Savanadasa’s novel focusses on a middle class Sri Lankan family in Colombo. He starts from the point of view of their servant Latha and subsequent chapters are from the points of view of the younger teenage daughter Anoushka, newspaper editor father Mano, his wife Lakshmi and their elder son, and prospective venture capitalist, Niranjan. Each of these characters give a different perspective on the “new” Sri Lanka in which they live. Issues of class, government control, racism, the influence of the West against ancient traditions are aired from different generational and cultural perspectives. Each of the characters has their own arc and trajectory. Each is well drawn and while…

The Girl in Green by Derek B. Miller
Historical , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 01/07/2016

There have been plenty of thrillers in recent years that use the conflicts in the Middle East as a setting and jumping off point. And for thriller authors there is plenty of material to draw on: a volatile situation, plenty of excuse for violence and action and often a grey moral zone in which characters operate. The Girl in Green at first blush, seems like one of these. But while it cloaks itself in the trappings of a thriller, author Derek B. Miller has serious concerns. The Girl in Green opens in Iraq at the end of the first Gulf War, also known as Operation Desert Storm. An American company is set up at Checkpoint Zulu, on the outskirts of an Iraqi town and close to the Kuwaiti border. When Saddam’s death squads arrive to slaughter the inhabitants of the nearby town in order to quell a nascent uprising, the troops are ordered not to interfere. This approach, and its consequences, will haunt two men, one a young soldier, Arwood Hobbes, and the other an English journalist, Thomas Benton, so that over twenty years later they are still trying to make amends. The bulk of the novel is set in…

Sunset City by Melissa Ginsburg
Crime , Review / 28/06/2016

Sunset City opens like a classic noir thriller with a gender twist. A dark, rainy night in Houston, a world weary first person narration, a mysterious stranger at the door, a murder. The narrator is Charlotte Ford and her attractive visitor is Detective Ash, who has come to tell her that her old friend Danielle has been found beaten to death in a hotel. If Sunset City was the noir thriller that the opening seems to suggest then Charlotte would go out to investigate, trawling the mean streets of Houston in a quest to find her friend’s killer. But this is not that book. Charlotte goes into a spin on learning of the death her friend. She had seen her for the first time in two years only a few days before and Charlotte wonders what she could have done to prevent the killing. At the funeral and later the wake, Charlotte falls in with Danielle’s new friends, workers and producers in the internet porn industry. No stranger to drugs and alcohol, and seeking to reconnect with Danielle, Charlotte spirals down into a world of constant highs, casual sex and not a little bit of violence. Somewhere at its heart…

The Dry by Jane Harper
Crime , Recommended , Review / 24/06/2016

The Dry, the debut novel by journalist Jane Harper won the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Award for best unpublished manuscript. But it is a wonder that it had to go this route to get published. The opening of The Dry is a sadly familiar story. In a small town in drought affected country Victoria a struggling farmer, Luke Halpern, kills his wife and ten year old son and then turns the gun on himself. Only his baby daughter survives. Aaron Falk, driven out of town as a teenager and now a federal policeman specialising in fraud, returns for the funeral and is asked by Luke’s parents to look into the deaths. It soon appears that that all is not what it seems. But Aaron, still held under the suspicion by the town for the death of his friend Ellie Deacon twenty years before, does not want to stay. The Dry does what all good crime novels do – it uses Aaron’s investigation of both the current and historical crimes to shine a light on the town, its inhabitants and their often unforgiving environment. In doing so, Harper is able to explore broader social themes and issues affecting rural Australia. There are…

This Census-Taker by China Mieville
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 21/06/2016

Last year, China Miéville released Three Moments of an Explosion (reviewed here), a book of short stories that once again confirmed him as one of the pre-eminent voices in world fantasy. While readers are waiting for the next full length Miéville novel, expected around August this year, he has released a story described as a “novella”. At just over 200 pages long, This Census-Taker was probably a little too long for the recent anthology, but possibly not long enough to be called a novel. This Census-Taker opens with typical Miévillian flourish: a young boy is running down a hill – away from what? towards what? is that blood on his hands or dirt? how old is he (even he isn’t sure)? The first paragraph is part third person, part first person, the facts are in question – but it is immediately engaging. The story only becomes both stranger and more obscure from there. The boy lives on a mountainside above an unnamed town that exists on two sides of a bridge in the mountains. There has been a war of some sort, there is a distant city on the coast but few go there and fewer return. The boy’s father,…

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith
Literature , Recommended , Review / 16/06/2016

At one point in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos it is the late 1950s and a young Australian art student is in conversation with a middle age New Yorker. She is trying to explain to him why an Australian audience would be more likely to identify a good piece of classical music as European rather than Australian. “What does that say about Australians?” He asks, and she replies: “That we don’t trust our own talents. That anything foreign or exotic is automatically better or more refined.” Australian cultural cringe in a nutshell. An observation which has little to do with the plot or major concerns of the novel but just one of the many themes of this accomplished and engaging novel. The events of 1958 are the fulcrum of the novel. Ellie Shipley, a young Australian art restorer and academic is talked into creating a forgery of a painting by a female 17th century Dutch artist. When he discovers the theft of his family heirloom, the painting’s owner Marty de Groot takes on a false identity to track her down. Forty two years later, and Ellie is an art expert in Sydney, assisting with the curation of an…