Booktopia - Australia's llocal bookstore
Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
Crime , Review , Thriller / 19/05/2017

Dennis Lehane takes a swerve away from his long running Kenzie and Genaro series (which includes Gone, Baby Gone) and his recent prohibition and gangsters trilogy to deliver a psychological thriller of sorts. Since We Fell is a book that is hard to categorise. In some ways it is an extended character study and in others it is an extremely long con not only of some of the characters but of the reader. For that reason it takes a long time for the novel to really come into focus with some readers possibly only hanging in to resolve the strong opening hook. Since We Fell opens with a bang, literally. Rachel shoots her husband on the deck of a boat and he flops over the side. Why she has taken the shot and what happens next will have to wait as Lehane takes us back to Rachel’s childhood and her difficult relationship with her mother. Following her mother’s death, Rachel goes on a years long search for the father that she never knew and who her mother refused to tell her about. Through this search she meets Brian, a private detective who, after much trauma on her part comes spectacularly…

The Liar by Steve Cavanagh
Crime , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 17/05/2017

Eddie Flynn, con man turned lawyer is back and once again it is not long before he is in all types of trouble. Trouble that only a man with his unique skill set and view of the world can even begin the sort out. The combination of roguish law breaking and courtroom antics are what have made the previous two Eddie Flynn outings (The Defense and The Plea) so much fun. The Liar is no exception. The first third of The Liar charts the course of one night that Eddie would probably rather forget. Besides being served with a subpoena in a lawsuit that is going after his old mentor Harry, Eddie is called to help out Lenny, an old family friend from his grifter days. Lenny has made his money specialising in helping with kidnap cases and ransoms. When his own daughter is kidnapped Lenny looks to Eddie to help him outsmart not just the kidnappers but the FBI and police who he believe will get her killed. Immediately, Eddie is using his conman skills to help Lenny out. He may be on a legal retainer but the law is a long way away. Six months later, the action…

The Girl Who Was Taken by Charlie Donlea
Crime , Review / 16/05/2017

Another day another ‘Girl’ book. But don’t be fooled by the title which is linked to the current marketing zeitgeist but is actually is a subtle commentary on the plot. The Girl Who Was Taken, second novel by American author Charlie Donlea, is not the “domestic noir” the title might suggest but is actually a fairly straight down the line crime thriller with a resourceful investigator helped by a lucky victim, the girl famous for escaping. The Girl Who Was Taken starts with a potential abduction and an escape. An unspecified time after she was kidnapped, Megan McDonald finds herself in a cabin in the woods and disorientated, staggers out through the rain and onto the highway where she is rescued. A year later and she has become famous for a ghostwritten book about her experiences which does not mention the second girl, Nicola Cutty, who disappeared on the same night she did and has never been found. While everyone expects Megan to be the “girl” she was before the kidnapping, Megan finds herself unable to return to a normal life as she works with a hypnotherapist to delve into the memories of the two weeks in which she was…

Ragdoll by Daniel Cole
Crime , Review , Thriller / 11/05/2017

In a short author interview at the end of Ragdoll, Daniel Cole explains how he put the novel together. He wanted something that was less po-faced that the run of the mill British television crime drama but something not as cheesy as American television crime drama like Castle. And while he has partially succeeded in Ragdoll, he does end up leaning very heavily towards the cheesy/contrived end of the spectrum. Ragdoll opens with the trial of the Cremation Killer – a man known for burning his young, female victims. The trial goes south and police investigator William Oliver Lawton-Fawkes, aka the Wolf, unable to take this miscarriage of justice, attacks and almost kills the defendant. When he is later proved right, Wolf is reinstated to the Force so that four years later when a body is found composed of the body parts of six different people he is on the case. The body, nicknamed the “ragdoll” has been left in such a way that it points towards the flat in which Fawkes in living. And when the head of that body turns out to be the Cremation Killer, connections to that earlier case start to haunt the current investigation. Things become…

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag
Literature , Recommended , Review / 09/05/2017

Vivek Shanbhag has published eight works of fiction and two plays in his native South Indian language of Kannada. Ghachar Ghochar is the first of these to be translated into English, the translation by Srinath Perur. The title itself, which sounds like it could be the name of an Indian pickle or dessert, does not actually translate. It is a phrase invented by the family of one of the characters used to describe a situation where something has become completely tangled to the point where it cannot be easily untangled. The narration starts in a café called Coffee House. The narrator, who is never named, spends much of his days there, seeking respite from “domestic skirmishes”. He is supported in this by his wealthy uncle (“chikappa”) whose business acumen in creating a spice company has raised the family from near poverty into the Indian middle class. It is clear early on that the extended family will do anything to protect that source of wealth. In this short tale, the narrator works his way through the family history and through the family charting their change in circumstances and the effect that it has on them all. As he observes: “We thought…

From Darkest Skies by Sam Peters
Crime , Review , Science Fiction / 04/05/2017

Sam Peters creates an offworld noirish detective story in From Darkest Skies. At first blush Koenig Rause, generally known as Keys, exhibits all the traits of a classic age detective. Thrown out of his job for some serious but unspecified misdemeanour, only in that job after fleeing his real job as an investigator, full of self loathing, crawling back to his old team to try and solve the case that made everything go bad. That case – the death of his wife Alysha in more than suspicious circumstances. So far, so noir. The twist in this tale is that Keys is going back to the planet Magenta with an illegal robotic simulation of his wife in tow. Unable to cope with the grief, he has illegally constructed an artificial intelligence that looks like his dead wife and carries memories constructed from all of the public and private data he could make available. The real Alysha kept things from Keys about her work and as his new version has no access to private information, the AI cannot help him with those details. From Darkest Skies starts on Earth. The early going in this book is tough, with Peters engaging in plenty…

The Restorer by Michael Sala

When The Restorer opens, Richard, a neighbour, is watching a family move in to the burnt out wreck of the house next door. From the outside this is a nuclear family – father Roy, mother Maryanne, an eight year old boy Daniel and a teenage girl Freya. But both Richard and the reader can sense from his first interactions with Roy that something is not quite right. Michael Sala’s new novel, part coming of age story, part (recent) historical fiction centres around abuse within a family. Domestic violence is emerging as a theme of some recent Australian literature. Not long ago we had Katheryn Heyman’s Storm and Grace which focused on an abusive, destructive relationship. But domestic violence has also raised its head in recent debuts by Holly Throsby and Cassandra Austin. As the family move their possessions into the house a storm is brewing. The narrative that follows reflects that on coming storm. Roy is trying to be the man that his wife desperately wants him to be. He throws himself into the restoration of the house as if it is his personal metaphor and that its renewal will be enough to demonstrate his fidelity and love. But as the…

Spoils by Brian van Reet
Historical , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 28/04/2017

In Spoils, Brian Van Reet returns to the early days of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. By following the lives of two US soldiers and one of the mujahideen, he creates a visceral but nuanced exploration of that conflict. The book opens with a firefight at a road crossing outside an Iraqi village which the American troops have nicknamed Triangletown. Specialist Cassandra Wigheard, a female gunner is wounded and captured by the mujahideen. Van Reet then flicks back in time to explore how she and the mujahideen arrived at that point, including the view of a second soldier, Sleed, who fails to support Cassandra’s platoon as he was too busy looting an Iraqi palace. About half way through, van Reet returns to this present and the plight of Cassandra and her two crew mates captured by the mujahideen cell and occasionally on the army’s hunt for them. Inside the mujahideen cell itself there is dissent around what to do with the prisoners, their new leader seeing opportunity for propaganda. This is a small story in the context of the broader war. The initial conflict is a limited roadside firefight and the characters are a long way down the chain of command….

Here Comes Trouble by Simon Wroe
Literature , Review / 26/04/2017

It is tempting at the moment to look at every piece of art, be it book, movie or TV series, that has anything vaguely political to say and claim that it is symptomatic of the time. But trying to reflect and understand the times we live in has been one of the roles of the arts since people were drawing on cave walls. Writers often hold a mirror up to the world and allow their audience to consider their situation in a safe fictional space. Not that there is anything particularly safe about Kyrzbekistan, the hybrid Eastern European country that forms the backdrop of Simon Wroe’s second novel Here Comes Trouble. Kyrzbekistan, held the title of “Most corrupt country 2011 and 2012” and was formerly home to the record holder for heaviest weight lifted by a beard (until both honours were taken by neighbouring Uzbeks). It is currently home to one Ellis Dau, a sixteen year old son of a newspaper editor, expelled from school for an act of extreme vandalism. With nothing else to do, Ellis ends up working for his father’s newspaper, The Chronicle. The Chronicle aims to prick the conscience of the populace as opposed to its rival paper…

Winter Halo by Keri Arthur
Fantasy , Review , Science Fiction / 21/04/2017

Keri Arthur created a fairly complex urban fantasy world in City of Light, the opening volume in her Outcast series. That world which features a long running enmity between ‘shifters’ and humans alongside vampires, ghosts and interdimensional rifts that allowed destructive wraiths into the world. So despite some action, the first fifty pages or so of Winter Halo feel like a large, if necessary, recap to get readers back up to speed. Winter Halo once again focuses on Tiger, the last of a race of super soldiers created for long ago war between the shifters and the humans. Tiger is packed with biophysical and magical features – she was bred to gather intelligence by seducing the enemy, has super strength, can change her physical features, can rapidly heal herself and can read people’s minds particularly when she is having sex with them. Tiger is still trying to track down missing children, possibly being used in an experiment to create vampires who can move in daylight. The trail leads her and her companion Jonas, a shifter with whom there is piles of unresolved sexual tension, to the evil Winter Halo corporation. While advancing the story of the missing children, Winter Halo…

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

John Scalzi kicks off his new space opera series with a mutiny, gun running and the potential of space pirates. There is also plenty of exposition about hyperspace lanes known as the Flow but delivered with such verve that it is a joy to read. The mix of high concept science fiction and a slightly tongue in cheek tone should come as no surprise from the author who gave us both the Old Man’s War series and the award winning Redshirts. Scalzi is not backwards in building his universe from some fairly common tropes – there is an empire ruled by an emperox who is also head of the church and the most powerful trading guild, there are noble families, mainly also connected with trading guilds, and arcane trade relationships. The empire itself, known as the Interdependency is a bunch of planets that can only exist by relying on trade with each other facilitated by the mysterious and not well understood Flow lanes. But the Flow is breaking down, potentially isolating and condemning to failure, all of the interdependent outposts of the Empire. So that even before his scenario is fully understood, Scalzi has started to tear it all apart…

The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter
Review , Science Fiction / 19/04/2017

If you are going to call your book The Massacre of Mankind there had better be a massacre or you might find yourself up for false advertising. And while Stephen Baxter’s authorised sequel to The War of the Worlds has a second, bigger invasion and plenty of battles between man and Martian, this is not a book (thankfully, for mankind at least) that really lives up to its title. Massacre is written as a Wellsian, early-twentieth century sequel to the original. While it would not have been characterised as this back then, in modern terms it could be seen as a steampunk alternative history (where the branch is the unsuccessful 1907 invasion of England by Martians). Set in the 1920s, Massacre charts the second Martian invasion interrupting a war between Germany and Russia which Britain, scarred by the first invasion, has stayed out of. The setting comes complete with zeppelins, advanced technology based on stolen Martian knowhow and a supporting cast of luminaries including Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, George Patton and Wells himself (although never named). Besides Martians, Baxter also introduces beings from other planets including water-dwelling Venusians (shades here of last year’s far superior Radiance by Catherine Valente). Unfortunately,…

Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig
Review , Science Fiction / 18/04/2017

Chuck Wendig ends his post Return of the Jedi series with a series of bangs. As one of the vanguard in the creation of the new official (Disney) Star Wars Universe, Wendig has tried to be true to the spirit of the now defunct expanded universe while strongly anchoring his narrative in the new Star Wars continuity. While it has taken a while to be become clear, what he delivers is a much deeper and longer endgame than has previously been apparent and some specific connections particularly to the action in The Force Awakens are revealed. Empire’s End opens following the chaotic assassination attempts that closed out the second book in this series Life Debt. It is not long before hero Norra Wexley and her misfit crew have tracked the evil Rae Sloane and the remnants of the Empire. They find them massing around and dug in on a backwater desert planet called Jakku. Jakku is the home of Sloane’s enemy and now ruler of the remnant Empire Gallius Rax and is, as fans know, the location that opens The Force Awakens. Desperate for revenge, and under heavy fire, Norra flings herself at the planet in an escape pod together with…

The Regional Office is Under Attack by Manuel Gonzales
Review , Science Fiction , Thriller / 12/04/2017

I’m not sure that if I ran a top secret agency that recruited super powered young women and sent them into battle against the forces of evil I would call it The Regional Office. Hidden in the bowels of a building in New York, safe beneath a cover company offering one of a kind travel experiences for the extremely wealthy, The Regional Office has been fighting the good fight for years. If this set up sounds like a mash-up of several books and TV series (Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets The Office meets Agents Of SHIELD meets Minority Report) that is all part of Manuel Gonzales’ plan. Gonzales and his characters are well aware of their fictional antecedents (at one point a character considers going “all John McLane” to fight off a group of invaders while her opposite number is thinking the same thing as she drags herself through a vent system). This referencing of pop culture touchstones allows Gonzales to give a cinematic quality to the narrative. When powered teen Rose swings her hand around her head to indicate to her goons that it is time to roll out, she does it because that is what she has seen…

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
Literature , Review / 10/04/2017

There have been plenty of books about art and artists – painters, novelists, musicians, film makers – but not so many about cartoonists. Animation as an art form has often been seen as something for children and so less worthy of consideration. And while the main characters of The Animators grew up on 1940s Loony Tunes they also discovered the very adult oriented animation of the seventies and eighties. The Animators is a book about the art form, how it works and what it means for the people who love it. The story of The Animators revolves around two very different women both from lower class, rural America. Mel is the wild card, the rule breaker but also extremely gifted animator while Sharon, from rural Kentucky, is more straight down the line, as she says: “my virtue is in my constancy”. After a brief description of their meeting in college, Whitaker skips forward ten years to their ongoing successful collaboration as animators. Mel continues to be the wild and original one while Sharon keeps the enterprise together while deep down believing that Mel is “the real artist.”.  As Sharon herself notes: “Mel’s having all the fun… while I’m the steady…

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel
Crime , Literature , Recommended , Review / 06/04/2017

Right from the prologue, Amy Engel’s first novel for adults announces itself as, well, a novel for adults. A young girl has a dream about the place in Kansas that her mother came from. Was it a nightmare? Her mother asks. No, she replies. Then it isn’t right, her mother says. And as the story of Lane, her mother and her mother’s extended family unfolds, as a reader, you can not help feeling that her mother knew what she was talking about. Lane is fifteen when her mother commits suicide and she is taken to live with her grandparents and cousin Allegra on the family estate called Roanoke in rural Kansas. For reasons that become abundantly clear fairly early on, Lane ended up running away but is drawn back, eleven years later when Allegra disappears. The story alternates between that long ago summer and the present, building to some explosive revelations along the way. Lane is one of the latest in a line of Roanoke girls, including her mother, aunt and great aunt  who either died or ran away from the place. So that Allegra’s disappearance should not come as a great surprise. That Lane and Allegra are both damaged…

Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel

Lovers of books about giant, human driven robots rejoice! Sylvain Neuvel has delivered a worthy and engaging sequel to his giant robot building debut Sleeping Giants. Waking Gods takes up the story ten years after the end of the first book – the giant robot Themis has become a promotional tool for the Earth Defence Corp and while individual countries would love to get their hands on it for themselves has stayed under the control of the UN. Mystery still surrounds the (SPOILER!) reappearance of scientist Rose Franklin, who is trying to deal with the fact that another version of herself was the one who got the project off the ground. Neuvel immediately shakes up the status quo with the appearance of another giant robot in the centre of London. This sets the second book up to be very different to the first. These new robots are as powerful as Themis and have a seemingly deadly intent. With Themis outnumbered and outgunned, Waking Gods becomes a race against time as the world tries to discover what these invaders want or destroy them before humanity is wiped out. Waking Gods is told in the same style as the first book –…

Take Back the Sky by Greg Bear
Review , Science Fiction / 30/03/2017

Take Back the Sky is the third and final volume in Greg Bear’s military science fiction series which started with War Dogs and continued in Killing Titan. As a result this review cannot help but contain some spoilers for those books, even if they are kept at a minimum. So readers beware. Take Back the Sky opens minutes after the cliffhanger ending of Killing Titan. Trapped beneath the surface of Titan, narrator and grunt Michael Venn and his group of Skyrines (space marines) have changed sides in their ongoing war and are now under attack from their own forces. That war they have learnt, encouraged by the mysterious Gurus against the bird-like Antagonists, is a fraud. They have now been rescued by a group of Antags who have taken control of a bizarre Guru spacecraft with a view to using it to return to their home planet. Take Back the Sky is big idea science fiction dressed up as military scifi. From the Antag culture, to the bizarre interior of the Guru ship which also reveals horrific aspects of design, to the discovery of the real reason why the Gurus came to Earth in the first place. And big idea…

Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty
Crime , Historical , Recommended , Review / 27/03/2017

It is a common trope in crime fiction that the protagonist detective often finds themselves in some sort of mortal peril. So much so that it starts to feel like a bit of cliché.  But for Sean Duffy, a Catholic policeman in a mainly Protestant police force in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, mortal peril is just a fact of life. From the first book in this award winning crime series Sean has been checking under his car for mercury tilt switches every time he leaves his house. So it comes as no surprise to long term fans that book 6, sporting the mouthful name Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly, opens with Sean being marched to his execution through a remnant patch of Irish forest. But, being Sean, as he puffs his way asthmatically through a bog he still manages to keep his mordant sense of humour: “A bullet in the head will fix an incipient asthma attack every time.” Flashback to Sean visiting his parents with his girlfriend and new baby Emma and being relieved to be called back to Carickfergus to investigate the murder of a small time drug dealer. From the start his…

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…