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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…

The Girl Before by JP Delaney
Review , Thriller / 01/02/2017

It might be a little artificial to identify a sub-genre just from book titles. But with the success of books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, there is definitely a trend emerging for domestic thrillers with the word “Girl” in the title. The presence of the word in the title does not denote the often cosy romantic worlds of chick-lit but a harsher, page turning reality. They are usually narrated (at least partially) by a woman (or the ‘Girl’ of the title), that narration is often suspect to the point of being completely unreliable, and there are violent or abusive men but it is often hard to tell who is the manipulator and who is the manipulated. Part of the pleasure of these thrillers is the constantly shifting power dynamics (even if the nature of the narrative is often that it is only the reader’s perception of these dynamics that is actually shifting). Into this mix comes a potentially big novel for 2017 – The Girl Before. The Girl Before ticks all of the Girl book boxes in spades. It has two unreliable female narrators, a supporting cast of abusive and potentially violent men and plenty of domestic thrills….

Fair Rebel by Steph Swainston
Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 30/01/2017

Steph Swainston burst onto the modern fantasy scene back in 2004 with the first of the Fourlands novels The Year of Our War. While there were some familiar elements, Swainston, much like fellow English fantasy authors like China Mieville, created a new type of fantasy world that was undeniably modern. There were no orcs, no elves, no dwarves and no dragons. Instead, the main character was a drug addicted immortal with the ability to fly, wore t-shirts and jeans and helped to fight a centuries long war against an implacable, insectile enemy. Now, ten years after the last main narrative book and five years after a backstory prequel, Swainston explosively returns to the Fourlands. Following a funeral, the narrative drops straight into the most recent push on the insect-dominated Paperlands. Fifteen years have passed since the events of The Modern World, and after a fair gap, even those who have been following the series probably need a reminder of the key elements of this world, although it’s uniqueness makes these details easier to remember. Swainston and her main narrator Jant, also known as Comet the messenger, acknowledge that it has been a long time between drinks and drop in refreshers…

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta
Crime , Review / 27/01/2017

Australian readers are likely to still know Melina Marchetta for her breakout young adult novel Looking for Alibrandi (1992). Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil is crime genre novel. But while it relies on some of the genre conventions it also manages to subvert some of them, particularly with its focus on some teen protagonists. Bashir ‘Bish’ Ortley is an ex-policeman on the skids. He is drinking to forget the death of his son and has been drummed out of the force for threatening a fellow officer. So far so clichéd. When his teenage daughter is involved in the bus bombing of a youth tour group in France in which five children have been killed Bish races to the scene. As an ex-policeman he finds himself working unofficially for the foreign office as a parent liaison but also in helping track down two teens who have fled the scene. One of the fugitives, Violette, is the daughter of a famous British terrorist still in prison for a supermarket bombing, a case and family with which Bish has history. The theory is that Violette, who had been living with family in Australia but secretly flew to France, has something to do with…

The Woman on the Stairs by Bernhard Schlink
Literature , Review / 23/01/2017

With so many disposable thrillers with the word “Girl” in the title on the market it could possibly be taken a marker of some quality that the title of Bernhard Schlink’s new novel references a “woman”. There are no murders, no unreliable narrators and no sneaky plot twists. The Woman on the Stairs fits more in line with recent books that take the art world as their focus and as a jumping off point to explore deeper issues such as The Last Painting of Sara de Vos (which also, coincidentally, also featured both a stolen art work and Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales). The narrator, an aging mergers and acquisitions lawyer from Germany is in Sydney stitching up a deal when he comes across a painting from his past. That painting, The Woman on the Stairs, was in the middle of a formative event in his life as a young lawyer. The subject of the painting, Irene Gundach, had left her husband for the artist Schmidt and the two men were in a dispute over the painting. The lawyer caught in the middle, found himself falling in love with Irene and helping her to get out of the…

The Terranauts by TC Boyle
Literature , Review / 17/01/2017

Two of TC Boyle’s long running themes collide in his latest novel The Terranauts. On the one hand is his continuing exploration of the power of visionaries to create a following (read cult) and bring people along with their vision (The Road to Wellville is a good early example of this). And on the other, the environment, its fragility, and man’s continuing struggle to both live in harmony with it and destroy it (When the Killing’s Done is a good recent example of this). And like many of his previous books, The Terranauts is built around a true story, because sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up. It is the mid 1990s and eight intrepid explorers, the Terranauts of the title, have been chosen from a group of 16, to spend two years inside a completely sealed habitat known as Ecosphere 2 (the “2” because the Earth itself is Ecosphere 1). Just a note that in the real world, the original was called Biosphere 2 and is still going strong reinvented as a research facility. Ecosphere 2, built in the middle of Arizona, has been established with different biomes – a rainforest, a desert, a small ocean – and…

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Review , Science Fiction / 13/01/2017

There are some speculative fiction books that are so deeply rooted in an author’s unique vision that reading them becomes a sink or swim exercise. Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit is one of these books. The opening chapter reads like military science fiction, but most of the familiar elements of that genre are missing. Instead is a world of mathematical exotic warfare and humanity divided into a number of different factions. Heretics in this universe fight against the order of the hexarchate, tied to a specific calendar and the shared observances associated with it. Ninefox Gambit is a bold and unique vision but not for the fainthearted at any level. The protagonist is Kel Cheris, an army captain promoted to General when she agrees to host the spirit of the long dead and possibly psychotic general Jedao. Jedao has never lost a battle but was interred in the “black cradle” after one famous victory when he turned on and killed all of his own troops. Cheris becomes the “anchor” for the spirit of Jedao, and his personality sits in the back of her head, advising her and to some extent controlling her. Even for this society this is a desperate…

Win, Lose or Draw by Peter Corris
Crime , Review / 12/01/2017

There is no denying Peter Corris’ status as the godfather of modern Australian crime. Corris took the American private investigator corner of the crime genre and made it uniquely Australian. Still going now after 33 years, gumshoe and Sydney icon Cliff Hardy is back in action for the forty-second time in Win, Lose or Draw. Hardy is hired by Gerard Fonteyn, a wealthy businessman, to find his daughter Julianna. Julianna has been missing for over a year and there is little prospect that she will actually be found. Hardy does some digging and agrees with this assessment. But months later a photo of someone who could be Julianna comes to light on Norfolk Island and Hardy is off. Very soon the search becomes extremely complicated involving drugs, under-age prostitution, murder, corrupt police and dodgy investigators. All in all, a typical Hardy scenario. Win, Lose or Draw delivers exactly what it promises – a hard boiled jaunt through the seedier parts of the Gold Coast and Sydney. Hardy, although starting to show is age (if he aged at the same rate as normal people he would be about 80 by now), is still as tough as ever. Even tied up and…

Top Five Crime 2016
Crime , Top Fives / 20/12/2016

There was lots of great crime this year. These are five of my favourites: Jane Harper’s debut crime novel The Dry was a revelation. A classic crime novel in a classic, rural Australian setting, with strong characters dealing with universal issues. Thomas Mullen exposed modern attitudes in Darktown – a tense, multi-strand procedural set in 1948 Atlanta. Zane Lovitt is likely to be back in award contention for his second novel, Black Teeth, a highly original, dark Australian crime novel with humour as black as its title suggests. Nadia Dalbuono’s Leone Scarmacio series keeps getting better with this third outing. In The Hit, Scarmacio is dealing with a kidnapping that threatens to expose his own mafia past. Double Golden Dagger winner, Bill Beverly’s Dodgers is a timely crime debut that delves deep into the psyche of modern America.       Honourable mentions: Slaughter Park by Barry Maitland Made to Kill by Adam Christopher The Windy Season by Sam Carmody Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama Signal Loss by Garry Disher