Lifelike by Jay Kristoff

Hot off the success of the Illuminae trilogy, Jay Kristoff launches a new science fiction series that also mines deeply from and mashes elements of the science fiction pantheon. Just in case readers might be in any doubt, the cover described Lifel1k3 as “Romeo and Juliet meets Mad Max meets X-Men with a little bit of Blade Runner cheering from the sidelines”. The Romeo and Juliet reference refers to the romantic tropes that seem to drive every YA book that has been released this century. And there is more than a little bit of Blade Runner here given this is a post-apocalyptic tale focussing humanoid robots. But Lifel1k3 has deeper and older antecedents – Isaac Asimov’s robot books, particularly his famous three laws of robotics, and Pinocchio. Eve drives a robot fighter in a post-apocalyptic California. When a fight goes bad and she exhibits a mental power that fries electrical circuits she becomes a target of local religious nutters, street gangs, corporations and a group of murderous, super strong, self-healing humanoid robots called Lifelikes. She goes on the run with her best friend Lemon Fresh, a small snarky robot called Cricket, a robot dog and a Lifelike who claims he…

The Other Wife by Michael Robotham
Crime , Review , Thriller / 06/07/2018

Michael Robotham admits in his Afterward that he never expected his Joe O’Loughlin series to go as long as it has. But the character continues to surprise and engage and in The Other Wife, Robotham gets to dig deep into O’Loughlin’s childhood and the experiences which shaped O’Loughlin as a character. Fresh off his stand alone thriller The Secrets She Keeps it is perhaps not a surprise that the latest O’Loughlin thriller could also be described as domestic noir, if categorization was your thing. It begins with O’Loughlin being told that his father is in hospital having fallen down the stairs of a London house. He is also told that his mother has given the hospital his number but when he arrives he finds not his mother but another woman who claims that she too has been married to Joe’s father for the past twenty years. From here the plot spins out into a range of family secrets and revelations which shake O’Loughlin’s image of his father and forces him to reconsider their relationship. At the same time he is dealing with the aftermath of his own wife’s death and the effect that has had not only on himself but…

Into the Night by Sarah Bailey
Crime , Review / 04/07/2018

Sarah Bailey follows up her successful debut The Dark Lake with another procedural focused around detective Gemma Woodstock. Into the Night is, in some ways, a more traditional procedural. Having moved Gemma from her home town of Smithson to the bright lights of Melbourne, Bailey does not need to rely on the personal backstory (and clear conflict of interest) that drove much of the action in her debut. Into the Night opens with a murder. A homeless man is found stabbed to death and detective Gemma Woodstock is first on the scene. Despite this, her commanding officer gives the case to another detective to run. Soon this murder is well and truly overshadowed by the murder of a movie star on set during filming. This death, also a stabbing, took place on camera but in a zombie crowd scene which makes it impossible to identify the assailant. This case is handed to Woodstock and her alpha male partner Fleet to run and before long they are confronted by a mass of suspects and red herrings while also running the media gauntlet. Gemma’s voice is once again the centre of Bailey’s narrative. In the move to Melbourne she has left her…

The Escape Room by Megan Goldin
Crime , Review , Thriller / 03/07/2018

Megan Goldin follows up her domestic noir unreliable narrator debut The Girl in Keller’s Way with something completely different. The Escape Room does what a good thriller should do. It takes something new and faddish, in this case escape room games, and makes it sinister. At the same time, Goldin takes square aim at corporate greed-is-good culture. And with new studies showing it is environment as much as personality that makes financial workers corrupt, this is a very timely thriller. After a bloody cold open, Goldin winds the clock back 36 hours. Four corporate high fliers – team leader Vincent and his team – Sam, Jules and Sylvie – are invited to an escape room challenge. Despite reservations they go, because when the company calls, they respond. Only they quickly find out that this is no ordinary team building challenge. Stuck in an elevator (lift for those in the colonies) with no mobile reception and a series of increasingly obscure clues, the four start to turn on each other. The first clue refers to Sara Hall, neophyte financial analyst who joined their team many years before and is quickly socialised into the greed mentality of the firm. And Sara’s story,…

The Nowhere Child by Christian White
Crime , Review / 02/07/2018

The Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award has been discovering some of Australia’s favourite authors. Some recent recipients include Jane Harper’s The Dry and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project. So when Christian White’s manuscript titled Decay Theory picked up the award in 2017, publishers sat up and took notice. And for good reason. Now renamed the more catchy The Nowhere Child, White’s novel is an assured crime thriller with a well constructed mystery at its heart. The hook for The Nowhere Child comes early and hits hard and sustains any bumps in the narrative. In Melbourne, 30 year-old photography teacher Kim Leamy is approached by an American stranger. He tells her that she is actually Sammy Went, abducted as a two-year old from her home in the small town on Manson, Kentucky 28 years before. This mystery of how a two year old American girl ended up in suburban Melbourne in 1990, living a seemingly normal, well adjusted life, unravels slowly in chapters alternating between 1990 and the present day. Kim’s mother died four years before, taking her secrets with her and her stepfather, who had come on the scene after she was born, knows something but is not talking. Kim…

The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo
Historical , Literature , Review / 29/06/2018

Enza Gandolfo’s new novel takes as its centerpiece the 1970 collapse of the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne. This tragedy resonates through the lives of the people involved and the people who continue to live in the shadow of the Bridge. Most of the narrative is set forty years later and centres around another tragedy, one that is much more intimate and unfortunately common than the collapse of a major engineering work.  Antonello is a 22 year old rigger working on the Westgate Bridge in 1970. An immigrant from Italy, he has found his place in the multicultural melting pot that was the construction crew. When the unfinished bridge collapses, killing many of his workmates Antonello retreats into a shell. Forty years later, Antonello’s teenage granddaughter is killed in a car accident, the driver Jo was her best friend and all four teenagers in the car had been drinking. The accident itself happened in the shadow of the Westgate Bridge.  The Bridge is heavy going for most of its length as it delves deeply into the psychology of Jo in the aftermath of the accident and Antonello, still suffering forty years on but slowly finding a way to deal with his pain. Thrown into the mix is Jo’s lawyer Sarah who…

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton
Literature , Review / 05/06/2018

Tim Winton is back well within his comfort zone in his latest book The Shepherd’s Hut. The book centres around a teenager, Jackson ‘Jaxie’ Clackton, in a voice that is clear, distinct and engaging right from the first page. On that page readers find Jaxie behind the wheel of a car, racing across the salt flats of Western Australia, away from something… towards something else. The book itself is his retelling of how he got there.   Jaxie was and is an abused child who has grown into a damaged teen. His father would drink and beat both him and his mother. That violence translated to his relationships with his peers and his schooling then became a litany of violence and suspension. Then events in town put him on the run. Taking little, Jaxie heads out towards the salt flats on foot. He makes a fair go of life on his own in a small prospector’s hut that he finds but things change when he chances on another loner. Fintan, an ageing priest living in a small hut by the salt pans, takes him in.   Much like other Winton books, the focus of the main part of the narrative is on a mentoring, quasi-parental relationship between the teen and the old man. Jaxie needs to learn…

Void Black Shadow by Corey J White
Review , Science Fiction / 01/06/2018

Australian author Corey J White exploded onto the science fiction scene with his first Void Witch novella – Killing Gravity. That all-action story focused on void witch Mariam ‘Mars’ Xi, who has extreme telekenetic powers and is taken in by a group of scrap traders when pursued by the authorities.   Void Black Shadow opens not long after Killing Gravity ends. The challenge for White is what to do with a character who (spoiler alert) has just used her mental powers to literally destroy a whole armada of space ships.  He does what many writers in this situation do – he starts by creating a more powerful enemy (in this case Borg-like hive-mind cybernetic soldiers called The Legion) and then finds a way to take away Mars’ powers. Mars loses her powers as for a while as she gives herself up to get into a moon-sized prison to try and rescue Mookie, one of her comrades from the first book.  Mars once again is the centre of this story. And while she has a few moments of introspection she is really defined by her actions. And she is constantly in action. Even when she has her powers stripped from her she manages to cause plenty of trouble…

Force of Nature by Jane Harper
Crime , Review / 02/05/2018

How do you follow up a globally celebrated, multi-award winning debut like Jane Harper’s The Dry? Well, if you are Jane Harper you do it by trying not to do the same again. She follows her main character, Aaron Falk, from The Dry, but she puts him in the middle of a situation that could not be more different and in doing so draws on another Australian literary archetype – the lost bushwalker. Aaron Falk works for the financial crimes section of the Australian Federal Police. But he is drawn into the search for a lost bushwalker as she happens to be his prime informant in a money laundering case the police are building against an establishment family firm. The woman, Alice Russell, was on a corporate team building exercise with a group of other women from the firm including the sister of the CEO. The women get lost and Alice separates from them, seeking her own way out. But Harper makes clear right from the opening paragraph that Alice was not liked (or missed) by any of the other women. Harper intercuts Falk and his partner’s investigation with the story of what really happened on that ill-fated bushwalk. This…

Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills
Review , Science Fiction / 16/04/2018

Climate fiction has been sneaking into the Australian mainstream. Recent books like Clade by James Bradley and last year’s Closing Down by Sally Abbott looked at a world riven by climate change. Jennifer Mills’ new novel Dyschronia is not as in-your-face. While there is a defining, almost apocalyptic event (the sea permanently retreating from the shoreline) Mills’ is not an apocalypse so much as a gradual descent into a new normal. Much in the way of other recent clifi books, this is less an exploration of how things might be and more a warning about what we might be losing.  The title and plot of Dyschronia do not invoke climate fiction but another branch of science fiction, referring as it does to a condition with a temporal element. Sam, the main character of the book has been able to see glimpses of the future since she was a young girl. A possibly invented malady connected to “pain and the perception of time” and one which causes Sam to experience nausea and have severe migraines but also to have visions. The townsfolk of the Australian coastal town of Clapstone start to act on her predictions. But it is hard to know throughout the story, which flicks from Sam’s childhood to a first person plural narrated present day, whether she is actually seeing the future…

Obsidio by Kaufman and Kristoff

Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff bring their Illuminae trilogy to an action packed, emotionally charged, edge-of-your-seat conclusion in Obsidio. Of course these are, essentially, all of the ingredients that readers of this series have come to expect. As with the previous books in this series, Obsidio is told through a collection of found documents, graphics and text, and this style continues to work well to create a very visual, cinematic feel. In a nutshell – the survivors of the previous books have no choice but to retrace their steps to Kerenza IV. Meanwhile, on Kerenza, the Beitech invaders have become an occupying force, using the remaining population to mine the resources they need to repair their ships and leave. One of the occupying force is Rhys Lindstrom, ex-boyfriend of invasion survivor and insurgent Asha Grant, cousin of Kady, one of the heroes of Illuminae. Putting yet another, troubled romance at the centre of the action. But all of the surviving characters from previous books also have a part to play in Obsidio. This time, more than before, the young protagonists have to deal with a world where the adults just won’t take them seriously (but have to save the day…

City Without Stars by Tim Baker
Crime , Historical , Review / 14/03/2018

Tim Baker’s debut novel, Fever City, was a fantasia on the assassination of John F Kennedy. His follow up, City Without Stars, takes a very different tack and while still historical to a degree is a little more contemporary. Set in 2000, on the Mexican side of the US/Mexican border, Baker’s new novel takes on the drug trade and all of the attendant misery and corruption that surrounds it. Baker’s novel opens with a murder. This is the latest in what turns out to be an extremely long term pattern of women abducted, raped and murdered around the town Cuidad Real. And there are plenty of women around as they come to the town to work in the cheap sweatshops called maquiladoras. These sweatshops, often owned by foreign interests are the exploitative underbelly of NAFTA. Cuidad Real is a border town so it is also a centre for drug smuggling into the United states. Baker tells the story of this town through a number of main point of view characters who circle around each other. Fuentes, seemingly one of the only non-corrupt policemen in town, desperate to stop the murders. Pilar, working to unionise the workers in the factories and…

This I Would Kill for by Anne Buist
Crime , Review / 12/03/2018

Anne Buist is determined to put the psychology back into psychological thrillers. There has always been a ring of truth around her character Natalie King’s work as a psychologist and no more so than here, where much of the action takes place in her consulting rooms and in the courtroom. King is drawn into a custody dispute involving five year-old Chris, the son of Jenna and Malik and eight year-old Chelsea, Jenna’s daughter by another man. King starts as a consultant providing evidence on Jenna’s fitness as a mother but the case quickly spirals out of control as Jenna accuses Malik of sexual abuse of Chelsea. With little to no evidence, King is then asked by the Court to explore the possibility that this is the case. Meanwhile, King herself is pregnant and unsure who the father is – police detective Damien or prosecutor Liam, now separated from his own wife after his earlier affair with Natalie. Besides providing the romantic and sexual tension into the mix, these two characters also shine a different light on the issues that Buist is exploring. Liam’s perspective comes from his new job as a prosecutor with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to…

Redemption Point by Candice Fox
Crime , Recommended , Review / 02/02/2018

In Crimson Lake, award winning Australian crime novelist Candice Fox brought two damaged but effective investigators together in steamy far North Queensland. Ted Conkaffey, an ex-policeman accused of a terrible crime and still living with the consequences and Amanda Pharrell, out of jail after having been convicted and sentenced for murder at seventeen. If Crimson Lake needed to prove anything (and it didn’t) it was that Fox had range outside of her double Ned Kelly Award winning debut series Hades, Eden and Fall. Crimson Lake was also, deservedly, shortlisted for the Ned Kelly’s Best Crime Fiction award in 2017 and Redemption Point follows on where that book’s slightly clifferhangerish ending left off.  Ted and Amanda are hired by a father who’s son was shot in one of the local pubs and does not trust the police to investigate effectively. But Conkaffey’s past will not leave him alone, and before he can get too far into the investigation Dale Bingley, the father of the girl he allegedly assaulted, appears at his house. The two end up in an uneasy détente, Conkaffee trying to prove to Bingley that he did not commit the crimes for which he was accused. This leaves Pharrell working more with newly promoted detective Pip Sweeney. Sweeney had a walk-on role in Crimson Lake but now joins the narrative as a point of view character and, as with all of Fox’s main characters, has her own skeletons and issues that she needs…

Hangman by Jack Heath
Crime , Review , Thriller / 29/01/2018

Jack Heath is well known for plenty of books for children and young adults but, clearly, some elements were missing. These included, among other things – violence, blood, drugs and serial killers. And so we get Hangman, which has lashings of all of these elements and is a cracking read full of well crafted twists and turns.  Timothy Blake is a consultant for the FBI. He is brought in to help them solve crimes, to bring an attention to detail to crime scenes that the normal police do not have. Partly this is because Blake is particularly good at solving puzzles and the other, known only to the FBI director who has hired him, is because he is a psychopath. Following the bizarre kidnapping and rescue of 14 year-old Cameron Hall, Blake is paired with Reece Thistle, an FBI agent who seems to understand him. But soon Blake’s world starts to spiral out of control and a second, similar kidnapping ends up pushing him close to the edge.  Heath has drawn on a range of well known literary outsiders in creating Timothy Blake who is part Hannibal Lecter, part Dexter and part Sherlock Holmes. But, despite these clear influences, Blake does not come across as a pastiche. Through a very self-aware first person narration and flashes of backstory, Heath manages to bring Blake out behind…

Top Five Fantasy – 2017
Fantasy , Top Fives / 15/12/2017

Very different fantasy novels make up the top five (plus three honourable mentions) for 2017: Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird was fantasy that was also a little bit Dickens and a little bit Monty Python and centred around a forgotten town with a strange past and stranger residents in the middle of England.             Australian fantasy author Angela Slatter delivered the second installment of her engaging noir-crime meets urban fantasy series starring half-weyrd detective Verity Fassbinder on the mean streets of Brisbane in Corpselight.             Natasha Pulley continued to impress with her second novel – a historical and mystical journey into deepest darkest Peru in The Bedlam Stacks.               Joe Hill’s novella collection Strange Weather was part horror, part fantasy, part science fiction and all class.               And Margo Lanagan’s best-of short story collection Singing My Sister Down reaffirmed why she is one of Australia (and the World’s) best fantasy writers.               Honourable mentions: It Devours by Fink and Cranor – a novel set in the world of Night Vale Red Sister by Mark Lawrence…

Top Five Crime – 2017
Crime , Top Fives / 13/12/2017

In 2017, most of the top crime was Australian. Adrian McKinty took out the Ned Kelly Award for the sixth novel in his Sean Duffy series – Police at the Station and they Don’t Look Friendly.               Candice Fox was shortlisted for the same award for Crimson Lake – the first book in her new series set in steamy far north Queensland.               Michael Robotham’s The Secrets She Keeps was a stand-alone page turning thriller with two intriguing women at its centre.               Mark Brandi’s debut novel Wimmera, a story of the impacts of child sexual abuse, not only on the victim but on all those around them, was a revelation.               And Attica Locke went to rural Texas and revealed the deep seated vein of institutionalised racism in the United states in Bluebird Bluebird               Honourable mentions: Under the Cold Bright Lights by Garry Disher Too Easy by JM Green Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyer Corpselight by Angela Slatter  

Top Five Science Fiction – 2017
Science Fiction , Top Fives / 11/12/2017

Some great science fiction reads in 2017 – here are five of the best (and three honourable mentions):   Claire G Coleman’ stunning debut Terra Nullius was speculative fiction that shone a new light on the colonisation of Australia.               John Scalzi created an empire just to start destroying it in the enjoyable space opera The Collapsing Empire.               Yoon Ha Lee continued to impress with Raven Stratagem, the mathematically-driven by deeply humanist sequel to last year’s standout debut Ninefox Gambit.           Becky Chambers also impressed with the follow up to her debut with A Closed and Common Orbit.               Ann Leckie gave us Provenance, a stand alone novel set in the same universe as her award winning Ancillary series.                 Honourable Mentions: Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyer Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel

Unearthed by Kaufman and Spooner

Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, together and separately have been staking out the science fiction corner of the young teen, young adult market. In the Illluminae Files, together with Jay Kristoff, Kaufman showed a willingness to recycle tried and tested science fiction tropes into a new format. Unearthed is a similar sort of hybrid – part Indiana Jones, part Tomb Raider, part Contact, part Arrival and part, well every science fiction novel that has humans exploring strange new worlds (with a dystopian back story that also involves a generation ship for good measure). And in the middle of it, two snarky, flirty, intelligent, likeable teens from opposite sides of the tracks who fall for each other while saving the day. An alien signal from a race called the Undying has opened the way to a barren planet called Gaia which contains potentially world-changing technology. Amelia is a sixteen-year-old scavenger who has gone to Gaia to find her fortune and Jules, slightly older, is a genius academic who wants to solve the riddle of the alien tombs. They meet cute and are forced to travel together. And while their attraction grows, they have to navigate a tomb by solving alien puzzles,…

Nexus by Westerfeld, Lanagan and Biancotti

Nexus is the third and final instalment of the Zeroes trilogy which started with Zeroes and continued last year with Swarm. These books go boldly and with some originality into well explored territory – teens dealing with superpowers while also trying to make sense of their lives. At least, the first book did this. The second broadened out the world of the Zeroes, introduced a new menace and moved a little further away from a straight teens-with-powers scenario. Nexus expands this world even further and takes its protagonists out into the wider world. From its opening interrogation in, and rescue from, a supermax prison to a chase on the streets of Las Vegas, to its explosive finale on the streets of New Orleans. It is hard to talk about Nexus without some spoilers for the earlier two books. Suffice it to say that the six main Zeroes are back, in much more straightened circumstances due to the events of Swarm. But despite being on the run and fractured they still feel the need to use their powers for good as much as they can. And when they learn of “something big” going down in New Orleans involving a Zero called…