Under the Cold Bright Lights by Garry Disher
Crime , Recommended , Review / 16/11/2017

It has been a big year for Garry Disher. Late 2016 saw the release of Signal Loss, the latest in his Challis and Destry/ Peninsula Crimes series. Then, mid this year, he published Her, a historical drama set around World War I in the Victorian countryside. And now, a return to crime and potentially, a new series, in Under the Cold Bright Lights. Alan Auhl has come out of retirement as a detective to join a cold case team. The body is found in the intriguing cold open when a concrete slab is cracked open to try and drive out a potential nest of brown snakes. But Slab Man, as the body becomes known, is not Auhl’s only case. He is also dealing with a long unsolved murder of a farmer and a current not-so-cold case which links to one of his own, older cases, of a doctor who’s wives keep mysteriously dying on him. Auhl is another great crime protagonist from Disher. Auhl has an abiding need to see justice done, fuelled by his won pain, darkness and regrets. He lives in “Chateau Auhl”, a rambling old house and takes in “tenants, waifs and strays”. This includes Neve Fanning,…

Too Easy by J M Green
Crime , Review / 31/10/2017

JM Green’s debut novel Good Money was published after being shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Award for unpublished manuscripts. It went on to be shortlisted in 2016 in both the Ned Kelly Awards Best First Fiction category and Davitt Award for Best Debut. While it had some flaws it was overall a cracking debut and the promise that Green showed in that book comes good in the follow up Too Easy. Too Easy is once again anchored by world weary social worker and occasional detective Stella Hardy. Stella’s narration and observations are once again a joy.  Such as this: I wish I could do that, suppress all outward signs of thought and feeling. Instead I was cursed with a face like an open book – and not a normal book, one of those kids pop-up books with moving parts. This time, Hardy has to investigate her friend Phuong’s policeman fiancé, her own artist boyfriend’s interest in his muse, the sale of the family farm and her day job as a social worker where big changes are afoot. With much of Australian crime these days turning to the bush, it is refreshing to have a classic noir novel set in the…

Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 24/10/2017

Claire G Coleman won a black&write! Fellowship in 2016 for her manuscript of Terra Nullius. The Fellowship was established to support unpublished Australian Indigenous writers to complete their works and find a publisher. Terra Nullius is based on the experience of Coleman’s people, the Noongar of South Western Australia. But this is not their story. Only the blurb on the back of the book stating that “This is not the Australia of our history” and some odd details in the early part of the text flag this is actually a work of speculative fiction. When Terra Nullius opens, Native servant Jacky is on the run from his Settler masters, pursued by Troopers who see this as a potential call to rebellion. At the same time, Sister Brarga runs the local mission where Native children, taken from their families, are treated harshly and taught to be servants; Jonny Star, a Trooper gone rogue, has joined a gang of Native outlaws; and Esperance leads a group of free Natives deeper into the desert to escape Settler expansion. About a third of the way through Coleman twists the narrative. And while hints abound in the text, she becomes very explicit, bringing in some…

The Perfect Couple by Lexi Landsman
Review , Thriller / 12/10/2017

Australian author Lexi Landsman’s second novel is a domestic thriller with an international twist. Marco and Sarah are a pair of archaeologists working on a site in Italy. Marco is the more famous of the two and is leading a dig to try and discover a priceless necklace, previously thought lost at sea hundreds of years before. They seem happy, but already early in the piece the cracks are starting to show in the relationship. When Sarah actually discovers the necklace at the same time as learning that Marco is having an affair, all hell breaks loose. Landsman uses a number of familiar tropes to drive the action and the tension. When Sarah discovers the necklace and calls in Marco, she relates in first person all of the ways in which they are breaking their own rules in order to increase their potential fame. These lapses in procedure leave them exposed when the necklace is subsequently stolen. On the night when all of the major events happen Sarah has a car accident which robs her of the previous two days of memory. She, conveniently, does not remember anything about the necklace or her husband’s infidelity. Later, Landsman ramps up the…

City of Crows by Chris Womersley
Historical , Literature , Review / 27/09/2017

Chris Womersley’s first novel, The Low Road won the Ned Kelly Award for best debut crime fiction. His second novel, Bereft was short listed for the Ned Kelly for best crime fiction and while it didn’t win that award it did go on to win a slew of others that year. But Chris was never going to let the trappings of genre (not that either of these two books were classic crime genre) hold him back. Now, with his fourth book, City of Crows, Womersley takes a sharp turn away from anything he has done before. And the results are no less impressive. Set in 17th Century France, City of Crows opens in the village of Saint-Gilles. Charlotte Picot has already lost three children and has a young son surviving when her husband dies of plague. She flees the town with Antoine but he is kidnapped while they are on the road. Charlotte is wounded and in the book’s first detour into the occult, ends up being healed by the local witch. At the same time Adam du Coeuret, a galley slave imprisoned for practicing magic is unexpectedly freed and renames himself Lesage. The two end up travelling together to…

Whipbird by Robert Drew
Literature , Review / 20/09/2017

Robert Drew is one of the great chroniclers of the Australian history and the Australian condition with previous works like The Drowner, The Bodysurfers and Our Sunshine. In Whipbird he takes on the large chunk of recent Australian history and the Australian experience. Based around a family reunion of the descendants of a 15 year old Irish immigrant to Australia in the 1850s, Drew ranges his authorial eye across what Australia has become in the early twenty first century and in some respects how we have arrived here. The Whipbird of the title is a new hobby vineyard, owned by barrister Hugh Cleary and venue for the Cleary family reunion. As the various branches of the family arrive – 1193 out of 2946 possible descendants of the original Conor Cleary – they are given different coloured t-shirts to identify their ancestry and Drew starts to wander among them, the point of view shifting between various family members. Drew focusses in particular on Hugh, his father Mick, brother Simon and sister Thea but also has time for plenty of other side branches of the family. Drew uses his characters to highlight and gently satirise different aspects of the Australian experience. Most…

Her by Garry Disher
Historical , Recommended , Review / 14/09/2017

Garry Disher is probably best known for two crime series – the Peninsula Crimes books centred around the police in Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula and the Wyatt books, recently rebooted, which focus on a career thief. But he has other strings to his bow, with both contemporary and historical “literary” novels in his long career. Her, a historical novel set in the northern Victorian countryside in the years following the turn of the century, gives a blunt and confronting look at of the time.   The main character of Her does not even have a name for the first third of the novel. In 1909, at a young age the protagonist is sold by her family to the local scrap man and for years she is only known as “You”. The scrap man already has a wife and a teenager (known as Big Girl) who he possibly acquired in a similar way and who he later gets pregnant. You is put to work, catching rabbits, making items out of scrap and rags for sale and learning how to be a pickpocket and a thief. Life is already tough for the three women and the abusive, manipulative actions of the scrap man towards them make it even tougher.   Disher follows You as she grows up in this environment. When she is older she names herself Lily and goes travelling with the…

The List by Michael Brissenden
Review , Thriller / 31/08/2017

Coming not long after Steve Uhlmann and Peter Lewis’ Marmalade Files and hot on the heels of Tony Jones’ The Twentieth Man, Michael Brissenden, another ABC journalist, has penned a thriller. The List seems designed with the tag “ripped from the headlines” in mind. It concerns itself with the repercussions of recent wars in the Middle East, the effect it has had both on soldiers and on the recruitment of young Muslims in Australia, and more broadly Australian religious tolerance and multicultural ideals in a world dominated by terrorism and a national security debate. In the middle of this powderkeg is the Australian Federal Police’s K-unit, a bridge between the operations of that force and Australia’s security organisation ASIO. Sid Allen and his partner Haifa Harouni, are brought in when young radicalised Muslim men in Sydney are found dead and with their right arms cut off. This is just the first act in a much deeper plot that goes back to Afghanistan and turns into a race against time for the investigators. As is usually the case with the thriller genre, both of the main characters have skin in the game. Sid’s girlfriend and former colleague Rosie was killed in…

The Undercurrent by Paula Weston

Superpowered teens seem to be everywhere you look at the moment. From the third time lucky reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, to the YA book world with series like Zeroes. In the world of The Undercurrent there is only one superpowered teen – sixteen year-old Juliette DeMarchi. But as is “normal” in the superpowered teen world her ability to manage her powers quickly becomes a metaphor for growing up. The Undercurrent opens with a bang. An attack on the headquarters on mega corporation Pax Fed in Brisbane, where Juliette was going for an abortive job interview. When things go pear shaped, Juliette is rescued in a bit of a “meet-cute” by young soldier Ryan, part of a squad of soldiers sent to protect her. This is the set up for a tale of coming-of-age and corporate skullduggery. Juliette’s mother Angie is talked into going back into her old protest group, the Agitators who have become more extreme in her absence, to foil a plot to attack a nuclear power plant in South Australia. Meanwhile Juliette is sent into protection with Ryan on his family’s dying farm not far from the plant. Weston manages to ramp up the tension in both…

On the Java Ridge by Jock Serong
Recommended , Review , Thriller / 11/08/2017

Jock Serong seems to determined to shine a light on every dodgy part of Australian culture. In his Ned Kelly Award winning debut Quota it was the illegal abalone and drug trades in a small coastal town. In his follow up, The Rules of Backyard Cricket it was corruption in professional sport. And now, in On The Java Ridge, he takes on Australia’s border protection attitudes, policies and practices. The Java Ridge is a tour boat for rich Australian surfers. Built to represent an Indonesian fishing vessel, it is taking seven surfers out to remote Indonesian Islands in search of perfect waves. At the same time, people smuggling boat the Takalar has left Indonesia, its passengers, including ten year old Roya, hoping to find refuge in Australia. The two crews come together when the Takalar is wrecked on the fringing reef of a tiny island where the surfers have made camp. Serong has crafted an incredibly tense novel. He does not pull any punches in the plight of the refugees and the surfing party, both thrown into disarray by the wreck and dealing with significant injury and death. And their subsequent search for safety is nerve wracking. At the same time,…

Crossing the Lines by Sulari Gentill
Crime , Fantasy , Literature , Review / 09/08/2017

Sulari Gentill is best known for her historical crime fiction series starring Roland Sinclair. Set mainly in Australia between the World Wars, Sinclair mixes it with historical figures and solves crimes with the help of a gang of bohemian friends. Crossing the Lines is a long way from Roland Sinclair, a speculative fiction deconstruction of the crime genre and the writing process. But there are echoes of Sinclair as one of the main characters in this book, the crime author Madeleine d’Leon, has a long running historical crime fiction series set in 1916 about a crime solving domestic servant called Veronica Killwilly, and is also trying to break free of the shackles of the expectations that series has created.   So far so meta. And in fact Crossing the Lines is full of meta-moments and situations like this. The premise is that d’Leon feels compelled to write a new crime novel where the main character is a literary fiction author called Ned McGinnity. At the same time, literary fiction author, Ned McGinnity, decides to write his new literary fiction novel about a crime writer called Madeleine d’Leon. Gentill effortlessly segues between these two narratives as they bleed into each other and it is never clear which is  the author and which is the fictional creation (while both are of course both authors and fictional creations).  Neither the crime novel nor the literary fiction novel in this book, taken on…

The Twentieth Man by Tony Jones
Crime , Historical , Review , Thriller / 07/08/2017

ABC journalist and host of Q&A Tony Jones put the cat among the pigeons last year when he suggested that there was Croation terrorism in Australia in the 1970s. There was fierce debate at that time around this suggestion about Croatian extremists and the involvement of the Communist Yugoslavian Government in potentially creating or manipulating the threat. In The Twentieth Man, Jones doubles down on his claims, in a historical thriller that gives Australian its own Day of the Jackal. The Twentieth Man opens with a historical bombing in the heart of Sydney in 1972. The bombs are planted by an anonymous Croatian terrorist seeking to destroy targets associated with the Yugoslavian government. Jones uses this opening to introduce a range of characters and it is a while before the narrative settles down around a few key players, particularly Anna Rosen, junior ABC journalist and daughter of a known Communist, Al Sharp, with the Federal Police, and rogue ASIO agent Tom Moriarty. Later in the book the action moves to Yugoslavia where a group of twenty Croatians have infiltrated the country with the aim of creating a popular uprising against the Communist Government. The Twentieth Man of the title is the survivor of this mission. Jones has crafted a fine historical thriller. The threat, when it emerges, is…

Half Wild by Pip Smith
Crime , Historical , Review / 25/07/2017

In 2005, the Police and Justice Museum in Sydney had an exhibition of police photographs from the early twentieth century. One of these that caught the eye of author Pip Smith was of a man called Harry Crawford, arrested for murder. It turned out that Crawford was actually a woman, Eugenia Falleni, who had been passing herself off as Crawford since 1899. Crawford/Falleni was arrested and convicted for the murder of one of his wives, although the circumstances surrounding this case were vague and sensationalised by its protagonist, known in the media as the “man-woman”. Pip Smith has taken the bare bones of this story and contemporaneous transcripts and newspaper articles to fashion a captivating version of Falleni’s life. Half Wild works in four distinct sections. The first, and most successful of these is the first person narration of Falleni’s childhood in New Zealand. Falleni was one of a brood of Italian children literally running wild on the streets of Wellington and even then battling with her identity and sexuality. This section of the book is rambunctious, sometimes surreal, and utterly engaging, although disturbing in parts. The short second section is Falleni’s reinvention of herself into the Scottish immigrant Harry…

Watch Over Me by Claire Corbett

Claire Corbett’s debut novel, the fantasy/crime genre mash up When We Have Wings was shortlisted for both the Ned Kelly Award for best first novel and the Barbara Jefferis Award given for the depiction of women in Australian fiction. Her new novel, Watch Over Me is far from When We Have Wings, but is also concerned with the plight of women, in particular during wartime. Set in a contemporary but slightly alternate world, it explores the impacts of war and occupation on both the conquerors and the conquered. Nineteen year-old Sylvie’s hometown, the northern European city of Port Angelsund, has been occupied by a force known as the Garrison. Garrison have come to secure a rich energy source off the coast and the rest of the world looked on as the city was occupied. Now Sylvie lives in a world of checkpoints, drones, violence and constant surveillance while the population waits for possible salvation from the equally violent Coalition. When Sylvie is rescued from an abusive situation by a Garrison special forces officer a connection is made that eventually sees her in his arms. Sylvie ends up caught between protecting her mother and younger brother, her revolutionary older brother and…

Corpselight by Angela Slatter
Crime , Fantasy , Review / 19/07/2017

Angela Slatter’s debut novel Vigil was a great mix of noir detective and urban fantasy genres. Her main character Verity Fassbinder had one foot in each of the Weyrd and Normal communities of Brisbane and so was used as an investigator and enforcer for the Weyrd community. That book ranged over a number of interconnected mysteries, some of which connected directly to Verity herself, putting her in the firing line. The follow up, Corpselight, takes a similar approach, although everything is a little more connected here, and is just a successful. When Corpselight opens, Verity is eight months pregnant, and the pregnancy has robbed her of her usual powers of super strength. Despite this, Verity is getting on with the job, investigating strange occurrences on behalf of an insurance company that pays out for “unusual happenstance”. At the same time she is also investigating a series of strange dry land drownings for the police and being harassed by fox-girl assassins known as kitsune. When one of those attacks bring on her labour and she is saved by a mysterious stranger, the plot comes even closer to home. Verity Fassbinder continues to be a great character. And in Corpselight Slatter really…

The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham
Crime , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 18/07/2017

Michael Robotham’s crime thrillers stand out from the crowd for a number of reasons. One of these is the psychological depth that he often gives to his “bad guys”. They may do the wrong thing, they may do evil things, but as a reader we can understand at least some of their drivers and motivations. But they are still for the most part, secondary characters. In The Secrets She Keeps, both the criminal and victim are front and centre and the focus is squarely on their motivations and actions. It is the police and investigators that are kept in the background. The Secrets She Keeps alternates its narrative between Agatha and Meghan. At the start of the book both are eight weeks pregnant and both have secrets, damaging secrets, that they are keeping from their families and from the world. Agatha, who opens the book, works in the local supermarket and clearly is having a tough time. You initially have some sympathy for her as she watches successful Meghan and her mothers’ group but the creepiness factor comes in early when it turns out that she is doing more than causally watching Meghan. Meghan, on the other hand, seems to…

Killing Gravity by Corey J White
Review , Science Fiction / 13/07/2017

Imagine a space opera stripped back to its barest essentials and you have the debut Killing Gravity from Australian author Corey J White. Everything is here – kick ass main character, possibly loveable side characters, a moustache twirling villain, space battles, future tech, a mystery to be solved, strange new planets – but in a condensed almost novella form that has the action zipping past. Given this is the first in a potential series, this is possibly more space overture than space opera.

Wimmera by Mark Brandi
Crime , Literature , Recommended , Review / 11/07/2017

Mark Brandi’s Wimmera comes with an impressive pedigree even before it was published. It won a Debut Dagger from the British Crime Writer’s Association while still unpublished. Much like Dodgers, another recent Dagger winner from the US, it is takes the coming of age narrative to a dark place, dealing compassionately with a range of contemporary issues along the way. Wimmera starts with a killer first line: “Dad told us never to cross the highway.” The highway, rattling with giant trucks is clearly a dangerous place to hang out. The prologue, which sets the action firmly in country Victoria, hints at something more dangerous, but all we see at that point is a wheelie bin in the river. So that when the main story opens, focussing on 12 year old Ben and his best mate Fab starting Grade 6 in the late 1980s, a pall hangs over the narrative, darkening even further with the suicide of Ben’s young neighbour. Wimmera is told in three acts. The first focusses on Ben and Fab and has a slow decent into darkness. The second jumps forward to Fab as an adult, still living with his mother, working pushing trolleys in the supermarket managed…

Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan
Fantasy , Recommended , Young Adult / 23/06/2017

Singing My Sister Down could have been subtitled Margo Lanagan’s Greatest Hits. The title story, which also opens this collection, won a bunch of national and international fantasy awards and was short listed for a number of others. This and nine of the others stories come from earlier collections of Lanagan’s work, the multihued – White Time, Black Juice, Red Spikes and Yellowcake – many of which were also shortlisted for or won their own awards. So these hand picked stories might be considered the best of Lanagan’s best, clearly putting her in an international league of great fantasy short story writers. Singing My Sister Down, the story of a family come to watch the ritual killing of one of their members – consigned to sink into a tar pit – is starkly effective. Many of the other stories are built around ideas that can only lead to trouble – a man who kills clowns, the person who ferries the dead, a magician spurned. Some of the others, particularly two new stories written for this collection are off-kilter retellings of well known fairy tales – Sleeping Beauty in Not Quite Ogre and The Princess and the Frog in The Wood-Queen’s…

Closing Down by Sally Abbott
Review , Science Fiction / 21/06/2017

Sally Abbott’s Closing Down won the Richell Award, a prize given to emerging writers judged on the first three chapters and outline of an unpublished work. And Closing Down’s first three chapters effectively set the tone of the rest of the piece. The opening image particularly, of a large drunk man riding a small pony to death is a powerful and startling one and serves as a guiding metaphor for the whole (a metaphor with is unfortunately unpacked a few chapters later). Closing Down is set in a near future where climate change and economic breakdown has pushed Australia to start emptying its small rural towns and concentrating people into larger centres. This is part of a global movement to address the impacts of climate change and it is creating a global wave of refugees all being housed in massive new refugee centres. The narrative focusses on Clare, living in one of the Australian inclusion zones but struggling to get by, and Roberto an international journalist and his lover Ella who works in refugee resettlement. The tenuous connection between Roberto and Clare comes through Roberto’s grandmother, Granna Adams, who raised him and who takes Clare in when she is evicted….