Under Your Wings by Tiffany Tsao
Literature , Review , Thriller / 24/09/2018

In her first “literary fiction” novel, Australian author Tiffany Tsao angles for the most shocking and engaging opening line this year: When your sister murders three hundred people, you can’t help but wonder why – especially if you were one of the intended victims. Told from her comatose state after barely surviving the poisoning, Gwendolyn delves into the past to try and unravel why her sister Estella would commit such a heinous act. And so begins an exploration of the lives of the super wealthy Chinese in modern day Indonesia, a society in which the two were deeply embedded. Under Your Wings is a generational family saga told from the perspective of the extremely privileged third generation. While there may have been some hard work and grind for their grandparents, Gwendolyn and Estella and their peers live the high life while being expected to keep the family businesses going. So that when Gwendolyn wants to start her own business she is bankrolled by the family and when Estella is looking for work she is put in charge of one of the family subsidiaries. A marriage between Estella and Leonard is seen a dynastic union of two powerful families but for…

The Boy at the Keyhole by Stephen Giles
Historical , Review , Thriller / 20/09/2018

The Boy at the Keyhole screams gothic from its opening pages. A nine year old boy is being both nursed and chastised by the housekeeper in the kitchen of a rambling English house in Cornwall. The year is 1961 and Samuel Wade, whose father has died, is being cared for by the housekeeper Ruth while his mother is in America trying to rescue the family fortune. The house itself is full of secrets and is fertile ground for Samuel’s imagination to run wild particularly when his best friend Joseph suggests that perhaps his mother is not actually away but has been killed by Ruth. Australian author Stephen Giles has previously written books for children (the equally gothic Ivy Pocket series written under the pseudonym Caleb Krisp). The Boy at the Keyhole is his first book for adults but very much locates itself in a child’s point of view. While this is not a first person narrative, everything the reader knows or sees is from Samuel’s perspective. And this is important as it makes it possible to see how he misinterprets everything around him to fit within his point of view. Samuel’s is a point of view that is clearly influenced…

Restoration by Angela Slatter
Crime , Fantasy , Review / 18/09/2018

Restoration is the third in what Angela Slatter describes as “the first Verity Fassbinder trilogy”. For fans of this series this means that, firstly, some hanging plot elements are likely to be resolved. But secondly, that there are likely to be more Verity Fassbinder books after this one. And that can only be a good thing. This noir-infused, wryly observational urban fantasy series about an investigator/enforcer for the Weyrd community of Brisbane has been a bright spot on the fantasy scene for the last few years. Restoration opens with Verity at a low point. At the end of Corpselight she made a deal with the self-styled ‘Guardian of the Underworld’ for the return of her mother. She had to give up her family and her position and work with Joyce, a kitsune (were-fox) assassin who has an axe to grind, to find a “grail and a tyrant”. But Joyce is only one of a long line of people who are seeking revenge on Verity. At the same time, the police still call on Verity to help them solve a string of strange deaths and there is a coup in the offing in the Weyrd society of Brisbane. While it takes…

Greenlight by Benjamin Stevenson
Crime , Review / 12/09/2018

The rise of the popularity of true crime podcasts and tv shows has not gone unnoticed in the fictional world. The fact that journalists or entertainers are reviewing settled court decisions and, through their interpretation of the evidence, putting pressure on lawmakers to reconsider these cases is a situation ripe for drama. This year already we have had Charlie Donlea’s Don’t Believe It and now we have Benjamin Stevenson’s debut Greenlight. In both cases, a documentary maker exploring a cold case becomes a little too close to their subject. Greenlight opens with an intriguing cold open, cheekily headed “Cold Open” (in fact the chapter structure and names are taken from the fictional series, including a final, twisty “Mid-Credits Sequence”). A woman called Eliza has been held in a cellar of some kind for an indeterminate length of time when something strange starts to happen and walls of her cell appear to start bleeding. Cut to the present where producer Jack Quick is wrapping up the last episode of his TV series which casts doubt on the conviction of Curtis Wade, accused of murdering Eliza whose body was found on his vineyard. When Curtis is released and his defence laywer dies…

Scrublands by Chris Hammer
Crime , Review / 22/08/2018

Rural seems to be the new black in Australian crime fiction. Far from the gritty Melbourne backstreets or white collar crime of Sydney. And rural crime is definitely getting some recognition. From books like Jane Harper’s multi-award winning The Dry and Garry Disher’s Bitterwash Road through to two of this year’s Ned Kelly Award Best First Crime shortlist nominees – Wimmera and The Dark Lake. Into the fray comes Chris Hammer’s first fiction outing Scrublands, much like The Dry, a book that announces itself by its title as reflecting a part of Australia that most Australians have never seen but would like to feel a connection to. And Hammer has the chops – a long time journalist, he has set his debut fiction outing during a lengthy drought in southeastern Australia, a milieu that he investigated in his non-fiction first book The River. Scrublands opens with a shocking crime. One Sunday morning, out of the blue, the local priest in the small Riverina town of Riversend opens up with a rifle and kills five of his parishioners before himself being killed by the local policeman. Rumours of child sexual abuse lead to the crime being written off by the world as “perverted…

Hive by AJ Betts

Australian YA author AJ Betts is best known for her TV-adapted book Zac and Mia. In Hive she dives into the world of speculative fiction but her focus is still very much on teens and their experience. Hayley’s whole world is a series of interconnected, hexagonal rooms and the rules her society lives by are the only rules she has ever known. Hayley is a Gardener, her specific job is to look after the bees and their hives. Bees are important for pollinating the plants that keep her enclosed society alive and for their honey. They also provide a handy metaphor for Hayley’s structured world and her place in it. Odd events make Hayley start to question this world. But questioning is seen as a form of madness so she has to hide or try and repress her curiosity, finding allies where she can. Hayley is an engaging and relatable protagonist and the trials she faces will be familiar ones to a YA readership. Challenges of growing up in a world where rules don’t quite make sense, dealing with the pressure to conform and longstanding friendships put to the test by life changes. Hive feels a bit like a rerun…

The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan
Crime , Recommended , Review / 10/08/2018

It has been another great year for Australian crime debuts and Derval McTiernan’s The Rùin continues this run. Much like Adrian McKinty, McTiernan sets her first Cormac Reilly novel in the old country, aka Ireland. But her take, while still procedural, is more contemporary and less overtly political. The book opens twenty years before the main action. Reilly, a fresh faced rookie policeman, is driving down a dark country road looking for the source of a call about a domestic. He does not expect what he finds – Maud, a self-possessed fifteen year old girl, her five year old brother Jack and their single mother, dead of a heroin overdose. Reilly takes the children to a local hospital where Maud disappears and Jack goes into the care system. Twenty years later, now detective Reilly moves back to Galway from Dublin where, for his sins, he is put on cold cases. After the apparent suicide of now twenty-five year old Jack and the reappearance of his sister Maud, Reilly is handed their mother’s cold case to reinvestigate. The narrative follows not only Reilly but Aishling, Jack’s pregnant girlfriend. Aishling believes the original theory that Jack may have committed suicide but is…

City of Lies by Sam Hawke
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 08/08/2018

Sam Hawke’s assured debut fantasy novel City of Lies starts intriguingly. Jovan, the narrator has been trained from a young age in the family trade of poison taster for the Chancellor of Silasta. He has been exposed to multiple poisons by his uncle as part of his training and has become partially immune to them as he learnt to identify them. He has been trained in the place of his elder sister Kalina whose constitution was too weak to handle the small amounts of poisoning. Despite this they are close and are both also close to Tain, heir to the Chancellorship. Their world is thrown into stunning and sudden disarray when both the Chancellor and their Uncle Ethan are poisoned with something neither Ethan nor Jovan can identify and their city is besieged.  While City of Lies can be read by anyone it definitely has a young adult bent. While not teenagers, the main characters are all young adults, thrust into an adult world, learning quickly how to navigate treacherous political waters while dealing with a series of escalating crises. Their relative youth allows them to question the way things have been done traditionally (particularly as tradition has partially led to current events) and find new ways forward. But it also sometimes makes them easy prey for more experienced political operators.  The narrative of City of Lies alternates between Jovan and…

Lonely Girl by Lynne Vincent McCarthy
Crime , Review , Thriller / 07/08/2018

Lynne Vincent McCarthy’s debut novel Lonely Girl is a thriller with a bit of a gender swap. Gone is the femjep woman kept in a basement. Instead, McCarthy turns the tables on this tired trope and in this psychological thriller puts the woman in charge. But like many books and plays of this type, the interest is not in the kidnapping itself but in the mind games that are played between the captive and captor.  But before she gets to that, with the exception of some short tantalising POV sections about a dangerous affair, McCarthy spends some time setting up Ana, her protagonist. And this groundwork is really important to give some credence to how the plot later plays out. Ana lives on her own in a small house in a secluded valley some distance from the Tasmanian capital of Hobart. Her only companion is River, a dog she has had since she was twelve. But she is now twenty-seven and River is dying and she has decided that when he dies she too will take her own life as no one will miss her.  One night she witnesses a couple having sex in a van outside a local bar. For readers, this gels with the hints of…

Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth
Historical , Recommended , Review / 01/08/2018

Australian author Paul Howarth’s debut novel is a blood soaked, confronting exploration of the Australian frontier of the late nineteenth century. Not for the faint of heart, this coming of age story is reminiscent of the works of modern American western writers like Cormac McCarthy. When the book opens it is 1885, Billy and Tommy are sixteen and fourteen year-olds living on their family property in the drought affected wilds of central Queensland, in North-Eastern Australia. Their father is just managing to eke out a subsistence living on a slowly dying property while also feuding with his much more powerful neighbour John Sullivan. The boys’ world is thrown into disarray when they come home from a day out to find their mother and father dead and their younger sister shot. They ride to the neighbouring Sullivan property where they are quickly convinced that the culprits are members of the local Aboriginal tribe, the Kurrong. Sullivan has been steadily trying to wipe the Kurrong out and uses the boys to bring in the sadistic head of the Native Police, Noone. The two, fuelled by thoughts of revenge, are allowed to ride out with Sullivan, Noone and his posse of Aboriginal trackers…

A Sand Archive by Gregory Day
Literature , Review / 30/07/2018

Gregory Day, award winning Australian poet and author, has returned to a theme that underpinned his 2005 musical CD The Flash Road: Scenes from the Building of the Great Ocean Road. The Great Ocean Road is the scenic tourist trail that runs along the Southern Victorian coast between Torquay and Allansford. Originally built by returned servicemen from the First World War, the road is now considered one of the great scenic drives of the world. But this is not really the story of the road or its construction, it the story of one man, FB Herschell, and his relationship with the shifting sand dunes that made construction of the road a challenge for engineers. Narrated by an anonymous bookshop employee, A Sand Archive relates the story of Herschell, jumping off from a small self-published volume of his unexcitingly entitled The Great Ocean Road: Dune Stabilisation and Other Engineering Difficulties. This book, written late in Herschell’s life, is one in which the narrator believes “all of the most important things have been left unsaid”. A Sand Archive reveals all of those important things by charting the important, personal aspects of Herschell’s life. This includes his fascination with early Mondrian paintings of…

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…