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….

The Barrier by Shankari Chandran
Review , Science Fiction , Thriller / 16/06/2017

There have not traditionally been many science fiction novels set in the developing world. This is starting to change with authors like Nnedi Okarofor, Ian McDonald and Paolo Bacigalupi. Joining them now is Australian author Shankari Chandran whose new science fiction novel The Barrier is set mainly in a post world war Sri Lanka. This is Chandran’s second novel, her first was also set in Sri Lanka, a country starting to feature more in Australian fiction such as the Rajith Savandasa’s recent debut Ruins. In 2040, the world is fifteen years on from a global religious war and Ebola pandemic which between them decimated populations and redrew the political map. The world is now divided into two sections – a Western Alliance and an Eastern Alliance. The sides are strictly divided with little travel or information flowing over the border. Both sides maintain strict vaccination protocols that prevent the resurgence of new strains of Ebola, but all of the vaccine comes from the West. It becomes apparent early on that the vaccine being used in the East is slightly different from that in the West, designed to prevent a re-emergence of the “sixth plague” – religion. The Eastern vaccine contains an extra strand…

Gravity Well by Melanie Joosten
Literature , Recommended , Review / 14/06/2017

Melanie Joosten won the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist Award in 2011 for her first novel Berlin Syndrome which has recently been made into a film. Her second novel, Gravity Well is the story of two women wrapped around a tragedy that has impacted on both of their lives. Lotte, an astronomer is planning to come home from Chile after five years working at a mountaintop observatory. She has been searching the skies for exoplanets, Earth-like planets orbiting distant stars but, for reasons that only later become clear, is now coming home to Australia. Nine months later, Eve is running away from her life. Hastily equipped with a tent and basic supplies she pitches up at a quiet caravan park on the southern coast of Victoria where she immerses herself in her grief. Something tragic has happened to Eve, but the details of that tragedy unfold only slowly as Eve herself comes to terms with her life. Spinning backwards from these events is the long and rich history between Lotte and Eve. Lotte, the daughter of a woman who instilled in her a love of the stars but died from a cancer that she herself may have inherited. And…

The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey
Crime , Review / 08/06/2017

Sarah Bailey’s debut Australian crime novel The Dark Lake opens strongly. The body of a popular teacher is found by an early morning jogger in the town lake, surrounded by long stemmed red roses. The teacher is Rosalind Ryan, daughter of wealthy family of developers, who left town but had returned a couple of years before under cloud. Detective Gemma Woodstock is called to the scene. She comes across very quickly as on edge and conflicted both about the case and her life.  Gemma went to school with the victim and knows her better than the casual acquaintance than she makes it sound, although the full details of their connection do not emerge until much later. The Dark Lake falls into the crime sub-genre of police procedural run by a too-invested, damaged cop. Gemma Woodstock is a fairly unlikeable but not uninteresting protagonist. Woodstock has lived in the small town of Smithson all her life and has a young child but is also having an affair with her work partner Felix, who himself has a wife and three daughters. So from the start she is juggling a complicated personal life with potential unearthing of deeper secrets and trauma from her…

The Girl in Kellers Way by Megan Goldin
Crime , Review / 02/06/2017

Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins have a lot to answer for. While The Girl in Kellers Way is an effective, sometimes creepy domestic thriller there are no girls in it (except for little Alice who is not a main player). The two main characters are women, and the body found in Kellers Way is also a woman. The word “Girl” in the title is the tool used to give bookshop browsers an idea that this is a domestic noir. Australian author Megan Goldin’s debut does tick off on some of the aspects of the domestic noir sub-genre indicated by the title: strained domestic relationship, creepy controlling male character and an unreliable narrator. And she does so in a way that brings something new and a little chilling to the genre. The narrative of The Girl in Kellers Way flicks between Julie and Mel, two very different women. Julie is the second wife of charismatic psychology lecturer Matt, bringing up Alice, the daughter by his first marriage. That first marriage ended in a tragedy that is widely known in the small American university town in which they live. Julie, still jealous of the dead Laura, has been on some cocktail of…

The Restorer by Michael Sala

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

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

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

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

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

The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred by Greg Egan
Review , Science Fiction / 17/03/2017

Australian novelist Greg Egan has delivered some mind blowing sci fi novels.  The Four Thousand The Eight Hundred does not have the inventive scope of some of these works. Being a novella, Egan doesn’t have the room to develop his universe too deeply.  But by relying on some familiar science fiction settings and universal ideas as a base, Egan still manages to deliver a fair punch in a small space. People are fleeing Vesta. Strapping themselves to giant stone blocks and putting themselves in stasis to drift through space over a three year trip to Ceres, hitching a ride illegally on a trade that swaps the stone for ice. These refugees are fleeing a regime in which they are treated as second class citizens. They are welcomed by Ceres, a move that creates some tension with Vesta where they are considered to be criminals. There are no big or new scifi ideas in this novella, Egan takes shortcuts to create a complete and believable but contained corner of the solar system.  For example, dwarf planet and asteroid belt mining concerns have a long history in science fiction.  But Egan uses these science fiction tropes to explore elements of the human…

Storm and Grace by Kathryn Heyman
Literature , Review , Thriller / 06/03/2017

Kathryn Heyman never hides the fact that Storm and Grace is a tragedy. From the opening pages she manages to instill a feeling of dread. And if the text is not hint enough, a literal Greek chorus – “We are here. We will not leave.” – who reappear at times through the narrative should be another tip off. Grace, a young woman studying for a marine science degree is swept off her feet by “The Deepest Man in the World”. She is sent to interview world famous free diver Storm Hisray, for a diving magazine and the sparks fly from the first meeting. Storm is a charismatic force and before long he has convinced Grace to abandon her life in Sydney and come to live with him and his crew on a Pacific Island, supporting his attempt to break another world record for freediving. Not long after that Storm starts training her to become a freediver herself, using her desire to be close to him in order to challenge another female freediver. From Grace’s perspective, her story has all the hallmarks of a romance novel. She finds herself, falling into the role of the heroine of her own story, encouraged…