All Fall Down by Cassandra Austin
Literature , Review / 27/02/2017

Australian gothic has a long history in Australian fiction – both written and visual. Think of books (and films) like Picnic at Hanging Rock and Wake in Fright or more recently The Dressmaker and you start to get a sense of this genre. It is a particularly European take of the Australian landscape, a dark, dangerous view full of strange characters and potentially evil goings-on. But it is also used to illuminate the dark side of Australian culture. In The Dressmaker there was bullying and corruption, more recently Holly Throsby’s Goodwood had elements of Australian gothic and delved into domestic violence, alcoholism and gambling. Cassandra Austin’s debut All Fall Down sits squarely in this tradition but feels in no way derivative of its predecessors. The town of Mululuk somewhere in the desert north of South Australia, an opal mining town spitting distance from Lightning Ridge, is separated north and south by a chasm. As All Fall Down opens, the bridge that connects the two sides of town collapses, severely injuring Janice who was driving over it while fleeing her husband and baby to see her lover Shane. Weeks later Janice is still in hospital having been in a coma and…

Crimson Lake by Candice Fox
Crime , Recommended , Review / 13/02/2017

Candice Fox announced herself as an Australian crime writer to watch with her Ned Kelly Award winning debut Hades, followed up a year later by its award winning sequel Eden. The Archer and Bennett series took a couple of fairly recent crime fiction tropes (including the serial killer cop) but Fox made them completely her own. After a shortlisted third in the series and a humdrum collaboration with one-man crime fiction factory James Paterson, Fox launches what is potentially a new series with Crimson Lake. And is, in a few words, absolutely back on form. Crimson Lake is a small tropical town outside of Cairns. It is where Ted Conkaffey has gone to ground after his life fell apart. Conkaffey was a policeman, charged with the brutal assault on a teenage girl but never convicted. He continues to protest his innocence but is scarred by his experience on the other side of the justice system and, not cleared of the crime, is still suspected of being a paedophile. His lawyer hooks him up with local detective Amanda Pharrell. Amanda is in some ways more damaged than Ted, having spent ten years in prison for stabbing a fellow teenager to death….

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

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

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

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

The Good People by Hannah Kent
Historical , Literature , Review / 13/12/2016

Hannah Kent rose quickly to justified prominence with her stunning first novel Burial Rites. That book, set in the harshness of Iceland took a true story and brought it viscerally to life. While the method is the same, and there are similarities between the two books, The Good People explores a very different landscape and a very different culture. The Good People opens in a small village in Ireland in the 1850s. Norra and her husband have been eking out an existence and trying to look after their disabled grandson Michael. The four-year-old cannot talk or use his legs, he was left with them by their son-in-law when their daughter died. When her husband dies suddenly Norra is left adrift. In the highly superstitious villages this death is seen as evidence that Michael is a changeling, a child stolen by the fairies, or Good People. The village itself is caught between the old ways and the new. Kent effectively captures the tension between the desire to put the old superstitions aside and the pressure on villagers from the new priest to fully commit to Christianity. The old ways are represented by Nance, a woman who understands the fairy lore and…

Goodwood by Holly Throsby
Crime , Literature , Review / 06/12/2016

Fictional characters have been mysteriously disappearing in the Australian landscape for years. Despite efforts to colonise and urbanise, the land continues to swallow people up, particularly in fiction. So that when eighteen-year-old Rosie White disappears at the beginning of Goodwood there is a distinct Picnic at Hanging Rock feeling in the air. And like that book, Goodwood is for the most part more interested on the effect of that disappearance, and another a few days later, on the psyche of a small town than it is on solving the mystery. Although unlike its famous predecessor, Holly Throsby does provide a solution. Singer and songwriter Holly Throsby goes back to 1992 for her debut novel set in Goodwood, a mythical but typical NSW south coast town. Goodwood is a quirky town built on logging, fishing, a large coastal lake and a struggling dairy industry. With its bowlo and pub, Goodwood is too small to have a proper supermarket, but big enough to have a school. Full of the types of oddball characters, many harbouring dark secrets, that readers (and TV viewers of shows like Seachange) have come to expect from these literary country towns. Narrator Jean Brown is sixteen, on the cusp…

Swarm by Westerfeld, Lanagan and Biancotti
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 28/11/2016

The misfit powered teens from last year’s Zeroes, co-written by YA powerhouse team Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti, are back for another go round in Swarm. And like all good sequels, Swarm finds their world expanding considerably and, with that expansion the dangers they face. The book opens six months after the somewhat catastrophic events of Zeroes. The six teens have opened an illegal nightclub called the Petri Dish as a way of testing and refining their powers. But while the club provides them with a safe haven, their activities have attracted some unwelcome attention. They soon realise something that should have been obvious to them – they are not the only Zeroes in the world. While the Zeroes have been trying to use their powers responsibly (or at least not destructively), it turns out that others are not so conscientious. When their club is crashed by two teens with new abilities the Zeroes find themselves in the crosshairs of a deadly Zero known only as Swarm who (it seems) enjoys killing other Zeroes (shades of the early seasons of powered-people TV series Heroes here). Once again, the issues of just being a young adult are front and centre…

Gemina by Kaufman and Kristoff

The elevator pitch for Gemina goes something like this: imagine a cross between Aliens, Die Hard, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Romeo and Juliet. Not surprising given this is the sequel to the Aurealis-award winning Illuminae (reviewed here), a book that managed to mash up elements from Battlestar Galactica, 2001, 28 Days Later and possibly something by Nicholas Sparks. Gemina, a geek’s delight, has all of these elements and plenty more (even Firefly gets a shoutout). It advances the corporate conspiracy plot of Illuminae while focussing once again a few incredibly resourceful teens. At the end of Illuminae (spoiler alert) the survivors on the Hypatia are heading towards a wormhole that will jump them to a space station called Heimdall. Gemina opens on Heimdall on the eve on an invasion organised by the Beitech Corporation trying to clean up its mess by destroying the Hypatia. Hanna, the daughter of the station commander, Nik, a member of the House of Knives crime gang, and his cousin Ella end up being the only ones standing between the twenty-four armed to the teeth mercenaries and destruction of the Hypatia. Well, them an a bunch of hungry, slimy, four-headed aliens loose on the…

A Shattered Empire by Mitchell Hogan
Fantasy , Review / 04/11/2016

After a brief prologue, A Shattered Empire, the final volume of Mitchell Hogan’s Sorcery Ascendant Sequence picks up minutes after the last volume ended. Things are looking dire for the Mahruse Empire, and possibly the world as a whole. An evil sorcerer leading a massive army has taken over the city of Anasoma, bloodthirsty creatures of legend are still on the march, a sorcerous weapon has knocked the Emperor’s forces into disarray, and a strange band of mercenaries have offered him their support. While various factions vie for power or cover their backsides, a bunch of disparate heroes, all with their own agendas, still have their eyes on the main game. Again the focus is on Caladan with occasional side trips to other (more interesting) POV characters. Caladan, the callow youth with strange powers of A Crucible of Souls (reviewed here), discoverer of dark secrets about his powers in Blood of Innocents (reviewed here) is now a powerful sorcerer in his own right. Caladan becomes through this book an agent of bloody vengeance, his trust and empathy stripped away as his powers grow. Fans of classic epic fantasy, and this series in particular, will enjoy the well-paced and lovingly described magical…

Signal Loss by Garry Disher
Crime , Review / 01/11/2016

Garry Disher returns from spending time with criminal Wyatt on the Gold Coast and out on Bitterwash Road to the Peninsula region east of Melbourne for his latest book. Up to its seventh volume, the previously titled Challis and Destry series have now been renamed “Peninsula Crimes”. While Both Hal Challis and Ellen Destry are both still very much main characters in this outing, Disher’s focus in this series of procedurals has always been much broader than the leads, ranging across a number of members of the Peninsula police force and the local community. In Signal Loss, Disher tackles a major current issue – ice production and addiction, particularly in rural Australia. As with other books in this series there are plenty of other crimes to go round – sexual assault, theft, murder. But the to make sense of the various aspects of those crimes as they emerge and in particular as they become confused with in other investigations. Once again both the procedural and social/character elements of Disher’s writing are strong. Destry has her challenges managing a new sex crimes unit and dealing with her sister’s new crises. While Challis finds himself butting up against the drugs squad and…

Slaughter Park by Barry Maitland
Crime , Recommended , Review / 07/10/2016

The first book in the Harry Belltree series Crucifixion Creek (reviewed here) signalled a change of pace and setting for Australian crime writer Barry Maitland. He forsook his long running very British Brock and Kolla procedurals for the faster paced, more morally ambiguous Belltree. At the same time replacing the more staid and cool streets of the UK with the brashness and bright sunshine of Sydney. It was a brave move and it paid off. Crucifixion Creek was a great piece of Australian crime fiction, involving shonky developers and bikie gangs in Western Sydney it garnered a nomination for the Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Fiction in 2015. But there was always a deeper story at play connected to the death of Belltree’s famous father, a member of the stolen generation and the first Aboriginal judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court. The second book of the series, Ash Island (reviewed here), also made the Neds short list in 2016. Ash Island broadened out the conspiracies only glimpsed in the first book and provided more clues to the mysteries surrounding the death of the Belltrees senior. But the story suffered a little from middle book syndrome, raising more…

Dead in the Water by Tania Chandler
Crime , Review / 04/10/2016

Tania Chandler’s debut Please Don’t Leave Me Here, did not feel like the start of a series. That story (reviewed here) explored the life of Brigette, married to Sam, the policeman who many years before investigated the death of a music promoter that she had been having a relationship with. While it had crime stylings, Please Don’t Leave Me Here was more of a character study of Brigette as she tried not descend back into drug abuse, with second half of the novel focussing on the shady past that she was trying to leave behind. So it was surprising, but not unwelcome, to find Brigette as the centre of Chandler’s second novel Dead in the Water. A quick search of the Internet reveals that Dead in the Water is a very popular name for some decidedly B-grade crime fiction. But this aspect of the novel turns out to be a bit of a meta-commentary on crime fiction. Dead in the Water is also the title of a crime novel within this novel, in which a hard-bitten, hard drinking detective has to investigate the murder of his wife. The novel in the novel is the fourth of a series of procedurals…

The Windy Season by Sam Carmody
Crime , Literature , Review / 28/09/2016

Sam Carmody’s debut novel, The Windy Season, runner up for last year’s Vogel award, takes readers deep into what has become Tim Winton territory. A dangerous coming of age story set on the wild Western Australian coast, The Windy Season plumbs the depths (literally at times) of the regional Australian experience. Seventeen year-old Paul’s brother Eliot has gone missing. Paul, is unsure how to react but wants to find Eliot and, not knowing what else to do, packs up and follows in his brother’s footsteps. Eliot had been working on his uncle’s crayfish trawler operating out the West Australian coastal town of Stark so Paul follows. At the same time as following Paul’s life, Carmody charts the journey of a group of bikies across the country. Led by The President and narrated by a character called Swiss (after the army knife), the group flee from a bust in Sydney, heading west across the desert to exact some form of unspecified revenge. Besides Paul, Carmody gives some insight into the lives of the people who drift in and out of towns like Stark. The people who work on the trawlers, those running from some aspect of their lives, and the tourists…

A Toaster on Mars by Darrell Pitt

As the introduction makes clear, A Toaster on Mars in not, actually, about a toaster or any other kitchen appliances. And the plot only meanders to Mars for its finale. The toaster in question is actually a cyborg character called Nicki Steel, wearing the epithet for robots made popular by the recent Battlestar Galactica reboot. Set in the 26th century, A Toaster on Mars is a science-fiction comedy romp for kids. The paper thin plot involves detective Blake Carter and his new partner Steel going up against the universe’s worst bad guy named, unsurprisingly, Bartholomew Badde. Badde, Carter’s long-time nemesis, has kidnapped Carter’s daughter and blackmails him into steeling some high tech equipment. The rest is a series of capers, battles and chases across Neo City, built on the ruins of the US east coast, with brief pauses for additional comedic interludes. Pitt is clearly a Douglas Adams fan. The opening monologue by editor Zeeb Blatsnart (even the name feels Adams-inspired) and many of Blatsnart’s italicised asides during the plot are essentially Adams-light, and many are reworkings of Adams’ ideas. Similarly, many of the plot devices – a killer-mutant cheese sandwich, a pocket universe full of Elvises, snarky artificially-intelligent appliances…

Never Never by Patterson and Fox
Crime , Review , Thriller / 10/08/2016

James Patterson best known to adults as the author of the Alex Cross series and to young adults as the author of the Maximum Ride series. But much like Tom Clancy, Patterson has become more than just an author, he is an industry. The back of Never Never lists over eighty novels for which he is co-author. Candice Fox, on the other hand, has written three crime novels in the Archer and Bennett series. But they are three of the best Australian crime novels of recent years, the first two of which took out Ned Kelly Awards for best first novel (Hades – reviewed here) and best novel (Eden – reviewed here) back to back. So what happens when the two get together to write a crime thriller? Well, the answer is the Australian-set Never Never. Never Never opens with a point-of-view character known as the Soldier, killing someone out in the desert at night as part of some sort of sadistic military-style game. Switch to Sydney and Detective Harriet “Harry” Blue is being shunted off to Western Australia to avoid the fallout of her brother being picked up as a suspected serial killer. The next minute Harry is working…

Vigil by Angela Slatter
Crime , Fantasy , Review / 19/07/2016

Angela Slatter, who has won a number of international awards for her short fiction, goes to Brisbane, or Brisneyland as she prefers to style it, for her first full length novel. Vigil is an urban fantasy which sees the streets of Australia’s third largest city shared between the Normals and the supernatural Weyrd. As is often the case, only a select few Normals are aware of this sharing arrangement. The Weyrd community keeps very much to itself and has put limits on the excesses of its members, which previously included preying on the Normal population. Enter Verity Fassbinder, half-human, half Weyrd able to walk in both worlds, with super-strength from her Weyrd side. Verity works as a freelance investigator, partly in penance for the sins of her Weyrd father Grigor, a kinderfresser, who killed normal children for the highborn Weyrd. Verity is tasked by the Weyrd Council to investigate when children once again start going missing. Soon her troubles mount, with dying sirens (the avian kind), a monster roaming the streets, rampant angels and the search for the missing son of a millionaire. While in genre terms this is strictly fantasy, Vigil plays out strongly along crime fiction lines with…

Black Teeth by Zane Lovitt
Crime , Review / 13/07/2016

In 2010, Zane Lovitt won the Sandra Harvey Award for Crime Fiction Short Story at the Ned Kelly Awards. That story went on to form part of a connected short-story anthology, The Midnight Promise, which won the Ned Kelly for best debut crime novel in 2013. With Black Teeth, a highly original, dark Australian crime novel, Lovitt is once again looking to be a strong contender for the Neds. Black Teeth has an intriguing cold open. Rudy Alamein is trying to purchase life insurance. He is intending to kill someone and does not expect to survive the experience. When he dies he wants the insurance money to go to his only friend. The insurance agent takes this all in and promises to help as he knew Rudy’s father in prison. Only nothing about this conversation is quite what it seems. Cut to narrator Jason Ginaff, a loner who spends his life online and is hired by big firms to do checks on the social media history of potential employees. Jason has anxiety issues and a range of aliases to protect himself from perceived threats. He is also trying to track down his biological father, a retired policeman who was involved…

The Toymaker by Liam Pieper
Historical , Literature , Review / 08/07/2016

The opening of Liam Pieper’s The Toymaker is fairly confronting. Adam Kulakov, a successful middle aged man is thinking of ending his affair (not his first) with a sixteen-year-old school girl. This is just the start of Adam’s problems, problems that are juxtaposed against the struggles of his wife Tess to keep their family business afloat and the traumatic history of his grandfather, transported to Auschwitz during World War 2. The Toymaker has some finely observed, if not always particularly likeable, characters. Adam Kulakov is the epitome of the privileged Australian male. Second generation, living high on the money generated by a company started and grown by his grandfather, arrogant and entitled. Adam’s problems, which become his family’s problems, are grounded in his own hubris and stupidity, in his belief that he is somehow better than those around him. His wife Tess has come from a different direction – her family fortune squandered, and finding herself in a loveless marriage she finds meaning in the company and her connection with Adam’s grandfather. All this is held against the struggle of Arkady Kulakov, a young man transported to Auschwitz and blackmailed into working on medical experiments, finding some meaning by bringing…

The Dry by Jane Harper
Crime , Recommended , Review / 24/06/2016

The Dry, the debut novel by journalist Jane Harper won the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Award for best unpublished manuscript. But it is a wonder that it had to go this route to get published. The opening of The Dry is a sadly familiar story. In a small town in drought affected country Victoria a struggling farmer, Luke Halpern, kills his wife and ten year old son and then turns the gun on himself. Only his baby daughter survives. Aaron Falk, driven out of town as a teenager and now a federal policeman specialising in fraud, returns for the funeral and is asked by Luke’s parents to look into the deaths. It soon appears that that all is not what it seems. But Aaron, still held under the suspicion by the town for the death of his friend Ellie Deacon twenty years before, does not want to stay. The Dry does what all good crime novels do – it uses Aaron’s investigation of both the current and historical crimes to shine a light on the town, its inhabitants and their often unforgiving environment. In doing so, Harper is able to explore broader social themes and issues affecting rural Australia. There are…

Where the Trees Were by Inga Simpson
Literature , Review / 14/04/2016

Inga Simpson’s Where the Trees Were is a story that, at its heart, is about growing up and living in modern Australia. Its connecting tissue, the issue of cultural appropriation and the ongoing tousle between preservation of Aboriginal culture and land use, gives the story a depth and resonance beyond the individual characters and their lives. It is 2004 and Jayne is a conservator at a major cultural institution in Canberra. As the book opens she is organising the theft of a carved tree from the museum collection. The tree, once one of many that dotted the Australian landscape and marked places of cultural significance to the Aboriginal communities who lived there, has been reduced from its previous significance to an exhibit. Why Jayne does this and how she deals with the fallout are examined through the rest of the book. Flashback to Jayne’s childhood, told in first person, growing up the only child of a farming family in the Lachlan Valley, central New South Wales. Starting in 1987, this aspect of the novel follows Jayne and her close group of friends, all boys.  In alternating chapters, Simpson follows the group as they leave primary school and enter the adolescent…