The Wren Hunt by Mary Watson
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 23/05/2018

Enter another conflicted, sparky girl onto the YA fantasy stage. Joining a recent slew of female fantasy heroes in books likes of The Last Namsara, Children of Blood and Bone and Caraval, Mary Watson brings another spin. Set in a modern day Ireland but referencing an ancient feud, The Wren Hunt is wholly original even when it treads some familiar story beats.  Wren Silke is an augur. Like many a YA protagonist before her she was not raised by her parents. Her father is unknown and her mother abandoned her as a baby. The augurs, one of a cast of magic users, are in an ongoing war with the judges. Wren has been recruited into that war, picked to be the augurs’ spy into the judge stronghold and to steal a map that will help tip the balance in their ongoing war.  But this is not quite the quest novel that it sounds. It reads more like a spy novel where the protagonist is a trainee spy and her handlers are using her to play much larger games.  Wren herself is a likeable, conflicted heroine who has to chart her own course when the world shifts around her and alliances and friendships turn out not to be what they at first seemed. Thrown into the mix, not surprisingly, is a love interest, who happens to also be the…

The Coincidence Makers by Yoav Blum
Fantasy , Review / 05/04/2018

Israeli author Yoav Blum’s debut novel (published in 2011) and first novel to be translated into English is a metaphysical love story. It takes as its premise the forces behind the every day. But it imbeds these forces with a deep humanity. Guy is a coincidence maker. His job is to arrange the world so that certain events take place. He is given missions to produce certain outcomes. He has the ability then to map out exactly how small and large events are going to happen and then nudge the variables to produce results. Missions come as an envelope under his door and he plans all of the interconnecting strands of his mission as a map on the wall of his apartment. Guy’s expertise is in bringing two people together, creating relationships out of a web of seeming coincidence and happenstance. But he is part of a much bigger and deeper organisation and it is possible that these missions are just small parts of a much bigger plan. Guy works with two other new coincidence makers – Emily and Eric. Emily is in love with Guy but cannot make him see her. Guy is still mourning the loss of his…

Autonomous by Analee Newitz
Review , Science Fiction / 26/03/2018

Before the release of her debut novel, Annalee Newitz was better known as one of the founders of io9 and wrote about new technologies. So she is well placed to craft a futuristic scifi novel that even set one hundred and twenty odd years from now, still feels like a natural extrapolation of where we are today. Judith “Jack” Chen is a biological pirate. She takes drugs manufactured by the big pharma companies, reverse engineers them and produces cheaper copies for those in need. She operates from a submarine that moves her between manufacturing centres in Northern Africa and her home base of northern Canada. But Jack has a problem. Her latest batch of reengineered drugs designed to improve focus on work is killing people by making them overly addicted to those tasks. It turns out, though that this is not due to any mistake of hers but because the drug’s big pharma manufacturer had been lying about its potential side effects. Even so, she sets out to make amends. Meanwhile the corporation has hired some muscle to clean up the mess. Artificially intelligent battle robot Paladin is paired with a human Eliasz and they are sent to hunt Jack…

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 22/03/2018

Children of Blood and Bone is one of the most anticipated YA books of 2018. Movie rights have already been sold and YA blogger sites have been singing its praises. And there is a lot to like here. Tomi Adeyemi has constructed a fast paced, roller-coaster quest-based fantasy book set in a well realised West-African-inspired setting and delivers the kind of thrills and characters that her YA readership craves. Zélie, is a Diviner, part of a subgroup of people in the kingdom of Orisha subjugated and feared for their former ability to use magic. Magic was banished from the world by the moustache-twirlingly evil King Sanara thirteen years before. Those with white hair, who carry the mark of magic users, are reviled and repressed. But an encounter between Zélie and runaway princess Amari changes the equation. Amari has stolen a relic that can respark magic in individuals and, together with Zélie and her brother Tzain, embarks on a quest to unite three sacred artefacts and bring magic back to the world. While Children of Blood and Bone has a unique and fascinating African setting and mythology, the plot and characters owe as much to recent YA-fan favourite series like The…

Bloody January by Alan Parks
Crime , Historical / 07/03/2018

Readers looking for gritty crime can always find their fix on the mean (fictional) streets of Glasgow. To make things a little grittier, Alan Parks, sets his debut novel Bloody January in 1973. Drugs and criminal gangs are rife, most of the police (sorry, polis) are on the take, and while there are plenty of shady no-go areas in town the whiff of development is in the air. Bloody January has an intriguing open. A prisoner with a long record asks to meet with Detective McCoy to warn him that a young woman will be killed. McCoy only half believes the tale and when he does follow up he is too late. The woman is shot, her attacker turns the gun on himself and the informant is killed in the prison. This book is not called Bloody January for nothing. The rest is what can only be described as corrupt police procedural where all roads lead to the ultra-rich and untouchable Dunlop family with whom McCoy has had run-ins in the past. McCoy himself is a complex character but one with most of the attributes readers have come to expect from Scottish crime. He has a damaging history, having been…

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
Crime , Review , Science Fiction / 01/03/2018

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, the debut novel by Stuart Turton has so many influences it is hard to know where to begin. It is designed to appeal to lovers of speculative fiction and classic crime fiction in equal measure and should succeed in satisfying everyone to some degree. Seven Deaths starts in cliché territory. A man comes to in a forest, he has no memory of who he is or why is there, a name is on his lips. He thinks he sees a murder taking place but before he can find any evidence of it, a mysterious stranger has pressed a compass into his hand and pointed him East. He walks through woodland until he comes to a crumbling English manor house, Blackheath where, it turns out his name is Simon Bell and he is a guest for a ball to be held that evening. The ball itself is being held to commemorate the murder of the Hardcastles’ son Thomas twenty years before. Their two other children, Michael and Evelyn have come for the event as has everyone connected with that fateful day. Before long the narrator learns that he is not Dr Simon Bell after all,…

The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 21/02/2018

Debut author Kristen Ciccarelli credits the inspiration for her fantasy novel The Last Namsara on a bunch of kick-arse female fantasy characters. Mulan, Eowyn, Princess Mononoke and Xena. What set these princesses apart was their ability to wield a sword and Asha, the protagonist of The Last Namsara is no different. When the book opens she is on a dragon-hunting expedition, clad in fireproof hide of dragons she has killed in the past and armed with her handy throwing axe. But this is a modern fairy tale and it turns out that nothing is quite what it seems. In Asha’s world stories have power. In her case, the ability to summon dragons but also to give them power. But stories are also deadly. And Asha has always felt that her ability to tell those stories and survive where her mother died has set her apart as damaged. This feeling is compounded by the scars that she bears from her childhood encounter with the First Dragon, Kozu, and the burns that cover half of her body. Asha is determined to kill Kozu and bring his head to her father the king. But Asha has more trouble than that – she is…

Sweet Little Lies Caz Frear
Crime , Review / 19/02/2018

It is a rule universally acknowledged that a cop who has some crime in their past will come up against that crime sometime in their work. What drives Sweet Little Lies is that Cat Kinsella is determined to hide her connection to the crime as it involves her father. But this is more than just protecting him, it is sorting through her own behaviour as the new crime shines a light on the grudge that she has been holding against him since she was eight. Putting the family connections aside, Sweet Little Lies is first and foremost a police procedural. A woman has been murdered and her body dumped in a local park. Cat Kinsella is one of the detectives charged with solving that crime. Caz Frear gives readers an effective and likeable police team, including Cat’s tough boss and role model DCI Kate Steele and her father-substitute partner Parnell. And as in any good procedural, the case has plenty of dead ends, lucky breaks and lying witnesses. Things only become difficult when a connection is made to another crime that happened many years before, one that Cat has been sure for all these years that her father was involved…

The Feed by Nick Clark Windo
Review , Science Fiction / 13/02/2018

The Feed is a post-apocalyptic tale with what can only be called a Black Mirror edge. As with that series, Nick Clark Windo is interested in exploring our relationship with technology and, more importantly, what happens when that relationship sours in some way. But The Feed ranges further than this, exploring the broader implications of our reliance on technology. When The Feed opens, Tom and Kate are enjoying a quiet night in a restaurant. Quiet in that they have willingly turned off their Feed. Much like the world in Adam Roberts’s recent book The Real-Town Murders, where most people spend their life in a virtual world, the world of The Feed is quiet, the interactions mainly happening in people’s heads. Kate struggles to interact outside of the Feed; its images, as she describes them: …score the darkness like neon and starlight, an internal global cityscape where everyone lives close by. So beautiful. So inevitable. So comfortable. Through the Feed, people can share emotions, memories, news, information. Kate is addicted to the Feed and spends the meal ‘itching to go on’. They both finally relent when a major event occurs, an assassination that sends their world spinning towards oblivion. Cut to…

Jade City by Fonda Lee
Fantasy , Review / 06/02/2018

Fantasy novels have traditionally been built on a medieval model. Even where there are no elves or dwarves or orcs, there is always plenty of swords and horses. This goes to Asian-based fantasy also, often based on mythology it will be full of bows and arrows and dragons. Urban fantasy seeks to move away from these tropes and locate fantasy in more of a contemporary frame. There are plenty of great authors working in urban fantasy – writers like Ben Aaronovitch, Neal Gaiman and Angela Slatter. And now, joining them, from a more Asia-centric approach is debut author Fonda Lee.  Jade City is set in a fantasy but recognisable Earth. It centres around the island of Kekon where the indigenous inhabitants are able to harness locally mined jade to give them a range of powers. Use of jade is dangerous and training is required to effectively harness and control the power. The island itself is only a generation after the inhabitants successfully repelled an occupying force through guerrilla action, and still the eyes of the two great powers of the world are on Kekon.  But this is not a story of that global conflict. Jade City focusses on the power struggle between the two top criminal gangs – the No Peak Clan and…

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
Fantasy , Historical , Review / 15/01/2018

Gothic horror is back in vogue and it does not get much more gothic than Laura Purcell’s debut The Silent Companions. Purcell has thrown everything at her scenario – an opening scene in an asylum, a pregnant widow still in mourning, a creepy village outside of an even creepier manor house, whispers of witchcraft, surly servants, disappearing curio shops, mysteriously locked doors, black cats and strange noises. And the icing on this decidedly black cake are the unnerving, lifelike wooden figures, the silent companions of the title, that seem to move on their own and leave wood shavings and splinters in their wake. It is 1865 and Elise Bainbridge is in mourning for the loss of her husband Rupert. She is retreating to the family estate known as The Bridge with Rupert’s young cousin Sarah and from the start things go wrong. There is only a skeleton staff in the house and locals from the village will not work there due to historical rumours of witchcraft. Almost immediately strange things start to happen – including odd noises in the night – and they become stranger when a previously locked door to the attic comes open revealing the lifelike wooden figure…

Girl In Snow by Danya Kukafka
Crime , Review / 02/11/2017

Another ‘Girl’ book, but this one is actually about a girl. When Danya Kukafka’s debut novel Girl in Snow opens, 15 year old Lucinda Hayes has been found dead in the local playground. The narrative that follows circles around her peers at the local high school and one of the policemen involved in the investigation. The book opens with Cameron who in the opening lines remembers Lucinda by “her shoulder blades and how they framed her naked spine, like a pair of static lungs”. While this gives the impression that Cameron has a relationship with Lucinda it quickly emerges that this relationship is all one way. Cameron has been obsessed with Lucinda and has been watching her at night through her window, quickly making him a key suspect. Although never stated, Cameron comes across potential as having aspects of autism or at least some sort of mental health issue. Cameron was out the night Lucinda was killed and has a drawing of her dead body but, conveniently for the thriller aspect of the plot, has blackouts occasionally and in this case can not remember anything about the night itself. At the same time, Jade, an old frenemy of Lucinda’s, takes…

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…

City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C Anderson
Crime , Review , Young Adult / 29/09/2017

City of Saints and Thieves has an immediately engaging open. Sixteen year old Tina is a thief in the Kenyan city of Sangui. Together with her street-criminal backers she is embarking on an audacious robbery of the Greyhill mansion in an upmarket part of town. But Tina has more on her mind than just theft. Her mother was killed in that house while working there as a maid and Tina believes that Greyhill senior was responsible. So the theft is also about revenge. But the heist does not go as planned and from there the tale spins out with Tina only barely in some kind of control. Natalie C Anderson, the author of City of Saints and Thieves has a long history of working with refugees in Congo, Rwanda and Kenya and this experience shows. Anderson brings both the Kenyan and Congolese settings vivdly to life. The book is rich in detail about the lives of women and children in Africa’s conflict zones and the role of blood gold in fuelling the violence. As a young girl living on the streets of a fictional Kenyan city, Tina’s skills as a thief are the only thing keeping her from a life…

The Truants by Lee Markham
Fantasy , Review / 05/09/2017

Vampires are back on the streets of London in Lee Markham’s visceral debut The Truants. Just when you thought the vampire mythology could not take another go round, Markham takes this corner of the horror genre and gives is a shake. His stated aim is to create some discomfort for readers and he succeeds.  On a bench facing east the old one waits to die. A long-lived vampire, the old one has decided to end his life by facing the sun. But before he can complete the ritual he is attacked by a street kid after money. The kid stabs him and then escapes with a broken arm but the damage has been done. The knife that is carried away is somehow infused with the spirit of the dying vampire and every person it touches absorbs that spirit. The first two of these are a two year old boy and a ten year old school boy. From there all hell, literally, breaks out.  Markham has crafted a vampire tale for modern times. His vampires are dispossessed of the streets and the tower blocks of London. The baby that the old one possesses early on is living in squalor in a drug dealer’s squat so that it is almost a relief when he is given some agency even with…

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…

Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott
Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 15/08/2017

The English fantasy resurgence continues with the delightful and strange Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott. A debut which joins the likes of Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell), Tim Clare (The Honours) and Padriac O’Donell (The Maker of Swans), as another uniquely and intrinsically English take on the genre without resorting to the tired or the Tolkienesque. Rotherweird is a town out of time. Administratively cut off from the rest of England during Elizabethan times to hide a terrible and dangerous secret. The school’s history master disappears after illegally investigating pre-1800 Rotherweird history and strange forces are starting to rise again. The action is precipitated by the arrival of two new ‘outsiders’ to town. Jeremiah Oblong, the new modern history master, a typical English fop in the mould of Arthur Dent, and Veronal Slickstone, wealthy new owner of The Manor. They are surrounded by a colourful bunch of Dickensian characters with names like Orelia Roc, Vixen Valourhand and Sidney Snorkel. The first half of Rotherweird is a delight. Not only doling out small hints of its fantasy setting but also full of comedic set pieces based on Rotherweirdian traditions including the annual coracle race down the river Rother where contestants…

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…

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.