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…

Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio

Christopher Ruocchio’s debut novel and first of a new series owes a debt to the space opera classics. The opening of Empire of Silence feels cribbed from the opening of Frank Herbert’s all time classic Dune. A galaxy-wide human empire ruled by aristocratic houses, a young man chafing against his place and struggling to find his destiny, a powerful and sinister religious order, computer technology outlawed and replaced by human “computers”. But it also has echoes of other space operas from that age and earlier in which humanity has spread to the stars but in doing so has retained its classical roots.  The society Ruocchio presents is a pastiche of high tech, Roman and medieval.  Empire of Silence picks up the pace a little when narrator Hadrian Marlowe goes on the run from the privilege of his family but is dumped on a backwater planet where he has to live by his wits. This middle section of the book morphs into a retelling of Gladiator as Hadrian gets work as cannon-fodder in the local colosseum and manages to train a rag tag group to survive. The book then switches again to become an exploration of ancient mysteries and finally attains some forward momentum when Hadrian encounters humanity’s enemy – the Ceiclin who ravage through human space.  Empire of Silence is the first volume of a memoir. Hadrian narrates from an old age in which he has done some horrific things that are only…

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 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…

Chemistry by Weike Wang
Literature , Review / 28/06/2018

Chemistry is the debut novel by author Weike Wang. This first novel was recently acknowledged by the National Book Foundation who recognised Wang as one of its ‘5 under 35’ honourees. Wang, who herself has an undergraduate degree in chemistry and a doctorate in public health had some experience to draw from in this first novel. When the book opens her main character, never named, is in the third year of a chemistry doctorate program. But fairly soon she is questioning all of her life choices.  A child of Chinese immigrants, the narrator finds herself caught up in the immigrant dream – to study hard and excel beyond her parent’s achievements. So that when she has a crisis of confidence, stops going to the lab and eventually drops out of her PhD program, she does not tell her parents, choosing instead to maintain a fiction that she is continuing. At the same time her long term boyfriend has proposed and she does not know how to deal with the proposal. And so the narrative becomes an exploration of almost crippling indecision. Caught knowing what the “right” thing but unwilling to commit to any of it.  The narrator of Chemistry is not an easy character to like but one that over the course of the novel readers come to understand. She is, like…

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…