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.

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…

My Name is Nobody by Matthew Richardson
Review , Thriller / 07/07/2017

There comes a point in every fictional spy’s life when they have to go off the reservation. Where their organisation has disavowed all knowledge of them and they need to work outside the system to uncover a mole or other rodent within their organisation. For Solomon Vine, the opportunity to do this comes around page 10 after he is accused of shooting Ahmed Yousef,  suspected terrorist mastermind minutes after he reveals to Vine that he has a secret “that changes everything” and that he will have to be set free. Fast forward a few months and Vine is suspended and facing being drummed out of the Service for his supposed involvement in the shooting. He is brought in ‘unofficially’ by his old handler when his colleague and sometime rival Gabriel Wilde, who was also there the day Yousef was shot, is kidnapped. Something is fishy and it revolves around a potential mole in the organisation only known as “Nobody”. The identity of Nobody is the secret which Yousef was shot for and he is still alive, in a coma in a London hospital. My Name is Nobody is perfect fodder for fans of espionage TV shows like Spooks. Solomon Vine…

American War by Omar El Akkad
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 29/06/2017

2017 seems to be the year of dystopias. The Handmaid’s Tale is on our screens and 1984 has rocketed back to the top of the bestseller list. But there are still plenty of authors looking for new ways to look at the present by considering a possible darker, grimmer future. Omar El Akkad’s American War follows the main events of the second American Civil War which takes place between 2075 and 2095 and is then followed by something much worse. American War opens in 2075. America has been ravaged by climate change and extreme laws relating to the use of fossil fuels have prompted four southern states – Missouri, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina to secede from the union. South Carolina is devastated by a biological plague and walled off leaving the other three states (the MAG) to fight. Sara T Chestnut, who calls herself Sarat, and her twin sister are six when the war starts. They live outside of the MAG but when their father dies in a terrorist attack, the family ends up in a refugee camp in the MAG. The story follows the progress of the war and in particular Sarat’s radicalisation. The key to the success…

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 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…

Ragdoll by Daniel Cole
Crime , Review , Thriller / 11/05/2017

In a short author interview at the end of Ragdoll, Daniel Cole explains how he put the novel together. He wanted something that was less po-faced that the run of the mill British television crime drama but something not as cheesy as American television crime drama like Castle. And while he has partially succeeded in Ragdoll, he does end up leaning very heavily towards the cheesy/contrived end of the spectrum. Ragdoll opens with the trial of the Cremation Killer – a man known for burning his young, female victims. The trial goes south and police investigator William Oliver Lawton-Fawkes, aka the Wolf, unable to take this miscarriage of justice, attacks and almost kills the defendant. When he is later proved right, Wolf is reinstated to the Force so that four years later when a body is found composed of the body parts of six different people he is on the case. The body, nicknamed the “ragdoll” has been left in such a way that it points towards the flat in which Fawkes in living. And when the head of that body turns out to be the Cremation Killer, connections to that earlier case start to haunt the current investigation. Things become…

Spoils by Brian van Reet
Historical , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 28/04/2017

In Spoils, Brian Van Reet returns to the early days of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. By following the lives of two US soldiers and one of the mujahideen, he creates a visceral but nuanced exploration of that conflict. The book opens with a firefight at a road crossing outside an Iraqi village which the American troops have nicknamed Triangletown. Specialist Cassandra Wigheard, a female gunner is wounded and captured by the mujahideen. Van Reet then flicks back in time to explore how she and the mujahideen arrived at that point, including the view of a second soldier, Sleed, who fails to support Cassandra’s platoon as he was too busy looting an Iraqi palace. About half way through, van Reet returns to this present and the plight of Cassandra and her two crew mates captured by the mujahideen cell and occasionally on the army’s hunt for them. Inside the mujahideen cell itself there is dissent around what to do with the prisoners, their new leader seeing opportunity for propaganda. This is a small story in the context of the broader war. The initial conflict is a limited roadside firefight and the characters are a long way down the chain of command….