The Last Brother by Andrew Gross
Historical , Review , Thriller / 04/10/2018

Thriller writer Andrew Gross dips into his own family history for inspiration for his latest book The Last Brother. While there is plenty of action and a little suspense this is down the line historical fiction exploring the growth of the rag trade in New York in the early twentieth century and the organised crime that grew up around it. The Last Brother opens with a tragedy. One child of a Jewish immigrant family of six children dies in an accident putting Harry, the twin of the boy who died, on a different course to his siblings. Sol, the oldest son goes on to study accounting while the youngest brother Morris at thirteen goes to work for a coat maker and his wife. The narrative proper starts years later when Morris and Sol are running a successful business and Harry is running with some petty criminals. Morris and Sol are under pressure from the unions who are backed by the local mob and when one of his fellow coat makers is attacked and his stock destroyed Morris takes it on himself to see the mob boss Buchalter. It turns out that Morris and Buchalter have a long history, which Gross…

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry
Crime , Historical , Review / 02/10/2018

Ambrose Parry is the pen name of multi-award winning Scottish crime writer Chris Brookmyre and his wife Marisa Haetzman. It was Haetzman’s research into medical practice in Edinburgh in the 1850s that put the two down the track of collaborating on a novel set in the period. Being a crime novel, The Way of All Flesh opens with a death – a prostitute named Evie, found by one of her regular clients, but also friend, Will Raven. Raven runs from the scene, straight into the arms of the debt collectors looking for repayment of the money he had borrowed to help Evie out. Raven is hoping that his new apprenticeship with famous “male midewife” (aka obstetrician) James Simpson, will help him earn the money that he needs. In Simpson’s house, which also serves as his clinic, is housemaid Sarah who has the capacity to be more and yearns for something better. It takes some time for the murder mystery to come into focus. Some news about other deaths slowly builds in both Raven and Sarah a suspicion that something strange is afoot. They form a loose partnership as they tentatively investigate. Both characters are engaging and distinctive enough to avoid…

The Boy at the Keyhole by Stephen Giles
Historical , Review , Thriller / 20/09/2018

The Boy at the Keyhole screams gothic from its opening pages. A nine year old boy is being both nursed and chastised by the housekeeper in the kitchen of a rambling English house in Cornwall. The year is 1961 and Samuel Wade, whose father has died, is being cared for by the housekeeper Ruth while his mother is in America trying to rescue the family fortune. The house itself is full of secrets and is fertile ground for Samuel’s imagination to run wild particularly when his best friend Joseph suggests that perhaps his mother is not actually away but has been killed by Ruth. Australian author Stephen Giles has previously written books for children (the equally gothic Ivy Pocket series written under the pseudonym Caleb Krisp). The Boy at the Keyhole is his first book for adults but very much locates itself in a child’s point of view. While this is not a first person narrative, everything the reader knows or sees is from Samuel’s perspective. And this is important as it makes it possible to see how he misinterprets everything around him to fit within his point of view. Samuel’s is a point of view that is clearly influenced…

The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers

The Seventh Cross is not a new book, at least not in the usual sense. It is a new translation of a book written by Anna Seghers, an author from a Jewish family that had fled Germany and was living in Paris in the late 1930s. The book itself, written before the start of the Second World War is not about that war or the Holocaust. But Seghers could see all of these coming and her novel allows readers to trace a line from the totalitarian, anti-semitic, fascist attitudes of the mid-1930s to the Germany that plunged the world into war less than five years later. The Seventh Cross is set in 1935 and centres around an escape from the concentration camp. The camp had been established to punish political prisoners. Although it turns out that the definition of a political prisoner is anyone who the local authorities don’t particularly like. Seven men escape and, as they are recaptured they are strung up against a row of trees at the entrance to the camp as punishment and warning to others. These are crosses of the title. The seventh cross is reserves for George Heisler, the escapee that Seghers spends the most…

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…

The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo
Historical , Literature , Review / 29/06/2018

Enza Gandolfo’s new novel takes as its centerpiece the 1970 collapse of the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne. This tragedy resonates through the lives of the people involved and the people who continue to live in the shadow of the Bridge. Most of the narrative is set forty years later and centres around another tragedy, one that is much more intimate and unfortunately common than the collapse of a major engineering work.  Antonello is a 22 year old rigger working on the Westgate Bridge in 1970. An immigrant from Italy, he has found his place in the multicultural melting pot that was the construction crew. When the unfinished bridge collapses, killing many of his workmates Antonello retreats into a shell. Forty years later, Antonello’s teenage granddaughter is killed in a car accident, the driver Jo was her best friend and all four teenagers in the car had been drinking. The accident itself happened in the shadow of the Westgate Bridge.  The Bridge is heavy going for most of its length as it delves deeply into the psychology of Jo in the aftermath of the accident and Antonello, still suffering forty years on but slowly finding a way to deal with his pain. Thrown into the mix is Jo’s lawyer Sarah who…

The Neighborhood by Mario Vargas Llosa
Historical , Literature , Review / 07/06/2018

Mario Vargas Llosa is one of the great chroniclers of life in South and Central America. This was recognised with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010. So it is no surprise that it he has returned to the bad old days of his native Peru for his latest novel The Neighborhood. What is a surprise is the prurient, telenovela, over-the-top style of the plot and the lack of depth to the many characters who circle around the plot. And the feeling that this is a novelist who still has an axe to grind.  The Neighborhood opens in Lima in the 1990s during the second term of president Alberto Fujimori (who defeated Llosa himself in the previous election). Life is tough – people are being kidnapped, there is violence on the streets and the secret police, led by a man known only as The Doctor, are flexing their muscles. As one character observes:  ‘With all these blackouts, bombs, kidnappings and murders every day, who can live peacefully in this city? In this country?‘  All this drives people off the streets, and if Llosa is to be believed, into each other’s beds. The opening scene is one of to wives discovering an attraction to each other and starting a secret affair….

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Warlight is Booker Prize winning author Michael Ondaatje’s first novel in seven years. And he has not lost his touch. Much like his early novels In The Skin of a Lion and The English Patient, this is a simply but beautifully told tale full of secrets, revelations and complex characters. Set in Britain in the years after World War II, it explores the secret lives of a people who worked in intelligence during and after that war.   But this is not how it starts. Warlight starts with a killer opening line:   In 1945 our parents went away and left us with two men who may have been criminals.  Nathaniel, the narrator, and his sister Rachel are in their teens and yet their parents leave them in the care of their lodger to go to Singapore. Although it is soon clear to the children that perhaps their mother has not gone with their father after all. They call the man they are left with The Moth and he fills the house with a range of disparate characters. One of these, an ex-boxer known to them only as The Darter, does get the two involved in some vaguely criminal enterprises. This opening has an almost mythic, fairytale feel which then morphs into more of…

The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H Winthrop
Historical , Review / 17/05/2018

Elizabeth H Winthrop’s The Mercy Seat presents a mosaic of life in the American South during World War 2. The plot centres around the impending execution of Willie Jones, a young black man sentenced to death for allegedly raping a white girl. Based loosely on some real events, Winthrop’s authorial eye roves across a range of characters involved and affected by this event and in doing so reveals both the prejudices of some and the deep humanity of others.  The mercy seat of the title is the electric chair which was sent from town to town for local executions. When the novel opens, Lane a trustee prisoner is driving Captain Seward and the device to the small town of St Martinville where Willie Jones is to be executed at midnight. At the same time, Willie’s father is trying to get to the town with a donkey and cart carrying the slate gravestone he has purchased. But there are plenty of other characters around this tale. Dale and Ora, owners of the local petrol station, whose son has gone off to fight in the Pacific. The District Attorney Polly who pushed for the death penalty despite his misgivings about the case, his wife Nell and son Gabe; the local priest Father Hannigan, fighting his own demons and trying…

Seventeen by Hideo Yokoyama
Historical , Literature , Review / 30/04/2018

Seventeen is the second novel of Japanese author Hideo Yokoyama to be translated into English. The first, Six Four was a crime story that stretched across a couple of timeframes. Seventeen, originally released in Japan in 2008 under the title Climber’s High also switches between present and past, although this story is much more firmly rooted in the past events. Those past events are based on a real incident – the 1985 crash of JAL flight 123 which killed 520 passengers. At the time, Yokoyama himself was a reporter for a local newspaper and climbed the mountain on which the plane crashed. As with his main character, it took Yokoyama seventeen years to come to terms with his experiences at the time and use them as the basis for this novel. While Yokoyama was an eyewitness of the events in 1985, he sets his novel at a remove from the action. His main character, Yuuzuki, is an old hand reporter at a local newspaper, charged with running the JAL crash editorial desk for the duration of the tragedy. The story itself focusses on the political intrigues and infighting of the staff of the newspaper and how those actions are skewed…

Babylon Berlin by Volker Kutscher
Crime , Historical , Review / 23/04/2018

Just in time for the release of the German-made Netflix series of the same name is the translation of the first of Volker Kutscher’s crime fiction series set in Berlin in late 1920s on which the series is loosely based.  Both series, are based around the exploits of homicide policeman Gereon Rath, who in this first volume has recently been moved to Berlin after an incident in his home town of Cologne. After a cold open involving torture and suicide, the story moves to Rath’s work with the Vice Squad. While he was homicide detective in Cologne, his move to Berlin has resulted in a bit of a demotion and he is keen to get himself back investigating murders. His break comes when it turns out that an unidentifiable body fished out of a canal is the same Russian who came to his door, looking for the man who used to live in his rooms. Rather than sharing this information with his colleagues, Rath decides to investigate himself, hoping to use this investigation to leverage himself into homicide. In the process he starts a relationship with Charlotte, the stenographer of one of lead homicide investigators, who is studying law at…

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

In 2014, Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, commonly known as the Arabic Booker Prize, for Frankenstein in Baghdad. Four years later, the English translation has become available and it reveals a novel worthy of an award. Frankenstein in Baghdad takes Mary Shelley’s familiar horror trope and transplants it to the streets of Baghdad not long after the American invasion and the fall of Saddam in 2003. In doing so, it manages not only to illuminate that period but to create a new, compelling version of a longstanding myth. Unsurprisingly for this era, the book starts with a car bomb: No one saw it coming; it all happened in a fraction of a second. The people who weren’t injured – because they were too far away, or screened by other people’s bodies or behind parked cars, or because they were coming down the side lanes and hadn’t reached the main street when the explosion went off… witnessed the explosion as it engulfed the vehicles and the bodies of the people around them. It cut the electricity and killed birds. Windows were shattered and doors blown in. Cracks appeared in the walls of nearby houses, and…

City Without Stars by Tim Baker
Crime , Historical , Review / 14/03/2018

Tim Baker’s debut novel, Fever City, was a fantasia on the assassination of John F Kennedy. His follow up, City Without Stars, takes a very different tack and while still historical to a degree is a little more contemporary. Set in 2000, on the Mexican side of the US/Mexican border, Baker’s new novel takes on the drug trade and all of the attendant misery and corruption that surrounds it. Baker’s novel opens with a murder. This is the latest in what turns out to be an extremely long term pattern of women abducted, raped and murdered around the town Cuidad Real. And there are plenty of women around as they come to the town to work in the cheap sweatshops called maquiladoras. These sweatshops, often owned by foreign interests are the exploitative underbelly of NAFTA. Cuidad Real is a border town so it is also a centre for drug smuggling into the United states. Baker tells the story of this town through a number of main point of view characters who circle around each other. Fuentes, seemingly one of the only non-corrupt policemen in town, desperate to stop the murders. Pilar, working to unionise the workers in the factories and…

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…

Lightning Men by Thomas Mullen
Crime , Historical , Recommended , Review / 05/03/2018

In 2016, Thomas Mullen delivered one of the crime novels of the year with Darktown. That book told the story of the first Black policemen in Atlanta, a force established in the years following World War II. Darktown showed the institutionalised racism that sat behind and around that decision. The group of eight policemen were set up in a basement of the YMCA with no vehicles and if they wanted to arrest someone they had to call the white police to do it. They were only allowed to patrol the predominantly black areas of town and while they were feted for the steps they were taking they were also feared in their own community. Darktown was in other respects a straight down the line procedural in which two of the black policemen and one white policeman work a murder case from different angles. Lightning Men picks up a couple of years after the events of Darktown. Like its predecessor it focusses mainly on the black police partners of Boggs and Smith and their former co-conspirator Deny Rakestraw but it also ranges across a broader cross section of characters. Each of the three main characters have their own problems to work…

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Historical , Literature , Review / 27/02/2018

Chloe Benjamin’s new novel The Immortalists is a historical family drama with a conceit at its centre which starts as intriguing, develops as character building and then starts to drag on the whole enterprise. In 1969, four children, ranging in age from thirteen to seven and intrigued by stories running around their neighbourhood go to seek out a local fortune teller. Despite having scraped together their savings the woman, for no fee, purports to tells each of the children the exact date on which they are going to die. This event, and the knowledge it brought, will shape the lives and the decisions of the four and spark a furious internal debate in the novel between fate and free will. Each section of the book focuses on a different one of the children, in age order from youngest to oldest. When his father dies, Simon, seven when he is told his fortune and now fifteen, breaks away from his mother and the expectation that he will take over the family’s New York tailoring business. He runs away with his sister Karla to San Fransisco where he explores his gay identity in the heady days of the late seventies. This is…

A Legacy of Spies by John le Carre
Crime , Historical , Review , Thriller / 09/02/2018

George Smiley, cold war warrior for “the Circus” (ie MI6), first appeared in 1961 in Call for the Dead. and was the character who established John leCarré as one of the masters of the cold war spy genre. Smiley appeared in seven books between 1961 and 1979. It seemed, as the cold war was coming to a close, so too was Smiley’s work and leCarré moved on, returning briefly to Smiley’s world in 1990’s The Secret Pilgrim. With Russia well and truly back in the news and spycraft, arguably, not what it once was, it seems like the perfect time for leCarré to once again revisit this old stomping ground. A Legacy of Spies focuses around Peter Guillam, one of Smiley’s people. At the start of the novel he is living a quiet retired life on a farm in his native France. But the past is never far away and he is called back to England to answer for his part in the death of two people at the Berlin Wall many years before. The deaths themselves were part of an operation called Windfall, one that Smiley and his boss, Control, kept from their superiors for a very real fear…

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…

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Historical , Recommended , Review / 22/11/2017

Jennifer Egan is best known for her creative, experimental Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Visit From the Goon Squad. That book was a series of connected short stories in a range of styles including, famously, a PowerPoint presentation. A historical drama, Manhattan Beach is a long way from Goon Squad stylistically (mostly) but still demonstrates Egan’s literary flare to great effect. The book opens in the middle of the Depression, twelve year-old Anna Kerrigan is accompanying her father Eddie on business. He is going to visit a man called Dexter Styles. Eddie is a bagman for the union and his visit to Dexter is an attempt to change his fortunes. Eight years later, it is the middle of World War II, Eddie disappeared without a trace many years before and Anna, living with her mother and disabled sister, is part of a female workforce at the docks building and repairing warships. Dexter Styles, meanwhile, runs a series of nightclubs and gambling dens on behalf of a Chicago mobster. Both are haunted to some extent by Eddie’s disappearance. The plot itself is part coming of age, part mystery story, part gangster story. Egan masterfully juggles the various plot elements around the…

Munich by Robert Harris
Historical , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 19/10/2017

Robert Harris has long had a fascination with the events surrounding Neville Chamberlain’s trip to Munich in 1938 to negotiate with Hitler. That meeting, which ended with Chamberlain famously returning to Britain waving a piece of paper and declaring “Peace in our time”, has long been seen as the epitome of the appeasement policy that presaged World War II.   In 1988, on the fiftieth anniversary of that meeting, Harris was involved in a documentary called God Bless You, Mr Chamberlain. As the name of his documentary suggests, Harris has a more grey interpretation of Chamberlain’s actions than the popular historical account. And this view of the man and his actions informs much of his latest novel about these negotiations.  Early on in Munich it is clear that in 1938 the British were not ready for a war. Chamberlain is told that that the country needs at least a year to recruit, train and arm their forces. So that while Chamberlain honestly strives for peace, desperately trying to avoid a repeat of Word War I, he is also aware of a need to stall for time. As he observes: “The main lesson I have learned in my dealings with Hitler is that one simply can’t play poker with a gangster if one has no cards in one’s hand.” In Harris’s telling, Chamberlain does everything he can to box Hitler in to an agreement, knowing it…