The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith
Crime , Literature , Recommended , Review / 10/04/2018

The Fighter is the follow-up to Michael Farris Smith’s debut Desperation Road, which was longlisted for the UK Crime Writers’ Association 2017 Gold Dagger Award. And it could well have been given the same title as it charts the build-up to the final fight of ageing cage fighter Jack Boucher. It may well also find itself on long and shortlists itself when award season rolls around. Set in a depressed American South, from the opening Smith perfectly captures an air of desperation tinged with hope that somehow always seems to go awry, because life just does not work like that. When the book opens Boucher has just had a big win at the casino and is finally heading to pay off a debt to local loanshark Big Mama Sweet. But that is not his only problem. He also needs to find a much larger amount to pay off the bank and stop his foster mother’s house being sold. But he never gets to Big Mama Sweet and the money goes missing. So Jack has to contemplate going back into the cage. Through all this Jack is self-medicating his constant pain and using a notebook to try and keep track of…

Stranger by David Bergen
Literature , Recommended , Review / 28/03/2018

Award winning Canadian author David Bergen’s new novel Stranger takes readers on an odyssey from Guatemala across borders into the United States. Along the way he looks at issues of Western exploitation, illegal immigration into the US and global inequality. But he does this in the frame of what is often a heartbreaking, beautifully observed tale of a mother’s quest to regain her child. Iso Perdido works at a fertility clinic in Guatemala. Women come from the West for treatment there based on the lake’s supposed powers to promote conception. The clinic is also used as a way of providing unwanted Guatemalan children to wealthy couples who cannot conceive. Iso starts an affair with Eric, one of the (married) doctors at the clinic and becomes pregnant. But before she can do anything about the pregnancy, Eric has a serious accident and is taken by his wife back to the US to recouperate. When her baby is born, the clinic tricks her into selling the baby to the doctor and his family and sends the baby to the US, The rest of the tale is Iso’s journey to the US to infiltrate the gated community in which the doctor and his…

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi
Fantasy , Historical , Literature , Review / 20/03/2018

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…

Savages: The Wedding by Sabri Louatah
Crime , Literature , Review , Thriller / 02/03/2018

Savages – The Wedding is the first book in French author Sabri Louatah’s Saint-Etienne Quartet.  Originally written in 2011, the subject matter is if anything more relevant now than it was then, given the terrorist attacks in France over the last few years. Savages opens on the campaign trail for an Algerian candidate for the French presidency. Idder Chaouch has brought in American campaign advisors to help him turn around a campaign that is potentially sinking. The extended prologue focuses on Chaouch, his family and in particular, his daughter’s tv-star boyfriend Fouad Nerrouche, who is using his star power to boost the campaign. The book then jumps forward to the day before the election and the marriage of Fouad’s brother Slim and charts a growing collision between the personal and the political. Taking his cue from tv programs like The Wire, Louatah ranges across a number of likeable and unsavoury characters, with the real tension building in the background of what is already a fairly heightened situation. But the narrative focus of Savages, if it has one, is Fouad’s cousin Krim. Krim has fallen in with a bad crowd and has found himself out of a job and on the wrong…

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…

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 23/11/2017

Dystopia has a long history in literary fiction. A breakdown in social order, or a reshaping of society, is a useful lens through which we can examine our own society and actions. So it comes as no surprise that Native American author Louise Erdrich is another in a long line of literary writers who have taken on dystopia. The dystopian present creeps up slowly in Future Home of the Living God. The opening passage has narrator Cedar Hawk Springmaker – ‘the adopted child of Minneapolis liberals’ – heading to an Ojibwe reservation to meet her Native American birth-family. She does mention in this opening passage that ‘Our world is running backward. Or forward. Or maybe sideways, in a way as yet ungrasped.’ Cedar is four months pregnant but this is a secret that she has kept from her adopted family. Of all the sections of the novel, Erdrich treats those on the Ojibwe reservation with a refreshing naturalism. Cedar arrives to find very few of her preconceptions of her birth family met. While she seems to have a very Native American name, her birth name was Mary Potts. Her mother is welcoming but not apologetic about Cedar’s life and her…

The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi
Historical , Literature , Review / 08/11/2017

Wu Ming-Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle (translated by Darryl Sterk) is only the second of his books to be translate into English. Wu Ming-Yi is a Tawainese author, described as an artist, designer, photographer, literary professor, butterfly scholar and environmental activist and many of these concerns and interests emerge in The Stolen Bicycle. The Stolen Bicycle is pitched as a companion piece to another book written by the book’s narrator about workers from Taiwan who went to work in Japan building fighter planes during World War 2. He included in that earlier book a scene where an ancient bicycle was left propped against a sign at the entrance to a forest. The narrator thought nothing of it until a reader wrote to him to ask him what happened to the owner of that bike. From this inquiry sprung The Stolen Bicycle, the story of one man’s search for origins of a machine that might have a connection to his missing father. Due to a close family history involving bicycles, used and stolen at various times, the narrator of The Stolen Bicycle, Ch’eng,  is obsessed with the machines. The narrator starts with the various terms for the vehicle – his preference is for the Taiwanese…

All The Galaxies by Philip Miller
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 27/10/2017

All the Galaxies is a book that is hard to categorise. It is an odd mixture of dystopian vision, some light horror with a religious twist, a dark, often satirical, vision of modern media and an investigation of a secular afterlife. If a bookshop needed to pigeonhole, and such a shelf existed, it might best be described as literary speculative fiction.  The book opens with a boy who names himself Tarka. Tarka has died and has found himself on another planet beside his childhood dog, a border terrier named Kim. It turns out that Kim can talk and is to be Tarka’s guide to an afterlife which encompasses ‘all the galaxies’ and their attendant stars and planets. After a while getting used to this idea, Tarka asks Kim if they can go and find his mother who had died years before. The rest of Tarka and Kim’s strange journey across the universe is in pursuit of this goal. There are beautiful descriptions of this secular afterlife:  Tarka looked down. A stream of lights flowed below them, like a river. A pale planet hung in the void like a pebble. The lights flowed, almost parallel to Tarka and Kim, led by a brighter light, and smaller bodies fanned out behind …  What? Tarka said.  Humans – reborn like you, Kim said …  Below, far below, slowly spun the vast dish…

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 03/10/2017

Matt Haig often takes an outsider’s view of the world. In his debut novel The Last Family in England, the main character was the family dog. In The Humans, Haig looked at the world through the eyes of an alien trying to understand humanity. He takes a similar tack but from a very different angle in How to Stop Time. While The Humans was about placing humanity in space, How to Stop Time is about looking at people from outside the realm of time. Tom Hazard is an “albatross”. Born in 1581, he has a condition which stopped him ageing at a normal rate at around thirteen. Since then he has aged at one fifteenth the normal speed. So that in the present he is 439 years old but still looks like he is in his forties. Hazard’s condition means he is always on the move, trying not to be found out by starting fresh every eight years in a new location. But he is also beholden to a shadowy organisation of Albatrosses, blackmailed into carrying out missions for their leader Hendrich with a promise of finding his missing daughter Marion. The narrative skips effortlessly between various time periods. Tom…

City of Crows by Chris Womersley
Historical , Literature , Review / 27/09/2017

Chris Womersley’s first novel, The Low Road won the Ned Kelly Award for best debut crime fiction. His second novel, Bereft was short listed for the Ned Kelly for best crime fiction and while it didn’t win that award it did go on to win a slew of others that year. But Chris was never going to let the trappings of genre (not that either of these two books were classic crime genre) hold him back. Now, with his fourth book, City of Crows, Womersley takes a sharp turn away from anything he has done before. And the results are no less impressive. Set in 17th Century France, City of Crows opens in the village of Saint-Gilles. Charlotte Picot has already lost three children and has a young son surviving when her husband dies of plague. She flees the town with Antoine but he is kidnapped while they are on the road. Charlotte is wounded and in the book’s first detour into the occult, ends up being healed by the local witch. At the same time Adam du Coeuret, a galley slave imprisoned for practicing magic is unexpectedly freed and renames himself Lesage. The two end up travelling together to…

Whipbird by Robert Drew
Literature , Review / 20/09/2017

Robert Drew is one of the great chroniclers of the Australian history and the Australian condition with previous works like The Drowner, The Bodysurfers and Our Sunshine. In Whipbird he takes on the large chunk of recent Australian history and the Australian experience. Based around a family reunion of the descendants of a 15 year old Irish immigrant to Australia in the 1850s, Drew ranges his authorial eye across what Australia has become in the early twenty first century and in some respects how we have arrived here. The Whipbird of the title is a new hobby vineyard, owned by barrister Hugh Cleary and venue for the Cleary family reunion. As the various branches of the family arrive – 1193 out of 2946 possible descendants of the original Conor Cleary – they are given different coloured t-shirts to identify their ancestry and Drew starts to wander among them, the point of view shifting between various family members. Drew focusses in particular on Hugh, his father Mick, brother Simon and sister Thea but also has time for plenty of other side branches of the family. Drew uses his characters to highlight and gently satirise different aspects of the Australian experience. Most…

Crossing the Lines by Sulari Gentill
Crime , Fantasy , Literature , Review / 09/08/2017

Sulari Gentill is best known for her historical crime fiction series starring Roland Sinclair. Set mainly in Australia between the World Wars, Sinclair mixes it with historical figures and solves crimes with the help of a gang of bohemian friends. Crossing the Lines is a long way from Roland Sinclair, a speculative fiction deconstruction of the crime genre and the writing process. But there are echoes of Sinclair as one of the main characters in this book, the crime author Madeleine d’Leon, has a long running historical crime fiction series set in 1916 about a crime solving domestic servant called Veronica Killwilly, and is also trying to break free of the shackles of the expectations that series has created.   So far so meta. And in fact Crossing the Lines is full of meta-moments and situations like this. The premise is that d’Leon feels compelled to write a new crime novel where the main character is a literary fiction author called Ned McGinnity. At the same time, literary fiction author, Ned McGinnity, decides to write his new literary fiction novel about a crime writer called Madeleine d’Leon. Gentill effortlessly segues between these two narratives as they bleed into each other and it is never clear which is  the author and which is the fictional creation (while both are of course both authors and fictional creations).  Neither the crime novel nor the literary fiction novel in this book, taken on…

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 03/08/2017

Another day, another apocalypse. In Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, England has been hit with some unspecified catastrophe that involves rising flood waters. The usual post-apocalyptic actions take place: people are evacuated, the military comes out, borders and checkpoints are established. In amongst all of this, the unnamed narrator has her first child, Z, and the story follows Z’s first few years of life in post-disaster Britain.  Megan Hunter’s prose is spare to the point of almost being poetry. Short sentences in short paragraphs, interspersed with quotes. None of the characters have names. This gives a point of difference to a story that has now been told a few too many times. All of the clichés are there – the refugee camps, nasty roadside border guards, saviours with a boat, a short time of salvation on a remote island – but in a poetic form that makes it, to a minor extent, feel new.  The focus of the book is Z’s first few years of life. While growing up in the middle of a crisis, the narrator’s relationship with her son and her observations might well have just been happening in any daycare centre. Z smiles, Z learns how to eat solids,…

When the English Fall by David Williams
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 31/07/2017

After the sturm and drang of books like World War Z and Robopocalypse it seems the quiet apocalypse is becoming the order of the day. Books like Station Eleven and Good Morning, Midnight eschew the cataclysmic to focus more purely on the personal. When the English Fall starts with a bit of a bang (a passenger plane falls from the sky) and there is clearly some violence happening somewhere. But for the most part, things are pretty quiet in rural Pennsylvania. When the English Fall is told as a series of diary entries by an Amish man called Jacob. There is a fairly unnecessary intro by the soldiers or researchers who find the diary at some later time, an open which is never returned to or referred to again and shines no light on the open ending. The English of the title is the description used for anyone who is not Amish so includes their American neighbours. The Amish have lived a devout and simple existence – think the movie Witness – horses and buggies are commonplace, very little machinery is used in their farms and they have guns but they are only used for hunting. So while they are…

Watch Over Me by Claire Corbett

Claire Corbett’s debut novel, the fantasy/crime genre mash up When We Have Wings was shortlisted for both the Ned Kelly Award for best first novel and the Barbara Jefferis Award given for the depiction of women in Australian fiction. Her new novel, Watch Over Me is far from When We Have Wings, but is also concerned with the plight of women, in particular during wartime. Set in a contemporary but slightly alternate world, it explores the impacts of war and occupation on both the conquerors and the conquered. Nineteen year-old Sylvie’s hometown, the northern European city of Port Angelsund, has been occupied by a force known as the Garrison. Garrison have come to secure a rich energy source off the coast and the rest of the world looked on as the city was occupied. Now Sylvie lives in a world of checkpoints, drones, violence and constant surveillance while the population waits for possible salvation from the equally violent Coalition. When Sylvie is rescued from an abusive situation by a Garrison special forces officer a connection is made that eventually sees her in his arms. Sylvie ends up caught between protecting her mother and younger brother, her revolutionary older brother and…

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…

The Baltimore Boys by Joel Dicker
Literature , Review / 30/06/2017

Swiss novelist Joël Dicker hit the big time in 2014 with the translation of his mouthful of a novel The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. In that book, blocked novelist Marcus Goldman becomes involved in a cold case involving his old mentor. The book was an overly long but effective crime novel with some well plotted twists. While originally written in French, the narrated book went for an apple pie American feel that sometimes felt a little forced. In The Baltimore Boys, Dicker returns to Goldman to tell the story of the wider Goldman family. While also narrated by Goldman, this family saga with deep dark secrets is a very different type of book to Harry Quebert. The Baltimore Boys starts with a quick hook. It is 2004, “One month before the tragedy” as we are told. The short prologue ends with the ominous words “If you find this book please read it. I want someone to know the history of the Baltimore Goldmans.” Given this breathless and disturbing opening it is a bit surprising to find that the main narrative opens in 2012, while Marcus Goldman is still living in the shadow of the “tragedy”, there is no…

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…

Gravity Well by Melanie Joosten
Literature , Recommended , Review / 14/06/2017

Melanie Joosten won the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist Award in 2011 for her first novel Berlin Syndrome which has recently been made into a film. Her second novel, Gravity Well is the story of two women wrapped around a tragedy that has impacted on both of their lives. Lotte, an astronomer is planning to come home from Chile after five years working at a mountaintop observatory. She has been searching the skies for exoplanets, Earth-like planets orbiting distant stars but, for reasons that only later become clear, is now coming home to Australia. Nine months later, Eve is running away from her life. Hastily equipped with a tent and basic supplies she pitches up at a quiet caravan park on the southern coast of Victoria where she immerses herself in her grief. Something tragic has happened to Eve, but the details of that tragedy unfold only slowly as Eve herself comes to terms with her life. Spinning backwards from these events is the long and rich history between Lotte and Eve. Lotte, the daughter of a woman who instilled in her a love of the stars but died from a cancer that she herself may have inherited. And…

House of Names by Colm Toibin

Plenty of modern authors have taken their hand to mythology. Neil Gaiman and AS Byatt have both had a go at Norse Mythology and recently Margaret Atwood retold the story of Penelope. Now Booker Prize winning Irish novelist Colm Tóibín, possibly better known for more sedate novels such as the recent Brooklyn, takes a turn at some bloody Greek mythology. House of Names retells the story of Clytemnestra and her children Iphigenia, Electra and Orestes. Clytemnestra was the wife of Agamemnon, known for winning the Trojan wars. But it was not an easy start to his campaign, the gods prevented his ships from leaving and he was told that he would need to sacrifice his oldest daughter Iphigenia to appease them. Tricked into bringing Iphigenia to the camp to be married to Achilles, Clytemnestra has to watch as her daughter is taken for sacrifice. She spends the next years plotting her revenge against her husband, allying herself with the slippery Aegisthus to do so. But the killing of Agamemnon puts in motion another round of revenge and retribution when Orestes is taken captive and, on his return, plots with his sister Electra to kill their mother. Tóibín uses different narrative techniques for Clytemnestra,…