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,…

A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert

Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy in Winter, explores the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine and the impact on its Jewish population by focusing on one small village.  There is always a question whether we need more books set in World War II. But in an age of continuing Holocaust denial and ongoing genocidal wars, reliving, remembering and investigating this time becomes more and more important. When the book opens two small boys are running through the night, it will be some time before Seiffert catches up with them again, by which time they will be truly on their own. The next morning, the SS and the Ukrainian police round up all of the Jews in the village and march them to a holding area. In keeping with the sharp focus of this book, the process is told through the eyes of the elderly school master and his elderly mother who are beaten as they are herded through the town. The rest of the local populace does nothing but watch through shuttered windows as their former neighbours are taken from their homes. Seiffert’s narrative ranges across a diverse cast of characters. One is Otto Pohl, an engineer who has been employed by…

The White Road by Sarah Lotz
Literature , Review , Thriller / 25/05/2017

The White Road is a hard novel to pigeon hole. Part adventure novel, part slacker comes of age novel and part ghost story. Sarah Lotz plumbs the depths and scales the heights in a book that is not for claustrophobes or those with vertigo. The book opens with slacker Simon Newman preparing to do a caving expedition in Wales with a dodgy guide. Together with his friend Thaddeus, Simon is creating a website of odd things. The caves, known as Cwm Pot, have been closed since four cavers died but Simon wants to go through and get footage of the bodies for the website. The caving trip is nail bitingly tense. Lotz pulls out all stops to bring home the claustrophobia and terror of being stuck underground as the waters rise. When we next meet Simon he is on a mission to climb Mt Everest. He is following in the footsteps of Juliet, a climber whose unedited diary is included in the text. Thaddeus has booked him a space on the trip by lying about his climbing experience. Again, his secret mission is to film the dead, abandoned on the mountainside. During the expedition Simon befriends Mark, who has a…

Familiar Things by Hwang Sok-Yong
Literature , Review / 23/05/2017

Hwang Sok-Yong is a much celebrated and highly awarded South Korean novelist who has spent his career documenting life in both his country and North Korea. Familiar Things is the sixth of his many books to be translated into English, following last year’s publication of Princess Bari. That book used Korean mythology as the basis for an exploration of life in North Korea and the plight of Korean refugees. It had an international flavor. Familiar Things also has a fantastical element but is much more local. The action barely moves from a shanty town on the misnamed Flower Island and its focus is on the coming of age of Sok-Yong’s protagonist nicknamed Bugeye. When Familiar Things opens, fourteen year-old Bugeye and his mother are in the back of a garbage truck. They are moving from their slum in the city (presumably Seoul although the city is never named) to Flower Island, the city’s garbage dump. There they have a hastily erected slum dwelling built for them and join a gang of pickers. The pickers go out every morning and sort through the garbage that comes from the city, picking out items that can be resold, reused or recycled. This includes…

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag
Literature , Recommended , Review / 09/05/2017

Vivek Shanbhag has published eight works of fiction and two plays in his native South Indian language of Kannada. Ghachar Ghochar is the first of these to be translated into English, the translation by Srinath Perur. The title itself, which sounds like it could be the name of an Indian pickle or dessert, does not actually translate. It is a phrase invented by the family of one of the characters used to describe a situation where something has become completely tangled to the point where it cannot be easily untangled. The narration starts in a café called Coffee House. The narrator, who is never named, spends much of his days there, seeking respite from “domestic skirmishes”. He is supported in this by his wealthy uncle (“chikappa”) whose business acumen in creating a spice company has raised the family from near poverty into the Indian middle class. It is clear early on that the extended family will do anything to protect that source of wealth. In this short tale, the narrator works his way through the family history and through the family charting their change in circumstances and the effect that it has on them all. As he observes: “We thought…

The Restorer by Michael Sala

When The Restorer opens, Richard, a neighbour, is watching a family move in to the burnt out wreck of the house next door. From the outside this is a nuclear family – father Roy, mother Maryanne, an eight year old boy Daniel and a teenage girl Freya. But both Richard and the reader can sense from his first interactions with Roy that something is not quite right. Michael Sala’s new novel, part coming of age story, part (recent) historical fiction centres around abuse within a family. Domestic violence is emerging as a theme of some recent Australian literature. Not long ago we had Katheryn Heyman’s Storm and Grace which focused on an abusive, destructive relationship. But domestic violence has also raised its head in recent debuts by Holly Throsby and Cassandra Austin. As the family move their possessions into the house a storm is brewing. The narrative that follows reflects that on coming storm. Roy is trying to be the man that his wife desperately wants him to be. He throws himself into the restoration of the house as if it is his personal metaphor and that its renewal will be enough to demonstrate his fidelity and love. But as the…