Under the Cold Bright Lights by Garry Disher
Crime , Recommended , Review / 16/11/2017

It has been a big year for Garry Disher. Late 2016 saw the release of Signal Loss, the latest in his Challis and Destry/ Peninsula Crimes series. Then, mid this year, he published Her, a historical drama set around World War I in the Victorian countryside. And now, a return to crime and potentially, a new series, in Under the Cold Bright Lights. Alan Auhl has come out of retirement as a detective to join a cold case team. The body is found in the intriguing cold open when a concrete slab is cracked open to try and drive out a potential nest of brown snakes. But Slab Man, as the body becomes known, is not Auhl’s only case. He is also dealing with a long unsolved murder of a farmer and a current not-so-cold case which links to one of his own, older cases, of a doctor who’s wives keep mysteriously dying on him. Auhl is another great crime protagonist from Disher. Auhl has an abiding need to see justice done, fuelled by his won pain, darkness and regrets. He lives in “Chateau Auhl”, a rambling old house and takes in “tenants, waifs and strays”. This includes Neve Fanning,…

Star Wars: From A Certain Point of View
Review , Science Fiction / 14/11/2017

Forty years ago, in a galaxy not so far away, was launched one of the world’s most successful and influential science fiction franchises. Star Wars, later renamed Episode IV: A New Hope, to fit in a with an expanded timeline and planned prequels, blasted into cinemas in 1977 and blew up not only the Death Star but blockbuster cinema. Even before the first sequel was on the screen there was additional fiction in the Star Wars universe. Characters who were not named, who did not even have any dialogue, appeared as toys and their backstories started to be fleshed out by eager fans.  So that now, forty years later, there is a rich vein of story to mine. But you don’t have to go in knowing about any of these characters to enjoy From A Certain Point of View. From a Certain Point of View is a series of love letters to that original film. It takes that relatively simple story of a farm boy with a destiny who becomes a hero by rescuing a princess with the help of a loveable rogue and infuses it with greater depth. The conceit of this book is forty short stories, each from…

The Stranger by Melanie Raabe
Review , Thriller / 10/11/2017

One of the keys to a good thriller is the hook, a tense situation that can only ramp up. Melanie Raabe showed herself a dab hand at this in her debut novel The Trap. Even the title hinted at something menacing and the execution paid off. Her follow up does the same. Just the title, The Stranger, hints at danger. And again, she manages, for the most part, to pull her execution off. Sarah has been living alone with her son for seven years since her husband went missing in Columbia. It has taken all that time but she is just starting to get her life back together. She has new friends and has developed relationships with her work colleagues. Then the call comes – her husband has been found and is being flown home the next day. Only when she goes to the airport, despite smiling and saying all the right things, she is convinced that the man who has come home is not her husband Philip. When the two go back to their house the stranger threatens to reveal her darkest secret if she goes to the police and a cat and mouse game between the two begins….

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…

Too Easy by J M Green
Crime , Review / 31/10/2017

JM Green’s debut novel Good Money was published after being shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Award for unpublished manuscripts. It went on to be shortlisted in 2016 in both the Ned Kelly Awards Best First Fiction category and Davitt Award for Best Debut. While it had some flaws it was overall a cracking debut and the promise that Green showed in that book comes good in the follow up Too Easy. Too Easy is once again anchored by world weary social worker and occasional detective Stella Hardy. Stella’s narration and observations are once again a joy.  Such as this: I wish I could do that, suppress all outward signs of thought and feeling. Instead I was cursed with a face like an open book – and not a normal book, one of those kids pop-up books with moving parts. This time, Hardy has to investigate her friend Phuong’s policeman fiancé, her own artist boyfriend’s interest in his muse, the sale of the family farm and her day job as a social worker where big changes are afoot. With much of Australian crime these days turning to the bush, it is refreshing to have a classic noir novel set in the…

The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille
Review , Thriller / 27/10/2017

Nelson DeMille has been pumping out thrillers for almost 40 years. Starting with By the Rivers of Babylon in 1978. His career has included a number of series including, most recently the John Corey novels which began with Plum Island and ended with appropriately A Quiet End. While The Cuban Affair is a stand alone novel it feels like DeMille is contemplating a new series of books with a new hero Daniel ‘Mac’ MacCormick. Mac, an veteran of a number of tours of Afghanistan (or as he calls is Allfuckedupistan), now runs a charter boat out of Key West. He hangs around in the local bar and takes tourists fishing or on sunset cruises with his crew mate Jack, himself a Vietnam vet. Both are somewhat bored with their lives so that when Mac is approached by some Cuban Americans to go into Cuba and retrieve a huge sum of money hidden before the revolution, he jumps at the chance. Helping him in his decision is the beautiful Sara Ortega who is to accompany him and a payday of three million dollars. This is a slow but intriguing set up. The timeframe of the book is during the Cuban Thaw…

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…

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…

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…

Sea of Rust by Robert Cargill
Review , Science Fiction / 17/10/2017

Post-apocalypses now come in may flavours. One of those is the robopocalypse. Man builds robots, robots become sentient, man tries to reign in robot sentience, robots revolt. Whether or not the robots win tends to often be the point. Think Terminator for a good example of this trope. And actually, Terminator is a good analogy for the milieu of C Robert Cargill’s Sea of Rust, although instead of Skynet there are a bunch of artificially intelligent overlords, making things a little more chaotic. The other difference is that Sea of Rust is post-human, set in an age 30 years on from the death of the last human and only robots walk the Earth. So there is no human resistance to worry about. But as with animal evolution, these robots seem to have developed into every human-type of evolutionary niche. Sea of Rust opens with Brittle, a Caregiver model, eking out an existence in the badlands. Brittle is a scavenger, finding other robots on the edge of death, talking them into shutting down with the faint hope of salvation, and then stripping them for parts. She (yes, robots have gender in this world), operates in and around the Sea of Rust,…

The Perfect Couple by Lexi Landsman
Review , Thriller / 12/10/2017

Australian author Lexi Landsman’s second novel is a domestic thriller with an international twist. Marco and Sarah are a pair of archaeologists working on a site in Italy. Marco is the more famous of the two and is leading a dig to try and discover a priceless necklace, previously thought lost at sea hundreds of years before. They seem happy, but already early in the piece the cracks are starting to show in the relationship. When Sarah actually discovers the necklace at the same time as learning that Marco is having an affair, all hell breaks loose. Landsman uses a number of familiar tropes to drive the action and the tension. When Sarah discovers the necklace and calls in Marco, she relates in first person all of the ways in which they are breaking their own rules in order to increase their potential fame. These lapses in procedure leave them exposed when the necklace is subsequently stolen. On the night when all of the major events happen Sarah has a car accident which robs her of the previous two days of memory. She, conveniently, does not remember anything about the necklace or her husband’s infidelity. Later, Landsman ramps up the…

The Legion of Flame by Anthony Ryan
Fantasy , Review / 10/10/2017

The dragons in Anthony Ryan’s Draconis Memoria series are not, as the saying might go, your grandfather’s dragons. In this world there are dragons of varying colours – green, red, blue, black and white. Each has a different preferred mode of attack and the blood of each can give specially talented humans (the blood-blessed), short-lived superhuman capabilities. Only, as The Legion of Flame opens, the dragons, led by the super intelligent white dragon, are revolting. Having taken over their home continent and either killing or enslaving the populace, the dragons are on the move. The main point of view characters from The Waking Fire return. Lizanne, arsekicking secret agent for the Ironship Corporation, is sent on a mission to their sworn enemy the Corvantine Empire. Lizanne’s mission quickly spins out of control as she ends up in a prison city and formenting revolution. Meanwhile, blood-blessed adventurer Clay Torbeek is heading to the south pole to see if he can “save the world” following a vision of the future that he had in his encounter with the white dragon. Clay’s trajectory, while full of adventure and close calls, is a little more surreal when he finds himself in a strange world…

Provenance by Ann Leckie

When you have built an award-winning universe, there is little point starting a new one. Much better to go, as Ann Leckie does in Provenance, and explore another corner of it. Iain Banks understood this and, similarly, set many of his science fiction novels in and around his expansive Culture universe. For readers steeped in Leckie’s universe, having been on board for the trilogy that started with her multi award winning debut Ancillary Justice, small call backs and particular characters and situations have greater import. For those new to Leckie’s universe it allows her to produce a stand-alone novel with a more epic feel. The events of the Ancillary trilogy are referenced but as one of the characters herself observes “that was very far away”. Provenance opens with Ingray Aughskold  trying to pull off an audacious plan to attract the attention of her mother, the Netano. Ingray, in competition with her brother to take the title of Netano, pays all of the money she has to organize the release of a prisoner from “Compassionate Removal” a prison from which, supposedly, no one returns. It is after the transaction does not go as planned and she is down her luck that…

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 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…

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…

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for and Eye by David Lagercrantz
Crime , Review , Thriller / 25/09/2017

Steig Larsson had originally intended his Millenium series to run for ten volumes but only managed to finish three. The decision of Larsson’s estate to appoint Lagercrantz to continue the series was no whim. In The Girl in the Spider’s Web David Lagercrantz took the extremely popular Millennium series and made it his own. The first of Lagercrantz’s forays into the world of Salander and Blomkvist showed not only a deep understanding of those characters but was in many ways a better novel than any in the original trilogy. When the latest volume opens, Lisbeth Salander is in prison due to her actions in the previous book. With plenty of popular fiction now venturing into women’s prisons, placing Salander in this environment seems a little lazy. There are the usual tropes here – Benito Andersson, a queen bee who rules the prison with an iron fist, corrupt guards and a helpless victim, Faria Karzi. But Lisbeth Salander is such a unique character that there is interest even in putting her in this situation. Salander is not really interested in prison politics, more about finding a way to investigate a new lead into her past while also protecting Faria. She puts…

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…

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley
Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 19/09/2017

Natasha Pulley burst onto the fantasy scene last year with her stunning debut The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. This slightly steampunk tale of Victorian London was full of charm and whimsy but also beautifully observed, historically fascinating and populated with interesting characters. Now she follows this up with The Bedlam Stacks, and while one character from Filigree Street, at least, makes a brief appearance, no familiarity with that book is required. In fact The Bedlam Stacks, while in some ways initially resembling its predecessor and  a kind of prequel to it, turns out to be a very different beast. It is the 1850s and the East India Company is desperately trying to find a reliable source of quinine to treat malaria. The Peruvians have a monopoly on the cinchona tree, the bark of which is used to produce quinine. Numerous expeditions to the Peruvian interior have failed to bring back viable cuttings of the plant. The company approaches Merrick Tremayne to lead an expedition into the Peruvian interior. Tremayne is a former employee injured in the opium trade and has family connections to Peru through both his father and grandfather. He is to be accompanied by his old naval colleague…

Her by Garry Disher
Historical , Recommended , Review / 14/09/2017

Garry Disher is probably best known for two crime series – the Peninsula Crimes books centred around the police in Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula and the Wyatt books, recently rebooted, which focus on a career thief. But he has other strings to his bow, with both contemporary and historical “literary” novels in his long career. Her, a historical novel set in the northern Victorian countryside in the years following the turn of the century, gives a blunt and confronting look at of the time.   The main character of Her does not even have a name for the first third of the novel. In 1909, at a young age the protagonist is sold by her family to the local scrap man and for years she is only known as “You”. The scrap man already has a wife and a teenager (known as Big Girl) who he possibly acquired in a similar way and who he later gets pregnant. You is put to work, catching rabbits, making items out of scrap and rags for sale and learning how to be a pickpocket and a thief. Life is already tough for the three women and the abusive, manipulative actions of the scrap man towards them make it even tougher.   Disher follows You as she grows up in this environment. When she is older she names herself Lily and goes travelling with the…