Unearthed by Kaufman and Spooner

Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, together and separately have been staking out the science fiction corner of the young teen, young adult market. In the Illluminae Files, together with Jay Kristoff, Kaufman showed a willingness to recycle tried and tested science fiction tropes into a new format. Unearthed is a similar sort of hybrid – part Indiana Jones, part Tomb Raider, part Contact, part Arrival and part, well every science fiction novel that has humans exploring strange new worlds (with a dystopian back story that also involves a generation ship for good measure). And in the middle of it, two snarky, flirty, intelligent, likeable teens from opposite sides of the tracks who fall for each other while saving the day. An alien signal from a race called the Undying has opened the way to a barren planet called Gaia which contains potentially world-changing technology. Amelia is a sixteen-year-old scavenger who has gone to Gaia to find her fortune and Jules, slightly older, is a genius academic who wants to solve the riddle of the alien tombs. They meet cute and are forced to travel together. And while their attraction grows, they have to navigate a tomb by solving alien puzzles,…

The Core by Peter V Brett
Fantasy , Review / 06/12/2017

Back in 2008, Peter Brett released The Painted Man (also known as The Warded Man in some countries), the first of his Demon Cycle series. Brett’s world was intriguing and unique. In it, demons of different forms and with differing powers would rise at night to attack mankind who were able to repel the attacks using symbols known as wards. Over the course of the series, the use of wards has become more sophisticated and the demons have become smarter, upping the stakes of each battle leading to this final volume and the ultimate war between man and demon. But each volume also became longer and less focussed, spinning out with backstory and new point of view characters.  Like the last couple of instalments of this series, The Core needed a serious edit. Brett is unable to let any character or locale go. Dedicated fans of this series may appreciate the amount of detail and the sheer number of characters that Brett catches up with. But this means it takes over 450 pages before the main characters start on their ultimate quest to end the demon war. And even then there are 400 pages left. Most of these side stories and characters have little relevance to this main plot and most are eventually abandoned as the focus returns. That said, once the action starts it does not let up, as humans previously at each other throats join forces against the demons…

Artemis by Andy Weir
Review , Science Fiction / 05/12/2017

With his debut, The Martian, such a success, there is plenty of expectation riding on Andy Weir’s second novel, Artemis. Artemis is also set in the near future, in space (on the Moon to be precise) and most of his characters seem a little too obsessed with science (or economics) but narratively Artemis is a very different beast to The Martian. Artemis is the name of the small lunar colony, home to Jasmine ‘Jazz’ Bashara, down on her luck and looking to make her fortune. Jazz keeps her head above water running contraband into the colony but very soon finds herself in the middle of an economic war for control of the aluminium smelter which, as a by-product, produces unlimited oxygen for the station. With sabotage, murder and organised crime in the mix, things start looking bad for Jazz until she takes her life, and the future of Artemis into her own hands. Given the number of big name science fiction authors who have successfully used the Moon as a setting, Weir has set himself a mammoth task from the outset. Artemis is a frontier town where almost anything goes and the law is often in the hands of the…

Nexus by Westerfeld, Lanagan and Biancotti

Nexus is the third and final instalment of the Zeroes trilogy which started with Zeroes and continued last year with Swarm. These books go boldly and with some originality into well explored territory – teens dealing with superpowers while also trying to make sense of their lives. At least, the first book did this. The second broadened out the world of the Zeroes, introduced a new menace and moved a little further away from a straight teens-with-powers scenario. Nexus expands this world even further and takes its protagonists out into the wider world. From its opening interrogation in, and rescue from, a supermax prison to a chase on the streets of Las Vegas, to its explosive finale on the streets of New Orleans. It is hard to talk about Nexus without some spoilers for the earlier two books. Suffice it to say that the six main Zeroes are back, in much more straightened circumstances due to the events of Swarm. But despite being on the run and fractured they still feel the need to use their powers for good as much as they can. And when they learn of “something big” going down in New Orleans involving a Zero called…

The Rooster Bar by John Grisham
Crime , Review , Thriller / 29/11/2017

John Grisham delivered not one but two novels this year. While there was some crime and legal shenanigans involved, the first,  Camino Island, was more of an excursion for Grisham into the world of writing and writers. The second, The Rooster Bar, is more in Grisham’s wheelhouse – a thriller of sorts based mainly  around the underbelly of legal training and practice.  Grisham took his inspiration for The Rooster Bar from an article called the Great Law School Scam. This was an exposé of private universities, set up as diploma factories for law degrees that in the end are not worth the paper they are printed on. The Government lends money to the students which goes straight into the coffers of the law school, the students themselves rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, get a substandard education and have no career prospects when they graduate.  The Rooster Bar is about four such students – Todd, Mark, Gordy and Zola. All are in the last year at the not very prestigious Foggy Bottom Law School in Washington DC and all have debts in excess of two hundred thousand dollars which they will have to start repaying as soon as they graduate. But the four have other things on their minds. Zola and…

Strange Weather by Joe Hill
Fantasy , Review , Science Fiction / 27/11/2017

With many short story collections, it is often instructive to read the author’s comments before diving in. At the front of Neal Gaiman’s recent collection Trigger Warning there was a general overview and then some insight into the genesis of each story in the collection. Joe Hill references Gaiman in his afterward where he talks about the idea behind this collection. And that reason is that after producing a couple of massive tomes (including 2016’s post-apocalyptic doorstop The Fireman) he wanted to get back to writing that was “lean and mean”. As he says, short novels are “all killer no filler”, and goes on to list some of his favourite authors at this length including Gaiman, David Mitchell and even HG Wells.  In Strange Weather, Hill has delivered four novellas which, if nothing else, serve as a great advertisement for his range. The four stories traverse a range of ideas and character and each is, in its own very different way, a killer.  The first story, Snapshot, starts out feeling very genre. Set mainly in 1988 it features A thirteen-year-old nerdy narrator (although the knowing narration itself comes from when he is an adult), a mysterious dark force that threatens him and people he loves. Possibly a bit of a Stranger Things vibe to it, which is not a bad thing. Hill effectively uses his horror tropes to…

The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Crime , Review / 24/11/2017

Graeme Macrea Burnet’s first novel was presented as the translation of an obscure French crime novel written and published in the early 1980s by French author Raymond Brunet (note the anagram). The conceit of that novel – The Disappearance of Adéle Bedaeu – was deepened by the creation of a faux trailer for the film version of the book. After his Booker prize nominated His Bloody Project, Burnet returns to the world of Brunet. The Accident on the A35 is, according to the preface, the translation of an unpublished Brunet manuscript, released after his mother’s death. Once again, the book centres around detective George Gorski and the small, seemingly dead end town of Saint Louis in which he lives. When the book opens, Gorski’s wife has left him and he is called to the scene of a car accident on a nearby road. The scene appears to be an open and shut case but there are some odd details and Gorski allows himself to be charmed by the dead man’s widow into investigating further. At the same time, the dead man’s son Raymond, after finding an address in his father’s drawer of a house in a nearby town, is also…

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…

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…

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…