Under Your Wings by Tiffany Tsao
Literature , Review , Thriller / 24/09/2018

In her first “literary fiction” novel, Australian author Tiffany Tsao angles for the most shocking and engaging opening line this year: When your sister murders three hundred people, you can’t help but wonder why – especially if you were one of the intended victims. Told from her comatose state after barely surviving the poisoning, Gwendolyn delves into the past to try and unravel why her sister Estella would commit such a heinous act. And so begins an exploration of the lives of the super wealthy Chinese in modern day Indonesia, a society in which the two were deeply embedded. Under Your Wings is a generational family saga told from the perspective of the extremely privileged third generation. While there may have been some hard work and grind for their grandparents, Gwendolyn and Estella and their peers live the high life while being expected to keep the family businesses going. So that when Gwendolyn wants to start her own business she is bankrolled by the family and when Estella is looking for work she is put in charge of one of the family subsidiaries. A marriage between Estella and Leonard is seen a dynastic union of two powerful families but for…

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

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

Restoration by Angela Slatter
Crime , Fantasy , Review / 18/09/2018

Restoration is the third in what Angela Slatter describes as “the first Verity Fassbinder trilogy”. For fans of this series this means that, firstly, some hanging plot elements are likely to be resolved. But secondly, that there are likely to be more Verity Fassbinder books after this one. And that can only be a good thing. This noir-infused, wryly observational urban fantasy series about an investigator/enforcer for the Weyrd community of Brisbane has been a bright spot on the fantasy scene for the last few years. Restoration opens with Verity at a low point. At the end of Corpselight she made a deal with the self-styled ‘Guardian of the Underworld’ for the return of her mother. She had to give up her family and her position and work with Joyce, a kitsune (were-fox) assassin who has an axe to grind, to find a “grail and a tyrant”. But Joyce is only one of a long line of people who are seeking revenge on Verity. At the same time, the police still call on Verity to help them solve a string of strange deaths and there is a coup in the offing in the Weyrd society of Brisbane. While it takes…

Greenlight by Benjamin Stevenson
Crime , Review / 12/09/2018

The rise of the popularity of true crime podcasts and tv shows has not gone unnoticed in the fictional world. The fact that journalists or entertainers are reviewing settled court decisions and, through their interpretation of the evidence, putting pressure on lawmakers to reconsider these cases is a situation ripe for drama. This year already we have had Charlie Donlea’s Don’t Believe It and now we have Benjamin Stevenson’s debut Greenlight. In both cases, a documentary maker exploring a cold case becomes a little too close to their subject. Greenlight opens with an intriguing cold open, cheekily headed “Cold Open” (in fact the chapter structure and names are taken from the fictional series, including a final, twisty “Mid-Credits Sequence”). A woman called Eliza has been held in a cellar of some kind for an indeterminate length of time when something strange starts to happen and walls of her cell appear to start bleeding. Cut to the present where producer Jack Quick is wrapping up the last episode of his TV series which casts doubt on the conviction of Curtis Wade, accused of murdering Eliza whose body was found on his vineyard. When Curtis is released and his defence laywer dies…

A Double Life by Flynn Berry
Crime , Review / 06/09/2018

Flynn Berry burst on the crime thriller scene with her page-turning debut Under the Harrow, a book with a female narrator who may have been a little unhinged but was not unreliable. And so to A Double Life which boasts a similar, reliable, if not particularly stable main character. Only Claire has reason to be as she is – a trauma early in her life which she and her brother are still trying, in their own ways and unsuccessfully, to outrun. A Double Life is loosely based on the very famous Lord Lucan affair, although transposed to a more modern frame. In 1974, Lord Lucan, killed his childrens’ nanny, Sandra Rivett, and then attacked his wife. His wife identified him as the assailant but he was never found. All that was found was his car, abandoned, covered in blood stains. On the way to that point he had stopped at a friend’s house. But he was defended by his friends and no one admitted to helping him. While an inquest and later the coroner brought down a finding that Lucan had killed Rivett, he was never found and has since been declared dead. In A Double Life, Berry uses these…

The Plotters by Un-Su Kim
Crime , Literature , Recommended , Review / 04/09/2018

Move over Scandi-crime and possibly even Aussie-crime – the next wave of page-turning, gut wrenching, crime fiction might well be coming out of Korea. Although this is probably something the Koreans already knew given that Un Su Kim’s novel The Plotters, his first to be translated into English, was released in Korea in 2010. The Plotters is a pitch black look at a world of assassins and assassinations but it is much more than this, as Kim delves into the lives of not only the main character but those around them. Kim’s text has been skilfully translated by Sora Kim-Russell who has also translated the works of celebrated Korean author Hwang Sok-yong. When the book opens assassin Reseng is on a mountainside, watching his next victim through the scope on his rifle, deciding whether or not to pull the trigger. He doesn’t and ends up spending the night drinking with the old ex-general, hearing a long, shaggy story about a whale hunter. This opening sets the tone for the whole book, bleakly fatalistic leavened with moments of profound character revelations. Reseng, it turns out was abandoned as a baby and raised in an old library by an assassin runner called Old…

Early Riser by Jasper Fforde
Review , Science Fiction / 29/08/2018

Jasper Fforde has had a bit of a break from writing, but his first book for a few years shows that he has lost none of his quintessential weirdness. Early Riser is set in an alternative version of the world where the vast majority humans hibernate for eight weeks in the depths of winter with only a few staying awake to keep the peace. But attempts to manage this process have consequences. A new drug that helps people survive the hibernation is having the effect of turning some essentially into zombies. When the book opens, newly minted Winter Consul Charlie Worthing is transporting one of these zombies through Wales to a facility where she can be cared for. This mission spins completely out of control and leaves him exploring a much deeper mystery involving shared dreams and a new version of the hibernation drug. Long time readers of Fforde should not be surprised by the whacky but well thought out premise of Early Riser. Fforde, after all, is responsible for the Thursday Next series in which his hero can jump in and out of the “book world”, the Nursery Crimes series which mixes children’s stories and noir detective style and…

Scrublands by Chris Hammer
Crime , Review / 22/08/2018

Rural seems to be the new black in Australian crime fiction. Far from the gritty Melbourne backstreets or white collar crime of Sydney. And rural crime is definitely getting some recognition. From books like Jane Harper’s multi-award winning The Dry and Garry Disher’s Bitterwash Road through to two of this year’s Ned Kelly Award Best First Crime shortlist nominees – Wimmera and The Dark Lake. Into the fray comes Chris Hammer’s first fiction outing Scrublands, much like The Dry, a book that announces itself by its title as reflecting a part of Australia that most Australians have never seen but would like to feel a connection to. And Hammer has the chops – a long time journalist, he has set his debut fiction outing during a lengthy drought in southeastern Australia, a milieu that he investigated in his non-fiction first book The River. Scrublands opens with a shocking crime. One Sunday morning, out of the blue, the local priest in the small Riverina town of Riversend opens up with a rifle and kills five of his parishioners before himself being killed by the local policeman. Rumours of child sexual abuse lead to the crime being written off by the world as “perverted…

The Empire of Ashes by Anthony Ryan
Fantasy , Review , Science Fiction / 17/08/2018

The Empire of Ashes is the final book in Anthony Ryan’s Draconis Memoria trilogy so there may be mild spoilers ahead. The Empire of Ashes delivers more of what series fans would have enjoyed in the previous two volumes – a heady mix of steampunk, quest, and politics in a well realised world threatened by an implacable dragon army. The plot supercharged by the powers given to a select few who can drink the blood of dragons. And most importantly for page turning purposes, Ryan manages to deliver a series of continually cascading cliffhangers. After a very brief introduction which will only make sense to series regulars, Ryan catches back up with his four main characters, all of whom had been left in some form of peril or distress. Adventurer Clay, fresh from a bizarre subterranean adventure but with new information and an ally who could turn the war; kick-arse intelligence agent Lizanne leading a ragtag group of refugees; mutinous captain Hilemore who has put the safety of his world above his commission; and Silas, one of the “spoiled” – humans magically converted to follow and unquestioningly obey the vengeful White Dragon that is gathering an army to take over the…

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

In Becky Chambers’ previous Wayfarer books she has taken some standard science fiction tropes – space truckers, galactic confederacies, aliens, artificial intelligence – and given them a thoughtful and humanist spin. In Record of a Spaceborn Few she does the same again, this time tackling another scifi standard – the generation ship. While it is set in the same universe as the previous Wayfarer books and there are some tangential connections, Record can easily be read as a standalone. Many generations ago, humanity packed up its collective belongings and fled a crumbling Earth in a fleet of thirty-two generation ships headed to parts of the galaxy unknown. Following contact with advanced alien species, the Exodan Fleet parked itself around a star and humanity slowly spread out again. While no longer travelling, the Fleet remained, as did much of its population, continuing to live the way their ancestors did (with a little alien technological assistance). Record follows a group of characters aboard one of the remaining Fleet ships. They are of all ages and from all walks of life. Chambers uses these characters to dig deeply into Exodan society and in particular the constant tension between development and tradition. They go…

Hive by AJ Betts

Australian YA author AJ Betts is best known for her TV-adapted book Zac and Mia. In Hive she dives into the world of speculative fiction but her focus is still very much on teens and their experience. Hayley’s whole world is a series of interconnected, hexagonal rooms and the rules her society lives by are the only rules she has ever known. Hayley is a Gardener, her specific job is to look after the bees and their hives. Bees are important for pollinating the plants that keep her enclosed society alive and for their honey. They also provide a handy metaphor for Hayley’s structured world and her place in it. Odd events make Hayley start to question this world. But questioning is seen as a form of madness so she has to hide or try and repress her curiosity, finding allies where she can. Hayley is an engaging and relatable protagonist and the trials she faces will be familiar ones to a YA readership. Challenges of growing up in a world where rules don’t quite make sense, dealing with the pressure to conform and longstanding friendships put to the test by life changes. Hive feels a bit like a rerun…

The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan
Crime , Recommended , Review / 10/08/2018

It has been another great year for Australian crime debuts and Derval McTiernan’s The Rùin continues this run. Much like Adrian McKinty, McTiernan sets her first Cormac Reilly novel in the old country, aka Ireland. But her take, while still procedural, is more contemporary and less overtly political. The book opens twenty years before the main action. Reilly, a fresh faced rookie policeman, is driving down a dark country road looking for the source of a call about a domestic. He does not expect what he finds – Maud, a self-possessed fifteen year old girl, her five year old brother Jack and their single mother, dead of a heroin overdose. Reilly takes the children to a local hospital where Maud disappears and Jack goes into the care system. Twenty years later, now detective Reilly moves back to Galway from Dublin where, for his sins, he is put on cold cases. After the apparent suicide of now twenty-five year old Jack and the reappearance of his sister Maud, Reilly is handed their mother’s cold case to reinvestigate. The narrative follows not only Reilly but Aishling, Jack’s pregnant girlfriend. Aishling believes the original theory that Jack may have committed suicide but is…

City of Lies by Sam Hawke
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 08/08/2018

Sam Hawke’s assured debut fantasy novel City of Lies starts intriguingly. Jovan, the narrator has been trained from a young age in the family trade of poison taster for the Chancellor of Silasta. He has been exposed to multiple poisons by his uncle as part of his training and has become partially immune to them as he learnt to identify them. He has been trained in the place of his elder sister Kalina whose constitution was too weak to handle the small amounts of poisoning. Despite this they are close and are both also close to Tain, heir to the Chancellorship. Their world is thrown into stunning and sudden disarray when both the Chancellor and their Uncle Ethan are poisoned with something neither Ethan nor Jovan can identify and their city is besieged.  While City of Lies can be read by anyone it definitely has a young adult bent. While not teenagers, the main characters are all young adults, thrust into an adult world, learning quickly how to navigate treacherous political waters while dealing with a series of escalating crises. Their relative youth allows them to question the way things have been done traditionally (particularly as tradition has partially led to current events) and find new ways forward. But it also sometimes makes them easy prey for more experienced political operators.  The narrative of City of Lies alternates between Jovan and…

Lonely Girl by Lynne Vincent McCarthy
Crime , Review , Thriller / 07/08/2018

Lynne Vincent McCarthy’s debut novel Lonely Girl is a thriller with a bit of a gender swap. Gone is the femjep woman kept in a basement. Instead, McCarthy turns the tables on this tired trope and in this psychological thriller puts the woman in charge. But like many books and plays of this type, the interest is not in the kidnapping itself but in the mind games that are played between the captive and captor.  But before she gets to that, with the exception of some short tantalising POV sections about a dangerous affair, McCarthy spends some time setting up Ana, her protagonist. And this groundwork is really important to give some credence to how the plot later plays out. Ana lives on her own in a small house in a secluded valley some distance from the Tasmanian capital of Hobart. Her only companion is River, a dog she has had since she was twelve. But she is now twenty-seven and River is dying and she has decided that when he dies she too will take her own life as no one will miss her.  One night she witnesses a couple having sex in a van outside a local bar. For readers, this gels with the hints of…

The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers

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

Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth
Historical , Recommended , Review / 01/08/2018

Australian author Paul Howarth’s debut novel is a blood soaked, confronting exploration of the Australian frontier of the late nineteenth century. Not for the faint of heart, this coming of age story is reminiscent of the works of modern American western writers like Cormac McCarthy. When the book opens it is 1885, Billy and Tommy are sixteen and fourteen year-olds living on their family property in the drought affected wilds of central Queensland, in North-Eastern Australia. Their father is just managing to eke out a subsistence living on a slowly dying property while also feuding with his much more powerful neighbour John Sullivan. The boys’ world is thrown into disarray when they come home from a day out to find their mother and father dead and their younger sister shot. They ride to the neighbouring Sullivan property where they are quickly convinced that the culprits are members of the local Aboriginal tribe, the Kurrong. Sullivan has been steadily trying to wipe the Kurrong out and uses the boys to bring in the sadistic head of the Native Police, Noone. The two, fuelled by thoughts of revenge, are allowed to ride out with Sullivan, Noone and his posse of Aboriginal trackers…

A Sand Archive by Gregory Day
Literature , Review / 30/07/2018

Gregory Day, award winning Australian poet and author, has returned to a theme that underpinned his 2005 musical CD The Flash Road: Scenes from the Building of the Great Ocean Road. The Great Ocean Road is the scenic tourist trail that runs along the Southern Victorian coast between Torquay and Allansford. Originally built by returned servicemen from the First World War, the road is now considered one of the great scenic drives of the world. But this is not really the story of the road or its construction, it the story of one man, FB Herschell, and his relationship with the shifting sand dunes that made construction of the road a challenge for engineers. Narrated by an anonymous bookshop employee, A Sand Archive relates the story of Herschell, jumping off from a small self-published volume of his unexcitingly entitled The Great Ocean Road: Dune Stabilisation and Other Engineering Difficulties. This book, written late in Herschell’s life, is one in which the narrator believes “all of the most important things have been left unsaid”. A Sand Archive reveals all of those important things by charting the important, personal aspects of Herschell’s life. This includes his fascination with early Mondrian paintings of…

Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio

Christopher Ruocchio’s debut novel and first of a new series owes a debt to the space opera classics. The opening of Empire of Silence feels cribbed from the opening of Frank Herbert’s all time classic Dune. A galaxy-wide human empire ruled by aristocratic houses, a young man chafing against his place and struggling to find his destiny, a powerful and sinister religious order, computer technology outlawed and replaced by human “computers”. But it also has echoes of other space operas from that age and earlier in which humanity has spread to the stars but in doing so has retained its classical roots.  The society Ruocchio presents is a pastiche of high tech, Roman and medieval.  Empire of Silence picks up the pace a little when narrator Hadrian Marlowe goes on the run from the privilege of his family but is dumped on a backwater planet where he has to live by his wits. This middle section of the book morphs into a retelling of Gladiator as Hadrian gets work as cannon-fodder in the local colosseum and manages to train a rag tag group to survive. The book then switches again to become an exploration of ancient mysteries and finally attains some forward momentum when Hadrian encounters humanity’s enemy – the Ceiclin who ravage through human space.  Empire of Silence is the first volume of a memoir. Hadrian narrates from an old age in which he has done some horrific things that are only…

84K by Claire North
Fantasy , Review , Science Fiction / 25/07/2018

Claire North used the travels of the main character in her last book The End of the Day to highlight global inequities and social issues. Despite its fantastical premise (that character we the harbinger of Death), that book focussed on the present. In 84K, North takes this social commentary into frighteningly plausible dystopian vision of the future.  There is nothing particularly original about the starting point for 84K – concentration of corporate power, collusion between a monolithic Company and the Government, the wealthy coming out on top and a population sleepwalking into servitude in the pursuit of the good life. But North takes this premise further – into a monetised society, where everything, including human life, literally has a value.  Theo Miller works at the Criminal Audit Office, assigning indemnity value to different crimes, If you can pay you get on with your life but if you can’t, you go into government mandated menial work – essentially slave labour or worse. Miller, is much like Charlie from The End of the Day, a grey English bureaucratic exterior hiding a revolutionary soul. And that soul slowly emerges  and he is forced to take action when a face from the past emerges and he is forced to reevaluate his life.  The book jumps between three time periods – Miller’s backstory, his…

Wyntertide by Andrew Caldecott
Fantasy , Review / 23/07/2018

Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird was one of the most English and original fantasy novels of 2017. It focussed on the eponymous town hidden away from the rest of England and guardian of a secret door to another dimension called The Lost Acre. Rotherweird was full of Dickensian characters engaged in an ancient struggle but also had Monty Pythonesque flourishes. The epilogue to the action in Rotherweird indicated that more was going on than the protagonists suspected and this second volume is clear that all of the frenetic activity in that book was just “the end of the beginning” and so to Wyntertide. Wyntertide has a similar structure to Rotherweird. Historical vignette’s establish the backstory of a number of long lived characters still either making mischief or trying to prevent it. In the meantime the townsfolk are gearing up for a major event, in this case the mayoral election, which is being manipulated for nefarious purposes. Caldecott ranges across a kaleidoscope of characters as various factions manoeuvre and a centuries old plan fall into place. Rotherweird  anchored its sprawling narrative around an outsider – Josiah Oblong, the new history teacher – who was also the reader’s proxy into this strange world. It…