The Jekyll Revelation by Robert Masello
Fantasy , Historical , Review / 17/02/2017

The Jekyll Revelation is a strange hybrid of a novel. It constantly flicks between the diaries of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, and the struggles of a present day environmental scientist tracking coyotes in Topanga Canyon outside of Los Angeles. In the process deep secrets are revealed. The Robert Louis Stevenson story line is told in diary form. It starts with a murder then flashes back to Stevenson’s sojourn with his family in a Swiss health retreat while he writes Treasure Island. Stevenson was seeking (and received according to his diary) radical treatment for a chronic lung condition. The story of Stevenson’s stay at the sanitarium and his bizarre treatment is told in the best tradition of gothic horror. The results provide more than the inspiration for the novel about Jekyll and Hyde which, once published and adapted for the West End stage, draws Stevenson into the Jack the Ripper investigation. The Jekyll Revelation leans heavily on historical record to create a fictional Stevenson. And Robert Masello effectively manages to blur the line between what is likely to be the truth, fictional licence and out and out fantasy. Meanwhile, in the bright sunshine of Topanga Canyon, Rafael Salazar is dealing with…

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet, Becky Chamber’s eye-opening debut, brought a bit of humanism into science fiction. Like recent film Arrival, and much of Star Trek, Chambers was interested in using science fiction to explore elements of the human condition through science fiction. You would expect that the sequel would build on Chambers’ rich universe and diverse cast. But Chambers, bravely and successfully, takes a different approach. Focusing on two of peripheral characters from the original book and based mainly in a familiar locale. At the end of Planet, rebooted Artificial Intelligence Lovelace had been illegally installed into a human body-kit and spirited away by fix-it guru Pepper, leaving the crew of the Wayfarer to go on their way. Chambers tells the story of Lovelace, now Sidra, as she adjusts to being in human form and the history of Pepper, who started her life as a throwaway clone and was rescued and raised by a ship’s AI called Owl. Whereas Planet had some semblance of a plot and some secrets among the crewmates to drive the action, Orbit is almost pure character drama. While there is some tension in the fact that Sidra is effectively illegal and…

Crimson Lake by Candice Fox
Crime , Recommended , Review / 13/02/2017

Candice Fox announced herself as an Australian crime writer to watch with her Ned Kelly Award winning debut Hades, followed up a year later by its award winning sequel Eden. The Archer and Bennett series took a couple of fairly recent crime fiction tropes (including the serial killer cop) but Fox made them completely her own. After a shortlisted third in the series and a humdrum collaboration with one-man crime fiction factory James Paterson, Fox launches what is potentially a new series with Crimson Lake. And is, in a few words, absolutely back on form. Crimson Lake is a small tropical town outside of Cairns. It is where Ted Conkaffey has gone to ground after his life fell apart. Conkaffey was a policeman, charged with the brutal assault on a teenage girl but never convicted. He continues to protest his innocence but is scarred by his experience on the other side of the justice system and, not cleared of the crime, is still suspected of being a paedophile. His lawyer hooks him up with local detective Amanda Pharrell. Amanda is in some ways more damaged than Ted, having spent ten years in prison for stabbing a fellow teenager to death….

Marshall’s Law by Ben Sanders
Crime , Review , Thriller / 09/02/2017

Ben Sanders is a New Zealander but you would not know it from his all American gun-fest that is the Marshall Grade series. These books steeped in the American super hard-boiled tradition, usually anchored by a violently proficient loner, popularised by authors like Lee Child. Marshall’s Law opens months after the events in American Blood. There is still a contract out on Marshall, Sander’s Jack Reacher style loner and former cop who went into witness protection after an undercover operation gone wrong. Unable to find him, they go after his US Marshal contact Lucas Cohen in Santa Fe. Cohen survives a kidnapping attempt and alerts Marshall who then leaves his hiding spot in LA to travel to the East Coast to try and get some information. For no real reason, Cohen also heads to New York with a view to helping Marshall out. Meanwhile, a violent crime boss called Dexter Vine is looking to capture or kill Marshall for the bounty which he needs to pay off debts to a bigger crime boss. Much of the narrative focusses on the cat and mouse games between Vine’s goons and Marshall with Cohen providing some related back-up as he puts things together….

The Possessions by Sarah Flannery Murphy
Fantasy , Literature , Review , Romance / 08/02/2017

Sarah Flannery Murphy’s debut novel is a difficult one to pigeon-hole. It is on its face a high concept speculative fiction that could almost be described as literary fantasy but with a dark, contemporary edge. But it also has shades of romance and thriller. Even the name of the book provides a number of ambiguous entries into the themes that Murphy explores. But first, the concept. In Murphy’s world there are people who are able to channel the souls of the deceased. By taking a particular drug and using certain triggers they can allow their bodies to be possessed by someone who has died. Eurydice, or Edie, is a ‘body’, working in an establishment known as Elysium, the only sanctioned game in town for people who wish to spend time with their departed loved ones. Edie is the longest serving of the bodies at Elysium, the work causing most to burn out. While there is nothing physical about the trade, the analogies with prostitution run strongly through the narrative. Two things happen to shake up Edie’s world. The first is a man who comes to spend time with his wife Sylvia who accidentally drowned while they were on a holiday….

The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith
Historical , Review / 06/02/2017

Martin Cruz Smith takes a break from his long running Arkady Renko Russian crime series which started with Gorky Park to explore a different corner of history. The Girl from Venice takes readers to Italy in the dying days of the Second World War. Italy is being bombed by the allies and is riven by division as Mussolini and the fascists cling on to power. At the same time the country is playing host to the German Western Front command and an increasingly desperate German army, many of whom can see the writing on the wall. But the focus of the novel is Innocenzo, or Cenzo, a fisherman of Pallesteria, a small town across the lagoon from Venice. When Cenzo picks up what he thinks to be a dead girl floating in the lagoon he steps into a world of trouble. The girl, Gulia, very much alive, has escaped from a German attack that killed her Jewish family and the two end up in the middle of a number of power plays as various people try to manoeuvre as the war ends. Chief among these is Cenzo’s brother, a famous actor and propagandist for the Mussolini regime. Cenzo, while having…

Kill The Next One by Frederico Axat
Crime , Review , Thriller / 03/02/2017

Kill the Next One, Argentinean author Frederico Axat’s first novel translated into English literally has a killer premise. Ted McKay has put a gun to his own head, prepared to commit suicide when there is a knock at the door. A stranger enters and offers him a deal – to become part of a club where he kills someone who deserves to die and then kills someone who themselves is looking to commit suicide. He will then be killed in turn by an anonymous stranger, saving his family the torment of dealing with a suicide. This premise is just the start of a twisty turny psychological thriller.  Every fifty pages or so Axat overturns the previous section and delves deeper into the mind and history of Ted McKay. Because of this structure it is hard to get a handle on the character.  The book depends on constantly wrong footing the reader and confounding expectations. Kill the Next One is a strange proposition. It is, in the end, an onion-like puzzle built around a bizarre history and mental illness so that it is difficult to talk about any more of the plot without heading into spoiler territory. Axat successfully shifts tonally from…

The Girl Before by JP Delaney
Review , Thriller / 01/02/2017

It might be a little artificial to identify a sub-genre just from book titles. But with the success of books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, there is definitely a trend emerging for domestic thrillers with the word “Girl” in the title. The presence of the word in the title does not denote the often cosy romantic worlds of chick-lit but a harsher, page turning reality. They are usually narrated (at least partially) by a woman (or the ‘Girl’ of the title), that narration is often suspect to the point of being completely unreliable, and there are violent or abusive men but it is often hard to tell who is the manipulator and who is the manipulated. Part of the pleasure of these thrillers is the constantly shifting power dynamics (even if the nature of the narrative is often that it is only the reader’s perception of these dynamics that is actually shifting). Into this mix comes a potentially big novel for 2017 – The Girl Before. The Girl Before ticks all of the Girl book boxes in spades. It has two unreliable female narrators, a supporting cast of abusive and potentially violent men and plenty of domestic thrills….

Fair Rebel by Steph Swainston
Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 30/01/2017

Steph Swainston burst onto the modern fantasy scene back in 2004 with the first of the Fourlands novels The Year of Our War. While there were some familiar elements, Swainston, much like fellow English fantasy authors like China Mieville, created a new type of fantasy world that was undeniably modern. There were no orcs, no elves, no dwarves and no dragons. Instead, the main character was a drug addicted immortal with the ability to fly, wore t-shirts and jeans and helped to fight a centuries long war against an implacable, insectile enemy. Now, ten years after the last main narrative book and five years after a backstory prequel, Swainston explosively returns to the Fourlands. Following a funeral, the narrative drops straight into the most recent push on the insect-dominated Paperlands. Fifteen years have passed since the events of The Modern World, and after a fair gap, even those who have been following the series probably need a reminder of the key elements of this world, although it’s uniqueness makes these details easier to remember. Swainston and her main narrator Jant, also known as Comet the messenger, acknowledge that it has been a long time between drinks and drop in refreshers…

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta
Crime , Review / 27/01/2017

Australian readers are likely to still know Melina Marchetta for her breakout young adult novel Looking for Alibrandi (1992). Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil is crime genre novel. But while it relies on some of the genre conventions it also manages to subvert some of them, particularly with its focus on some teen protagonists. Bashir ‘Bish’ Ortley is an ex-policeman on the skids. He is drinking to forget the death of his son and has been drummed out of the force for threatening a fellow officer. So far so clichéd. When his teenage daughter is involved in the bus bombing of a youth tour group in France in which five children have been killed Bish races to the scene. As an ex-policeman he finds himself working unofficially for the foreign office as a parent liaison but also in helping track down two teens who have fled the scene. One of the fugitives, Violette, is the daughter of a famous British terrorist still in prison for a supermarket bombing, a case and family with which Bish has history. The theory is that Violette, who had been living with family in Australia but secretly flew to France, has something to do with…

The Woman on the Stairs by Bernhard Schlink
Literature , Review / 23/01/2017

With so many disposable thrillers with the word “Girl” in the title on the market it could possibly be taken a marker of some quality that the title of Bernhard Schlink’s new novel references a “woman”. There are no murders, no unreliable narrators and no sneaky plot twists. The Woman on the Stairs fits more in line with recent books that take the art world as their focus and as a jumping off point to explore deeper issues such as The Last Painting of Sara de Vos (which also, coincidentally, also featured both a stolen art work and Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales). The narrator, an aging mergers and acquisitions lawyer from Germany is in Sydney stitching up a deal when he comes across a painting from his past. That painting, The Woman on the Stairs, was in the middle of a formative event in his life as a young lawyer. The subject of the painting, Irene Gundach, had left her husband for the artist Schmidt and the two men were in a dispute over the painting. The lawyer caught in the middle, found himself falling in love with Irene and helping her to get out of the…

The Terranauts by TC Boyle
Literature , Review / 17/01/2017

Two of TC Boyle’s long running themes collide in his latest novel The Terranauts. On the one hand is his continuing exploration of the power of visionaries to create a following (read cult) and bring people along with their vision (The Road to Wellville is a good early example of this). And on the other, the environment, its fragility, and man’s continuing struggle to both live in harmony with it and destroy it (When the Killing’s Done is a good recent example of this). And like many of his previous books, The Terranauts is built around a true story, because sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up. It is the mid 1990s and eight intrepid explorers, the Terranauts of the title, have been chosen from a group of 16, to spend two years inside a completely sealed habitat known as Ecosphere 2 (the “2” because the Earth itself is Ecosphere 1). Just a note that in the real world, the original was called Biosphere 2 and is still going strong reinvented as a research facility. Ecosphere 2, built in the middle of Arizona, has been established with different biomes – a rainforest, a desert, a small ocean – and…

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Review , Science Fiction / 13/01/2017

There are some speculative fiction books that are so deeply rooted in an author’s unique vision that reading them becomes a sink or swim exercise. Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit is one of these books. The opening chapter reads like military science fiction, but most of the familiar elements of that genre are missing. Instead is a world of mathematical exotic warfare and humanity divided into a number of different factions. Heretics in this universe fight against the order of the hexarchate, tied to a specific calendar and the shared observances associated with it. Ninefox Gambit is a bold and unique vision but not for the fainthearted at any level. The protagonist is Kel Cheris, an army captain promoted to General when she agrees to host the spirit of the long dead and possibly psychotic general Jedao. Jedao has never lost a battle but was interred in the “black cradle” after one famous victory when he turned on and killed all of his own troops. Cheris becomes the “anchor” for the spirit of Jedao, and his personality sits in the back of her head, advising her and to some extent controlling her. Even for this society this is a desperate…

Win, Lose or Draw by Peter Corris
Crime , Review / 12/01/2017

There is no denying Peter Corris’ status as the godfather of modern Australian crime. Corris took the American private investigator corner of the crime genre and made it uniquely Australian. Still going now after 33 years, gumshoe and Sydney icon Cliff Hardy is back in action for the forty-second time in Win, Lose or Draw. Hardy is hired by Gerard Fonteyn, a wealthy businessman, to find his daughter Julianna. Julianna has been missing for over a year and there is little prospect that she will actually be found. Hardy does some digging and agrees with this assessment. But months later a photo of someone who could be Julianna comes to light on Norfolk Island and Hardy is off. Very soon the search becomes extremely complicated involving drugs, under-age prostitution, murder, corrupt police and dodgy investigators. All in all, a typical Hardy scenario. Win, Lose or Draw delivers exactly what it promises – a hard boiled jaunt through the seedier parts of the Gold Coast and Sydney. Hardy, although starting to show is age (if he aged at the same rate as normal people he would be about 80 by now), is still as tough as ever. Even tied up and…

The Good People by Hannah Kent
Historical , Literature , Review / 13/12/2016

Hannah Kent rose quickly to justified prominence with her stunning first novel Burial Rites. That book, set in the harshness of Iceland took a true story and brought it viscerally to life. While the method is the same, and there are similarities between the two books, The Good People explores a very different landscape and a very different culture. The Good People opens in a small village in Ireland in the 1850s. Norra and her husband have been eking out an existence and trying to look after their disabled grandson Michael. The four-year-old cannot talk or use his legs, he was left with them by their son-in-law when their daughter died. When her husband dies suddenly Norra is left adrift. In the highly superstitious villages this death is seen as evidence that Michael is a changeling, a child stolen by the fairies, or Good People. The village itself is caught between the old ways and the new. Kent effectively captures the tension between the desire to put the old superstitions aside and the pressure on villagers from the new priest to fully commit to Christianity. The old ways are represented by Nance, a woman who understands the fairy lore and…

Invasive by Chuck Wendig
Review , Science Fiction / 09/12/2016

Chuck Wendig takes a break from the Star Wars universe to delivers an X-Files meets Michael Crichton thriller Invasive. Ostensibly a sequel to 2014’s Zeroes, no familiarity of the previous volume is required. Hannah Stander is futurist who consults to the FBI. Her job is to try and see into the future, one she divides neatly before the action even starts as an apocalypse versus apotheosis or evolution versus ruination scenario. The idea here, not a new one, is that technologies and technological advances are neither good or bad – the issue is what humans make of them. Hannah is called in by her FBI handler Hollis Copper when a body is found seemingly skinned alive by thousands of genetically engineered ants. The ants contain a patented genetic marker of a company run by Einar Geirsson “billionaire contemporary of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs (maybe even Iron Man’s Tony Stark)”. This introduction an early indicator that the reader is pretty much in comic book territory. Hannah ends up on a remote Hawaiian atoll, openly invited by Geirsson to investigate his company on the basis that he has nothing to hide. But pretty soon the killer ants are on the march…

Babylon’s Ashes by James SA Corey
Review , Science Fiction / 07/12/2016

Six books into a projected nine book series and you would expect Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham aka James SA Corey to slow down just a little. And coming off a massive solar system shaking event in last year’s Nemesis Games (reviewed here), this is what they do. Babylon’s Ashes, for all of its action set pieces feels like a consolidation and table setting for the projected final three volumes of this epic space opera series. That does not mean they have throttled back on the action but there is only a little of the weird alien goings on or massive events that have characterised earlier volumes. Rather the focus is on the shifting allegiances, politics, battles and fixes required to manage both a war and a crisis on an unprecedented scale. The book opens on an Earth completely devastated by the Belter Free Navy in Nemesis Games. Millions have died and millions continue to die as pawns in a political struggle between the combined forces of Earth and Mars and the Free Navy, armed by Martian military dissidents. In the middle of it all, as always, are James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante. While Holden, Naomi, Alex…

The White City by Simon Morden
Fantasy , Review / 02/12/2016

Simon Morden returns to the magical world of Down for second time in The White City. He rejoins the survivors of Down Station (reviewed here) as they try and come to terms with events and the world they find themselves in. They came to Down, Narnia-like, through a doorway in a disused tube station as London burned around them. They found a dangerous world populated by people who came through different doorways from London at different times in its history. That first book ran very much along lines of some classic fantasy – people find themselves in a magical world and have to learn to use the powers that they gain there to survive. The White City turns out to be a very different proposition to the first book in this series. With the rules established in Down Station, Morden sets about not only exploring those rules but also breaking them apart, digging deeper into the world and revealing depths that were only very vaguely glimpsed in the first volume. There is a bit of a quest element to this book as the characters travel to the White City, reputedly the only permanent city in Down, where answers may be found that may…

The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 30/11/2016

Thinking about it afterwards it was kind of obvious that pairing new weird novelist China Miéville and with surrealist movement was perhaps inevitable. The Last Days of New Paris not only celebrates Surrealism but brings it to life in a way that only the imagination and verve of Miéville could possibly achieve. New Weird and Surrealism, a match made in heaven, which, of course, as this book posits, also implies the existence of Hell. It is 1950 and, as a result of the detonation of an occult weapon in 1941, the war still rages in Paris. The bomb – “the weaponised soul of convulsive beauty” – made real the Surrealist dreams of Europe on the streets of occupied Paris. The landscape of Paris has been remodelled in line with a Surrealist thought experiment and manifestations of Surrealist art (known as ‘manifs’) wander the streets. To stop this strangeness spreading, Paris has been walled off from the rest of the world and so the Second World War rages on between the Germans and the French on its streets. The story centres on Thibault, a member of the surrealist resistance, who is caught up in stopping a German plot to harness the…

Swarm by Westerfeld, Lanagan and Biancotti
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 28/11/2016

The misfit powered teens from last year’s Zeroes, co-written by YA powerhouse team Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti, are back for another go round in Swarm. And like all good sequels, Swarm finds their world expanding considerably and, with that expansion the dangers they face. The book opens six months after the somewhat catastrophic events of Zeroes. The six teens have opened an illegal nightclub called the Petri Dish as a way of testing and refining their powers. But while the club provides them with a safe haven, their activities have attracted some unwelcome attention. They soon realise something that should have been obvious to them – they are not the only Zeroes in the world. While the Zeroes have been trying to use their powers responsibly (or at least not destructively), it turns out that others are not so conscientious. When their club is crashed by two teens with new abilities the Zeroes find themselves in the crosshairs of a deadly Zero known only as Swarm who (it seems) enjoys killing other Zeroes (shades of the early seasons of powered-people TV series Heroes here). Once again, the issues of just being a young adult are front and centre…