The Plea by Steve Cavanagh
Crime , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 06/06/2016

Eddie Flynn, Steve Cavanagh’s conman turned lawyer, burst onto the legal thriller scene in the stunning 2015 debut The Defence (reviewed here). That book was a Hustle meets Die Hard meets The Practice thrill ride involving the Russian Mafia, an unwinnable court case and, literally, a ticking bomb. Flynn returns in a sequel which is, if anything, more convoluted, more suspenseful and, importantly, just as much fun. The setup for The Plea is anything but simple. Suffice to say it involves, in no particular order: the CIA, the FBI, a crooked money-laundering law firm, blackmail, drug cartels, an internet billionaire, a publicity seeking District Attorney and, if that was not quite enough, another seemingly unwinnable court case involving a classic locked room murder mystery. As with The Defence, the clock is ticking and Flynn has skin in the game, in this case the potential of his wife going to jail if he fails. The Plea opens with a teaser involving guns and bodies and then flashes back to forty eight hours before to chart how Flynn got there. Various chapter headings then remind the reader how close they are getting to that opening shooting. Eddie Flynn is, as previously, the best…

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
Review , Science Fiction / 01/06/2016

Japanese manga and anime has a bit of an obsession with giant robots controlled by human pilots. These huge humanoid weapons are usually used to defend humanity against other giant machines or otherworldly monsters. As the stories like the Iron Giant and the success of recent films like Pacific Rim show, this appetite for stories involving giant robots is fairly universal. Sylvain Neuvel shares this fascination. Challenged to create a backstory for a toy robot that he built for his son, Neuvel has dug into this tradition to come up with Sleeping Giants. Sleeping Giants starts with a great cold open. Young Rose Franklin, riding a bike on her tenth birthday, falls into a hole and finds herself cradled in the palm of a giant metal hand. The hand is surrounded by panels covered in strange, glowing symbols. Both turn out to be made of a metal alloy that should not exist on Earth. Twelve years late she is Dr Rose Franklin and has been commissioned to examine the hand and try and decipher the symbols that surrounded it. Rose soon learns how to locate other parts of the robot and the race is on to locate, construct and control…

A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald by Natasha Lester
Historical , Review , Romance / 31/05/2016

Natasha Lester’s latest novel takes readers into the heart of Jazz Age New York. Despite the promise of the title, F Scott Fitzgerald does make an appearance even as a cameo, although a few historical figures appear or rate a mention. The reference to Fitzgerald in the title, dropped fairly heavy handedly at the beginning of the novel, is the idea of the more modern woman, unshackled from the Victorian mores that pervaded American society through the early twentieth century. Evie Lockhart, the protagonist takes this approach to life to heart. After being unable to save a woman in childbirth, she determines to become an obstetrician despite all of the pressures on her to not even apply, never mind succeed. Evie joins the Zeigfried Follies to fund her way through medical school, despite an undertaking to the school not to do anything to bring it into disrepute. At that time only one woman had graduated from medicine and was not celebrated for her achievement. Evie’s struggles to succeed against a disapproving establishment and its escalating attempts to remove her, coupled with her double life as a singer and dancer is one of the highlights of this novel. Lester has other…

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama
Crime , Literature , Review / 25/05/2016

The first thing to understand about Hideo Yokoyama’s epic police procedural Six Four is that it is not a crime novel in the traditional sense. There are plenty of crimes, including a fourteen year old kidnapping case, a hit and run and some corruption, and the plot centres squarely on the police force. But the crimes themselves are merely the catalyst for the action and little of this action is directly connected to solving these crimes. Most of the procedural action that readers might expect from a traditional crime novel either happens off the page or not at all. And even when the action ramps up, most of the tension comes from internal police department politics and the external pressures of the press. Six Four is the code name for a child kidnapping case from fourteen years before. The ransom was paid, the perpetrator escaped but the child died. Many years later, this famous case is still in the public consciousness and is still being pursued by the local detectives. The shadow of Six Four hangs heavily over all of the action of this novel, still impacting on many of the lives of those who participated in the investigation. The narrative…

The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis
Historical , Literature , Review / 23/05/2016

Georgian London, Summer 1763, a year in which, to quote Janet Ellis’s note, “nothing much happened”. This means there is nothing to distract the protagonist of The Butcher’s Hook or her family from their seemingly ordinary, upper middle class lives. The Butcher’s Hook is a fairly macabre character study. Anne Jaccob, eldest daughter of the Jaccob family, bursts from the book from the first page. She appears contemporary but is also very much of her age. The way she and her family behave, though, is shaped by the mores and expectations of the time. Anne is a clever girl but is not sent to school, she has a tutor who leaves her father’s service under a cloud. Left to her own devices, Anne becomes a singular personality, finding it hard to make connections with other girls her age when the opportunity is presented and creating an intense inner life. Anne is a teenager and full of passion, unwilling to be shackled to the odious Onions, the man who her parents have chosen for her. Instead, she falls deeply for the butcher’s nephew and they begin a clandestine relationship. She then bucks against a system that forbids this relationship, going to extreme…

Stiletto by Daniel O’Malley
Fantasy , Review , Thriller / 19/05/2016

Daniel O’Malley’s debut novel The Rook deservedly won the Aurealis best science fiction award in 2012. A genre mash of a novel that could only be described by its multiple influences. The Rook was X-Men meets Jason Bourne meets the X-Files with a touch of Yes, Minister thrown in for good measure. Based on a fictional secret British Government agency known as the Checquy, staffed by people with supernatural powers and protecting Britain from the X-Files-style unknown. Stiletto takes up not long after the end of The Rook. The Checquy is now in peace negotiations with its long-time enemies the Grafters. The Grafters are rogue scientists who distrust the “demonic” Checquy and have the ability to biomodify themselves and others. The Checquy all but wiped out the Grafters hundreds of years before and the enmity has been brewing ever since. But just as a fragile peace is one the table a third party emerges to derail the negotiations. Stiletto has much of the verve and many of the weird supernatural-meets-secret-service action set pieces of its predecessor. But it is overly long. It takes close to 200 pages for the plot to start moving. O’Malley fills the spaces with exposition, backstory…

The Trees by Ali Shaw
Fantasy , Review / 11/05/2016

Just when you think you’ve seen (and catalogued) every type of apocalyptic scenario imaginable, along comes Ali Shaw’s The Trees. The treepocalypse that kicks off Shaw’s exploration of man versus nature sees thousands of fully grown trees springing from the earth early one morning, literally ripping modern society apart. Not everyone is upset by this turn of events. As one character thinks, the trees “were as much a promise as they were an apocalypse”. But that doesn’t prevent Shaw from sending his characters on a fairly standard post-apocalyptic journey. It should probably be pointed out that this is not the first treepocalypse of recent times. Doctor Who, a series which in its 50 plus year run has probably dealt with every apocalyptic scenario going, had a similar scenario back in 2014’s “In the Forest of the Night”. Although in that case (spoiler alert), the reason for the trees’ appearance was much more benign and no one died horribly impaled on a branch that emerged suddenly through the middle of their bed in the middle of the night. Shaw’s main character, Alistair, is a bit of a loser. On an indeterminate break from his teaching career, and with his wife away…

Zero K by Don Delillo
Literature , Review / 09/05/2016

Don Delillo is one of the greats of American literature and Zero K finds him still at the top of his game. It is in turns a contemplative, existential and incisive exploration of modernity. Jeffrey Lockhart has come to a facility in the middle of Central Asia to support his father and stepmother. His stepmother, Artis, is dying and, in order to give her a chance at survival, she is being put into a form a cryogenic suspension in the hope that a cure can be found in the future. But not everyone at the facility, known as the Convergence, is dying. Some have decided to take the cryogenic plunge into the future anyway through a facility called Zero K. They have been sold on the quasi-religion of the Convergence, that the world is sick and that there may be a better world waiting for them in the future. In the first half of the novel, Jeffrey spends his days wandering around the Convergence. He is given glimpses of meetings, encounters strange and often disturbing physical and video artworks, and meets with a man dressed as a Monk who tends to the dying. Jeffrey spends time with his father discussing…

The Maker of Swans by Paraic O’Donnell
Fantasy , Review / 04/05/2016

The Maker of Swans, Paraic O’Donnell’s debut novel, takes readers deep into modern-gothic British fantasy territory. Its old-world tone is reminiscent of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and, more recently, Tim Clare’s The Honours, although it is set in more modern times than either of these (possibly the ‘60s, although it is hard to tell). The book opens with a murder. Witnessed by Eustace, the factotum to the mysterious Mr Crowe, whose job it is also to clean up after the act. Only the act itself has brought some unwanted attention to Crowe and his young ward Clara. Crowe has used his powers to kill and, as a result, has to pay a forfeit to the mysterious Dr Chastern. The forfeit involves the use of his powers and also revolves around Clara. But Clara has powers of her own. The narrative is in two very distinct parts. The first half slowly builds up to the visit of Dr Chastern and its aftermath. The second half puts the characters in very different places, explores Clara’s developing powers and dips into the lengthy history between Crowe and Eustace. The Maker of Swans maintains its deeply mysterious atmosphere throughout and this…

A Dying Breed by Peter Hanington
Review , Thriller / 29/04/2016

A Dying Breed is an intelligent thriller set in present day Afghanistan. By focussing on journalists and their work it avoids a lot of the guns and gunplay aspects of many thrillers set in this part of the world. And informed by Peter Hanington’s many years as a foreign correspondent, there is an air of veracity around the characters and their interactions. The plot of A Dying Breed runs along some fairly well-worn lines. The killing of an Afghan politician is picked up as a story by William Carver, an on-the-skids journalist. While it appears the killing was the work of the Taliban, some irregularities and the appearance of some shady military characters point to what could be a much bigger and more complex story. But when Carver starts to dig, the British apparatus of State turns its attention to preventing his further investigation. There are a number of aspects of this novel that sets it above the fray. The first is the characters. William Carver is irascible, heavy drinking and unlikeable, still carrying some guilt about his role in boosting the Iraq war and impossible to deal with. But while it first appears that he will be the centre…

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

Chris Cleave opens his forth novel with a sentence that sums up his main character: “War was declared at 11:15 and Mary North signed up at noon”. Mary does not get what she expects, ending up in the teaching service and helping to evacuate children from London to the countryside. Mary is just one of the rounded and unforgettable characters in Cleave’s new novel set in the first half of World War Two. But she is the heart and soul of this work – a jaunty but fierce, undaunted young woman trying to find her way in a world that is coming apart around her. Mary is not the only character that Cleave follows into the war. There is Mary’s best friend Hilda, her new boss Tom, who is happy not to fight, and his friend Alistair Heath, an art conservator with the Tate who has gone to war and ends up defending Malta from the Germans. Also trying to survive the war is ten year old American boy Zachary. Zachary is African American and does not fare well when evacuated to the country with the other children. Zachary ends up back in London during the Blitz with his father…

The Girl on the Liar’s Throne by Den Patrick
Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 22/04/2016

Den Patrick concludes his Erebus Sequence with more of what made the rest of this series so enjoyable. Plenty of sword play, a little bit of politics, great dialogue and characters to care about, even if you disagree with what they are doing. The series, which started surprising with The Boy with the Porcelain Blade (reviewed here) and continued to impress with The Boy Who Wept Blood (reviewed here), has been a welcome reprieve to the often cookie-cutter worlds of epic fantasy. The finale is no exception. It is difficult to talk about the plot of The Girl on the Liar’s Throne without giving away some of the key plot points of the earlier novels. While The Boy Who Wept Blood advanced ten years on the first volume, this book opens only months after the events of that instalment. Anea, the Silent Queen of Landfall is in the oubliette, a dungeon in which the waters erase memories. On her throne is an imposter, Eris, under the sway of the mysterious Erebus and undoing all of the good work that Anea had started. This is again a shift for this series which has focussed on a group of Orfino, strange hybrid creatures…

The Travelers by Chris Pavone
Review , Thriller / 21/04/2016

Much like its titular magazine, The Travelers is a whirlwind journey that takes readers to some of the world’s most desirable places. For starters – America, France, Argentina, England and Iceland. But for all of the glamour, fine wine and food, these places just provide the backdrop on an engaging, twisted and compulsive thriller. Will Rhodes is a writer for Travelers magazine. His job is to fly around the world to places that his readers would like to go, take photos, eat good food, drink expensive wines and attend A-list parties. This not only keeps the readers and advertisers happy but supports Travelers’ side business as an exclusive travel bureau to the rich. But right from the cold open, Will is in trouble and the first part of the story just highlights how deep that trouble is. Soon he finds himself lying to his wife and his colleagues and becoming involved in clandestine operations which seek to use his real work as cover for espionage. Will is a likeable hero – he is no James Bond but is just resourceful enough to feel like a real person trying to work his way out of trouble. Chris Pavone puts a lot…

Eleanor by Jason Gurley
Fantasy , Literature , Review , Young Adult / 18/04/2016

Eleanor is a book steeped in loss and grieving. It opens in 1963 when the pregnant mother of a small child abandons her family and moves quickly to a tragic car accident involving the woman’s daughter and her own children twenty-two years later. Jump again to 1993, and fourteen-year old Eleanor is living with her alcoholic mother, trying to hold the household together in the face of her mother’s pain and cobble together some type of normal life. So far so naturalistic, and Gurley handles these early scenes well, engaging the reader in Eleanor’s world and tragic history. And then the book takes a swerve to the fantastic. As Eleanor herself observes – “over the rainbow, down the rabbit hole, through the cupboard”. It turns out that Eleanor is being watched by strange, otherworldly beings and, in their attempt to communicate with her, they pull her out of the world into other realities. Each time they do this, Eleanor disappears for long periods of time and, on a couple of occasions, ends up dangerously injured on her return. But she is determined, with the help of her friend Jack, to find out what exactly is happening to her. Secrets and…

Where the Trees Were by Inga Simpson
Literature , Review / 14/04/2016

Inga Simpson’s Where the Trees Were is a story that, at its heart, is about growing up and living in modern Australia. Its connecting tissue, the issue of cultural appropriation and the ongoing tousle between preservation of Aboriginal culture and land use, gives the story a depth and resonance beyond the individual characters and their lives. It is 2004 and Jayne is a conservator at a major cultural institution in Canberra. As the book opens she is organising the theft of a carved tree from the museum collection. The tree, once one of many that dotted the Australian landscape and marked places of cultural significance to the Aboriginal communities who lived there, has been reduced from its previous significance to an exhibit. Why Jayne does this and how she deals with the fallout are examined through the rest of the book. Flashback to Jayne’s childhood, told in first person, growing up the only child of a farming family in the Lachlan Valley, central New South Wales. Starting in 1987, this aspect of the novel follows Jayne and her close group of friends, all boys.  In alternating chapters, Simpson follows the group as they leave primary school and enter the adolescent…

Fellside by MR Carey
Fantasy , Review , Thriller / 13/04/2016

Women’s prison dramas are the new black. While there is plenty of realistic women’s prison drama about at the moment it also turns out to be a pretty effective place to set a modern gothic horror tale. MR Carey’s follow up to The Girl With All the Gifts takes the reader into the high security wing of a private women’s prison set in foggy North Yorkshire. Into this mix he adds more than a sprinkling of the supernatural and stands back to watch the results. Jess Moulson has been accused of starting a fire which severely disfigured her and took the life of the young boy who lived in the flat above her. Addicted to heroin at the time, Jess sleepwalks through the trial, believing herself to be guilty and seeking punishment. Once convicted she is sent to the private, high security women’s prison Fellside. Once there, however, she is brought out of her personal fog by the intervention of a dreamlike presence assuring her that she was not responsible for the boy’s death and urging her to find his killer. It turns out that Jess has more power than just communing with the dead. She also has the ability to…

Day Boy by Trent Jamieson
Fantasy , Recommended , Review , Young Adult / 08/04/2016

With so much second-rate material around, the vampire genre has become a little anaemic. Trent Jamieson’s Day Boy provides a welcome and much needed infusion of new blood into the genre. The focus of Day Boy is not the Masters (the word vampire is never used), who rule a post-apocalyptic Earth, but their Day Boys. Each Master has a Day Boy to do their work during daylight hours. Part servant, part protégé, part surrogate child, part confidante, the Day Boys epitomise the Masters rule and wield some power over other humans as a result. Mark, the narrator, is Day Boy to Dain, exiled with four other Masters to the regional town of Midfield. The world that Mark inhabits has a wild-west steampunk feel. Midfield is a farming community, connected to the Master’s more advanced capital city by steam train. However, this is a world that is also recognisably Australian, complete with heat, dust, flies and deadly creatures lurking in the bush. Day Boy is a twisted coming of age story. Mark experiences all of the usual tropes – fights with his peers, a girl he is keen on but not supposed to spend time with, and important decisions to be…

Dangerous to Know by Anne Buist
Crime , Review / 06/04/2016

Anne Buist’s Natalie King novel Dangerous to Know could be described as a true psychological thriller. But only because the two main characters are psychiatrists. Most of the plot is taken up with the psycho-personal tousle between bipolar-recovering-depressive forensic psychiatrist King and potentially-homicidal-manipulator academic psychiatrist Frank Moreton. And while it takes a fair while for this joust to develop any heat it does build to a satisfying and twisty resolution. Natalie King, still recovering from the events of Medea’s Curse, has taken herself away from the pressures of Melbourne and her full time practice. Moving to a house in Lorne, on the Victorian coast, she seeks a research position at the local university working for Frank Moreton. Frank is married to a very pregnant Alison, an old adversary of King’s from their university days. And when Alison dies in much the same circumstances as Frank’s first wife Reeva, Natalie feels duty bound to investigate. As with Medea’s Curse, the character of Natalie King is the strongest element of this novel. Fiercely intelligent but struggling to deal with her psychological disorders, trying and failing to downplay the motorcycle riding, rockband singing wild girl as a way of managing her condition. Her…

Radiance by Catherynne M Valente

Retrofuturism is an area of sci-fi with proliferating sub-genres. First there was steampunk, Victoriana sci-fi usually replete with airships, flying goggles and cogs. But now other time periods are muscling in on the act. There is clockpunk, based on an area before a steam. But there is also dieselpunk and atompunk taking the retrofuturistic baseline deep into the twentieth century. Catherynne M Valente’s latest novel for adults Radiance (she has been spending much of her recent time writing for children about a Fairyland of her own making) is self-described as decopunk. Decopunk replaces Victorian crinolines and grime with the high fashion and flashy chrome of the Art Deco era. Also sometimes known as raygun gothic, decopunk is flashy, pulpy and overall lighter than its steam-driven cousin. Radiance is more than just retrofuturism, though. Valente has created a complete alternative not only of our world but of our solar system. In the Radiance universe, all of the planets and many of their moons are both habitable and inhabited (including Pluto which in our universe was not even discovered until 1932). People zip between these strange and unique environments in rocket ships. They survive partly due to their reliance on a substance…

Ten Days by Gillian Slovo
Crime , Review , Thriller / 01/04/2016

Gillian Slovo’s Ten Days started life as a play that explored the London riots of 2011. The play itself was based on a series of interviews and transcripts. The novel follows the outline of these events but ficitionalises them, which gives Slovo a broader scope than that original piece and some licence with her exploration of character and motivation. But it still centres around a week of intense heat in which the disaffected and disenfranchised went on a rampage in London, in a wave of violence that spread across the country. Ten Days opens ominously. An early morning discussion between single mother Cathy and the man who has spent the night in her tower block apartment is photographed by a passing police helicopter. Slovo litters the narrative with redacted extracts from the inevitable investigation into the events she depicts, giving the personal view of the events and emotionless and stilted counterpoint. The Lovelace Estate, Cathy’s home, is slated for demolition and already the estate is riddled with empty, boarded up flats. A heatwave is driving people onto the streets at all hours and the police, expecting trouble from this part of London, are already in a heightened state of alert,…