The White Road by Sarah Lotz
Literature , Review , Thriller / 25/05/2017

The White Road is a hard novel to pigeon hole. Part adventure novel, part slacker comes of age novel and part ghost story. Sarah Lotz plumbs the depths and scales the heights in a book that is not for claustrophobes or those with vertigo. The book opens with slacker Simon Newman preparing to do a caving expedition in Wales with a dodgy guide. Together with his friend Thaddeus, Simon is creating a website of odd things. The caves, known as Cwm Pot, have been closed since four cavers died but Simon wants to go through and get footage of the bodies for the website. The caving trip is nail bitingly tense. Lotz pulls out all stops to bring home the claustrophobia and terror of being stuck underground as the waters rise. When we next meet Simon he is on a mission to climb Mt Everest. He is following in the footsteps of Juliet, a climber whose unedited diary is included in the text. Thaddeus has booked him a space on the trip by lying about his climbing experience. Again, his secret mission is to film the dead, abandoned on the mountainside. During the expedition Simon befriends Mark, who has a…

Familiar Things by Hwang Sok-Yong
Literature , Review / 23/05/2017

Hwang Sok-Yong is a much celebrated and highly awarded South Korean novelist who has spent his career documenting life in both his country and North Korea. Familiar Things is the sixth of his many books to be translated into English, following last year’s publication of Princess Bari. That book used Korean mythology as the basis for an exploration of life in North Korea and the plight of Korean refugees. It had an international flavor. Familiar Things also has a fantastical element but is much more local. The action barely moves from a shanty town on the misnamed Flower Island and its focus is on the coming of age of Sok-Yong’s protagonist nicknamed Bugeye. When Familiar Things opens, fourteen year-old Bugeye and his mother are in the back of a garbage truck. They are moving from their slum in the city (presumably Seoul although the city is never named) to Flower Island, the city’s garbage dump. There they have a hastily erected slum dwelling built for them and join a gang of pickers. The pickers go out every morning and sort through the garbage that comes from the city, picking out items that can be resold, reused or recycled. This includes…

Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
Crime , Review , Thriller / 19/05/2017

Dennis Lehane takes a swerve away from his long running Kenzie and Genaro series (which includes Gone, Baby Gone) and his recent prohibition and gangsters trilogy to deliver a psychological thriller of sorts. Since We Fell is a book that is hard to categorise. In some ways it is an extended character study and in others it is an extremely long con not only of some of the characters but of the reader. For that reason it takes a long time for the novel to really come into focus with some readers possibly only hanging in to resolve the strong opening hook. Since We Fell opens with a bang, literally. Rachel shoots her husband on the deck of a boat and he flops over the side. Why she has taken the shot and what happens next will have to wait as Lehane takes us back to Rachel’s childhood and her difficult relationship with her mother. Following her mother’s death, Rachel goes on a years long search for the father that she never knew and who her mother refused to tell her about. Through this search she meets Brian, a private detective who, after much trauma on her part comes spectacularly…

The Liar by Steve Cavanagh
Crime , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 17/05/2017

Eddie Flynn, con man turned lawyer is back and once again it is not long before he is in all types of trouble. Trouble that only a man with his unique skill set and view of the world can even begin the sort out. The combination of roguish law breaking and courtroom antics are what have made the previous two Eddie Flynn outings (The Defense and The Plea) so much fun. The Liar is no exception. The first third of The Liar charts the course of one night that Eddie would probably rather forget. Besides being served with a subpoena in a lawsuit that is going after his old mentor Harry, Eddie is called to help out Lenny, an old family friend from his grifter days. Lenny has made his money specialising in helping with kidnap cases and ransoms. When his own daughter is kidnapped Lenny looks to Eddie to help him outsmart not just the kidnappers but the FBI and police who he believe will get her killed. Immediately, Eddie is using his conman skills to help Lenny out. He may be on a legal retainer but the law is a long way away. Six months later, the action…

The Girl Who Was Taken by Charlie Donlea
Crime , Review / 16/05/2017

Another day another ‘Girl’ book. But don’t be fooled by the title which is linked to the current marketing zeitgeist but is actually is a subtle commentary on the plot. The Girl Who Was Taken, second novel by American author Charlie Donlea, is not the “domestic noir” the title might suggest but is actually a fairly straight down the line crime thriller with a resourceful investigator helped by a lucky victim, the girl famous for escaping. The Girl Who Was Taken starts with a potential abduction and an escape. An unspecified time after she was kidnapped, Megan McDonald finds herself in a cabin in the woods and disorientated, staggers out through the rain and onto the highway where she is rescued. A year later and she has become famous for a ghostwritten book about her experiences which does not mention the second girl, Nicola Cutty, who disappeared on the same night she did and has never been found. While everyone expects Megan to be the “girl” she was before the kidnapping, Megan finds herself unable to return to a normal life as she works with a hypnotherapist to delve into the memories of the two weeks in which she was…

Ragdoll by Daniel Cole
Crime , Review , Thriller / 11/05/2017

In a short author interview at the end of Ragdoll, Daniel Cole explains how he put the novel together. He wanted something that was less po-faced that the run of the mill British television crime drama but something not as cheesy as American television crime drama like Castle. And while he has partially succeeded in Ragdoll, he does end up leaning very heavily towards the cheesy/contrived end of the spectrum. Ragdoll opens with the trial of the Cremation Killer – a man known for burning his young, female victims. The trial goes south and police investigator William Oliver Lawton-Fawkes, aka the Wolf, unable to take this miscarriage of justice, attacks and almost kills the defendant. When he is later proved right, Wolf is reinstated to the Force so that four years later when a body is found composed of the body parts of six different people he is on the case. The body, nicknamed the “ragdoll” has been left in such a way that it points towards the flat in which Fawkes in living. And when the head of that body turns out to be the Cremation Killer, connections to that earlier case start to haunt the current investigation. Things become…

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag
Literature , Recommended , Review / 09/05/2017

Vivek Shanbhag has published eight works of fiction and two plays in his native South Indian language of Kannada. Ghachar Ghochar is the first of these to be translated into English, the translation by Srinath Perur. The title itself, which sounds like it could be the name of an Indian pickle or dessert, does not actually translate. It is a phrase invented by the family of one of the characters used to describe a situation where something has become completely tangled to the point where it cannot be easily untangled. The narration starts in a café called Coffee House. The narrator, who is never named, spends much of his days there, seeking respite from “domestic skirmishes”. He is supported in this by his wealthy uncle (“chikappa”) whose business acumen in creating a spice company has raised the family from near poverty into the Indian middle class. It is clear early on that the extended family will do anything to protect that source of wealth. In this short tale, the narrator works his way through the family history and through the family charting their change in circumstances and the effect that it has on them all. As he observes: “We thought…

The Restorer by Michael Sala

When The Restorer opens, Richard, a neighbour, is watching a family move in to the burnt out wreck of the house next door. From the outside this is a nuclear family – father Roy, mother Maryanne, an eight year old boy Daniel and a teenage girl Freya. But both Richard and the reader can sense from his first interactions with Roy that something is not quite right. Michael Sala’s new novel, part coming of age story, part (recent) historical fiction centres around abuse within a family. Domestic violence is emerging as a theme of some recent Australian literature. Not long ago we had Katheryn Heyman’s Storm and Grace which focused on an abusive, destructive relationship. But domestic violence has also raised its head in recent debuts by Holly Throsby and Cassandra Austin. As the family move their possessions into the house a storm is brewing. The narrative that follows reflects that on coming storm. Roy is trying to be the man that his wife desperately wants him to be. He throws himself into the restoration of the house as if it is his personal metaphor and that its renewal will be enough to demonstrate his fidelity and love. But as the…

Here Comes Trouble by Simon Wroe
Literature , Review / 26/04/2017

It is tempting at the moment to look at every piece of art, be it book, movie or TV series, that has anything vaguely political to say and claim that it is symptomatic of the time. But trying to reflect and understand the times we live in has been one of the roles of the arts since people were drawing on cave walls. Writers often hold a mirror up to the world and allow their audience to consider their situation in a safe fictional space. Not that there is anything particularly safe about Kyrzbekistan, the hybrid Eastern European country that forms the backdrop of Simon Wroe’s second novel Here Comes Trouble. Kyrzbekistan, held the title of “Most corrupt country 2011 and 2012” and was formerly home to the record holder for heaviest weight lifted by a beard (until both honours were taken by neighbouring Uzbeks). It is currently home to one Ellis Dau, a sixteen year old son of a newspaper editor, expelled from school for an act of extreme vandalism. With nothing else to do, Ellis ends up working for his father’s newspaper, The Chronicle. The Chronicle aims to prick the conscience of the populace as opposed to its rival paper…

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

John Scalzi kicks off his new space opera series with a mutiny, gun running and the potential of space pirates. There is also plenty of exposition about hyperspace lanes known as the Flow but delivered with such verve that it is a joy to read. The mix of high concept science fiction and a slightly tongue in cheek tone should come as no surprise from the author who gave us both the Old Man’s War series and the award winning Redshirts. Scalzi is not backwards in building his universe from some fairly common tropes – there is an empire ruled by an emperox who is also head of the church and the most powerful trading guild, there are noble families, mainly also connected with trading guilds, and arcane trade relationships. The empire itself, known as the Interdependency is a bunch of planets that can only exist by relying on trade with each other facilitated by the mysterious and not well understood Flow lanes. But the Flow is breaking down, potentially isolating and condemning to failure, all of the interdependent outposts of the Empire. So that even before his scenario is fully understood, Scalzi has started to tear it all apart…

Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig
Review , Science Fiction / 18/04/2017

Chuck Wendig ends his post Return of the Jedi series with a series of bangs. As one of the vanguard in the creation of the new official (Disney) Star Wars Universe, Wendig has tried to be true to the spirit of the now defunct expanded universe while strongly anchoring his narrative in the new Star Wars continuity. While it has taken a while to be become clear, what he delivers is a much deeper and longer endgame than has previously been apparent and some specific connections particularly to the action in The Force Awakens are revealed. Empire’s End opens following the chaotic assassination attempts that closed out the second book in this series Life Debt. It is not long before hero Norra Wexley and her misfit crew have tracked the evil Rae Sloane and the remnants of the Empire. They find them massing around and dug in on a backwater desert planet called Jakku. Jakku is the home of Sloane’s enemy and now ruler of the remnant Empire Gallius Rax and is, as fans know, the location that opens The Force Awakens. Desperate for revenge, and under heavy fire, Norra flings herself at the planet in an escape pod together with…

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
Literature , Review / 10/04/2017

There have been plenty of books about art and artists – painters, novelists, musicians, film makers – but not so many about cartoonists. Animation as an art form has often been seen as something for children and so less worthy of consideration. And while the main characters of The Animators grew up on 1940s Loony Tunes they also discovered the very adult oriented animation of the seventies and eighties. The Animators is a book about the art form, how it works and what it means for the people who love it. The story of The Animators revolves around two very different women both from lower class, rural America. Mel is the wild card, the rule breaker but also extremely gifted animator while Sharon, from rural Kentucky, is more straight down the line, as she says: “my virtue is in my constancy”. After a brief description of their meeting in college, Whitaker skips forward ten years to their ongoing successful collaboration as animators. Mel continues to be the wild and original one while Sharon keeps the enterprise together while deep down believing that Mel is “the real artist.”.  As Sharon herself notes: “Mel’s having all the fun… while I’m the steady…

Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel

Lovers of books about giant, human driven robots rejoice! Sylvain Neuvel has delivered a worthy and engaging sequel to his giant robot building debut Sleeping Giants. Waking Gods takes up the story ten years after the end of the first book – the giant robot Themis has become a promotional tool for the Earth Defence Corp and while individual countries would love to get their hands on it for themselves has stayed under the control of the UN. Mystery still surrounds the (SPOILER!) reappearance of scientist Rose Franklin, who is trying to deal with the fact that another version of herself was the one who got the project off the ground. Neuvel immediately shakes up the status quo with the appearance of another giant robot in the centre of London. This sets the second book up to be very different to the first. These new robots are as powerful as Themis and have a seemingly deadly intent. With Themis outnumbered and outgunned, Waking Gods becomes a race against time as the world tries to discover what these invaders want or destroy them before humanity is wiped out. Waking Gods is told in the same style as the first book –…

Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty
Crime , Historical , Recommended , Review / 27/03/2017

It is a common trope in crime fiction that the protagonist detective often finds themselves in some sort of mortal peril. So much so that it starts to feel like a bit of cliché.  But for Sean Duffy, a Catholic policeman in a mainly Protestant police force in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, mortal peril is just a fact of life. From the first book in this award winning crime series Sean has been checking under his car for mercury tilt switches every time he leaves his house. So it comes as no surprise to long term fans that book 6, sporting the mouthful name Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly, opens with Sean being marched to his execution through a remnant patch of Irish forest. But, being Sean, as he puffs his way asthmatically through a bog he still manages to keep his mordant sense of humour: “A bullet in the head will fix an incipient asthma attack every time.” Flashback to Sean visiting his parents with his girlfriend and new baby Emma and being relieved to be called back to Carickfergus to investigate the murder of a small time drug dealer. From the start his…

Fear by Dirk Kurbjuweit
Crime , Review , Thriller / 24/03/2017

In his first novel to be translated into English, German journalist Dirk Kurbjuweit delivers an urban thriller and ethical minefield. The novel, based partly on personal experience, asks how far a person might go to protect their family. And more importantly, how much does society, history and culture inform that reaction. Fear starts with a quick bait and switch. Randolph is visiting his elderly father in what could be an old age home but turns out to be a prison. Randolph’s father is serving time for the manslaughter of Randolph’s neighbour Dieter Tiberius. The narrative is Randolph’s reflection of how his family has come to this point and how, bit by bit, they were driven from civilization to barbarism. Randolph, an architect, has moved with his wife and two children into a block of flats in Berlin. Soon they have attracted the attention of the neighbour who lives in their basement. What begins innocently quickly gets out of control when Dieter starts writing suggestive poems to Randolph’s wife and then publicly accusing the couple of child abuse. They quickly find that there is little the social or legal systems that they rely on can do to help them manage the…

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
Literature , Review / 22/03/2017

The early parts of John Darnielle’s second novel, Universal Harvester have the feel of a horror story. Set in the age of VCR and starting behind the desk of the local Video Hut, it is not long before elements of Japanese horror story The Ring creep in an even a reference to Blair Witch Project. But Darnielle has other things on his mind, the videotape mystery opening up into something more profound than straight horror. Unsettling and sad, and possibly able to be described as American Gothic, but far from the horror that could have flowed from the premise. People returning videos to the Video Hut in Nevada Iowa are complaining that their movies contain snippets of other films in the middle of them. Jeremy Heldt, stuck in a dead end job while he still tries to process the six year gone death of his mother, takes the tapes home and finds disturbing sections of black and white footage spliced into the middle. Both his friend Stephanie and his boss Sarah want to investigate and Jeremy is slowly drawn in to their obsession. Before any answers come clear, Darnielle returns to the 1960s and the story of Irene and Peter…

The Dark Room by Jonathan Moore
Crime , Review / 20/03/2017

Jonathan Moore’s The Dark Room is the second panel in his “triptych of San Francisco’s nighttime scenery”. After the psychological twistiness of his debut The Poison Artist, The Dark Room comes across a fairly down the line procedural. But as before, one that plumbs the depths of human depravity. Just to get the atmosphere established, The Dark Room opens with the exhumation of a thirty year old grave sometime after midnight. Detective Gavin Cain is called away from this scene at the request of the Mayor, who has received a series of disturbing photographs and a note from a potential blackmailer. The photographs, also thirty years old are of a woman in fear. It does not take long for Cain to wonder if the two cases are connected. The Dark Room is an effective procedural. Cain has to navigate the political landscape of his boss’s connection to the Mayor and the involvement of the FBI, time increasingly becomes a factor as the pressure mounts and the case unravels in strange directions. Par for the course in this genre, Cain himself eventually comes under threat. Cain himself is a well drawn character. An experienced detective, he is not a basket case…

The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred by Greg Egan
Review , Science Fiction / 17/03/2017

Australian novelist Greg Egan has delivered some mind blowing sci fi novels.  The Four Thousand The Eight Hundred does not have the inventive scope of some of these works. Being a novella, Egan doesn’t have the room to develop his universe too deeply.  But by relying on some familiar science fiction settings and universal ideas as a base, Egan still manages to deliver a fair punch in a small space. People are fleeing Vesta. Strapping themselves to giant stone blocks and putting themselves in stasis to drift through space over a three year trip to Ceres, hitching a ride illegally on a trade that swaps the stone for ice. These refugees are fleeing a regime in which they are treated as second class citizens. They are welcomed by Ceres, a move that creates some tension with Vesta where they are considered to be criminals. There are no big or new scifi ideas in this novella, Egan takes shortcuts to create a complete and believable but contained corner of the solar system.  For example, dwarf planet and asteroid belt mining concerns have a long history in science fiction.  But Egan uses these science fiction tropes to explore elements of the human…

A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 08/03/2017

As if many of the names don’t give it away (“The Punish”, “The Moans”, “The Blood Drip”), this is a particularly creepy short story collection. The collapse of horses of the title is the vision of a man with a possible brain injury. Four horses lying still in a field, possibly dead, possibly alive and another man at the water trough keeping his back to them. Imagining himself as that other man “unable to turn and look” the narrator considers this scene to be the “state of the whole world, with all of us on the verge of turning around and finding the dead behind us”. This is before he goes and (possibly) burns down the family home, possibly (and possibly not) killing his family. It is not hard to see why Evenson chose this image as the title of this collection of horror stories. The terror in many of the stories comes from a type of existential angst. An inability of the narrator to make sense of a world that does not work the way they think it should, an unwillingness to turn around to see if the dead are in fact behind. Evenson, even in the space of…

The Tourist by Robert Dickinson
Review , Science Fiction / 23/02/2017

It is probably an indicator of the publisher’s lack of faith that Robert Dickinson’s The Tourist sells itself as a thriller rather than a time-travel tale. Because how thrilling can things be when the future is already written? Spens is a rep for a tour company that takes people from the 24th century back in time on quaint early 21st century expeditions to English shopping malls and pubs. The enterprise is not a secret – the 21st century community know that the future tourists are among them and have adapted to serve the market. Meanwhile, back in the future, a prisoner is asked to be guide for an operative who has been sent forward from the recent past to track down some high value people lost in the Badlands. For no apparent reason, the two narrative streams are differentiated by being told in first and second person. The two plots intersect when one of Spens’ tourists goes missing and all hell starts to break loose in 21st century UK. Time travel makes it difficult to generate any tension. People in the book keep talking about not wanting to know the future so as to have some form of agency. And…