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…

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
Literature , Review / 25/11/2016

Jonathan Safran Foer has the literary equivalent of a mid-life crisis in his latest novel, the intensely Jewish Here I Am. The title, explained early on in the novel, refers to Abraham’s answer when asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. But it could just as easily refer to Safran Foer himself, waving his literary arms and putting his head over the parapet ten years after his well received debut Everything is Illuminated and its post-9/11 follow up Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Here I Am is essentially two stories – a domestic tale of the end of a marriage and the global crisis foreshadowed in the first line of the book – the destruction of the State of Israel. The domestic tale centres around Jacob, a writer for television married to Julia for sixteen years with three children, suffering from a mid-life crisis and looking down the barrel of a separation from his wife. The metaphorical earthquake in Jacob’s life is paralleled by a real earthquake in the Middle East leading to an array of Arab forces moving in on a weakened Israel. The global crisis comes halfway through the book and both heightens and throws a spanner into…

Gemina by Kaufman and Kristoff

The elevator pitch for Gemina goes something like this: imagine a cross between Aliens, Die Hard, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Romeo and Juliet. Not surprising given this is the sequel to the Aurealis-award winning Illuminae (reviewed here), a book that managed to mash up elements from Battlestar Galactica, 2001, 28 Days Later and possibly something by Nicholas Sparks. Gemina, a geek’s delight, has all of these elements and plenty more (even Firefly gets a shoutout). It advances the corporate conspiracy plot of Illuminae while focussing once again a few incredibly resourceful teens. At the end of Illuminae (spoiler alert) the survivors on the Hypatia are heading towards a wormhole that will jump them to a space station called Heimdall. Gemina opens on Heimdall on the eve on an invasion organised by the Beitech Corporation trying to clean up its mess by destroying the Hypatia. Hanna, the daughter of the station commander, Nik, a member of the House of Knives crime gang, and his cousin Ella end up being the only ones standing between the twenty-four armed to the teeth mercenaries and destruction of the Hypatia. Well, them an a bunch of hungry, slimy, four-headed aliens loose on the…

The Whistler by John Grisham
Crime , Review / 17/11/2016

The Whistler is an issues novel that uses the framework of a legal procedural. In his recent Grey Mountain, Grisham took on the coal industry, in The Whistler it is the Indian-run casinos and the range of social and political issues that they raise. But in focussing too much on the issues and the path to their resolution, he loses sight of the need to for a legal thriller to thrill. An informant (the whistleblower or ‘whistler’ of the title) brings a potential corruption case to the attention of the Florida Board of Judicial Conduct. The allegation is that a Florida judge has been working with an organised crime gang and has been instrumental over the years in helping establish and then keep in business a casino on Tappacola  land. This not only included favourably ruling on land deals but also possibly having an innocent man sentenced to death in return for a cut of the casino profits. For BJC Investigator Lacy Stolz and her partner Hugo Hatch, this investigation promises to be the most far reaching of their careers. But as they start to investigate they soon find themselves well out of their depth and a target of criminal forces. Despite some of…

The Hit by Nadia Dalbuono
Crime , Review / 11/11/2016

For a series that initially was only going to run for a couple of books, the Leone Scarmacio series seems to have developed legs. The Hit is the third in the series and leaves plenty of balls in the air for future instalments. Which is welcome as this is a series that has improved with each outing. In The Hit, Detective Inspector Leone Scarmacio is brought in to investigate the kidnapping of the wife and child of a well known television producer. From the start it is clear something is off about the case and it soon becomes clear that there may be mafia involvement. At the same time Scarmacio, who joined the police to leave a life in the mafia behind, is being pressured by his father’s old lieutenant. As the mafia connection to his current case starts to solidify, Scarmacio’s professional and personal lives start to collide. Leone Scarmacio is a great crime fiction lead. Determined to walk a virtuous path in a corrupt society he is also endlessly challenged by his past. In this book that past comes even closer as he learns some truths surrounding his father’s death, the event that triggered his decision to join…

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
Review , Science Fiction / 09/11/2016

Blake Crouch, author of the Wayward Pines series, goes all Sliding Doors in his latest mind-bending thriller Dark Matter.  Jason Dessen is a science teacher at a local college, he and his artist wife Daniella having given up promising careers to raise a child. Then everything goes a little haywire. Jason is kidnapped and knocked out. When he wakes up he is in a different reality, one in which he is a famous scientist who has been missing for fourteen months and Daniella is a famous artist who hardly remembers him. The question that plagues him is which reality it actually real. There have been plenty of books, TV series and movies that have dealt with the multiple world theory of quantum physics. That is, the idea that every time someone makes a decision two worlds branch off, one in which the decision was made and one in which it was not made. Many of these also involve time travel with the time travel event creating new multiverses. But there is no time travel in Dark Matter, time moves inexorably forward as Crouch’s characters explore various similar, utopian and dystopian versions of present day Chicago.  And about two thirds of…

A Shattered Empire by Mitchell Hogan
Fantasy , Review / 04/11/2016

After a brief prologue, A Shattered Empire, the final volume of Mitchell Hogan’s Sorcery Ascendant Sequence picks up minutes after the last volume ended. Things are looking dire for the Mahruse Empire, and possibly the world as a whole. An evil sorcerer leading a massive army has taken over the city of Anasoma, bloodthirsty creatures of legend are still on the march, a sorcerous weapon has knocked the Emperor’s forces into disarray, and a strange band of mercenaries have offered him their support. While various factions vie for power or cover their backsides, a bunch of disparate heroes, all with their own agendas, still have their eyes on the main game. Again the focus is on Caladan with occasional side trips to other (more interesting) POV characters. Caladan, the callow youth with strange powers of A Crucible of Souls (reviewed here), discoverer of dark secrets about his powers in Blood of Innocents (reviewed here) is now a powerful sorcerer in his own right. Caladan becomes through this book an agent of bloody vengeance, his trust and empathy stripped away as his powers grow. Fans of classic epic fantasy, and this series in particular, will enjoy the well-paced and lovingly described magical…

The Waking Fire by Anthony Ryan
Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 03/11/2016

There are many who credit Game of Thrones with the resurgence of the dragon in modern fantasy. But let’s face facts, dragons never really went away. A global fantasy staple from ancient times, (dragons are all over both Eastern and Western mythologies) they have also been the mainstay of some classic modern fantasy classics other than GoT including The Hobbit, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series to name a couple. Despite this venerable history and plenty of pretenders, Anthony Ryan has managed to bring something new to the table with his swashbuckling, vaguely steampunk and hugely entertaining The Waking Fire. Ryan’s world is divided into the Blood-blessed and the non-Blessed. There are few Blessed but they are able to channel power in the blood of the dragons which live only on the remote continent of Arradsia. The blood of different dragons – blue, red, green and black – confers different temporary superhuman powers on the user. But captive breeding and over-hunting has seen the power of dragon blood diminishing. Meanwhile war is brewing between the Corvantine Empire and the rest of the capitalist-driven world ruled by individual corporations. Through these rising tensions Ryan focusses on three characters – Lizzane, spy for the…

Signal Loss by Garry Disher
Crime , Review / 01/11/2016

Garry Disher returns from spending time with criminal Wyatt on the Gold Coast and out on Bitterwash Road to the Peninsula region east of Melbourne for his latest book. Up to its seventh volume, the previously titled Challis and Destry series have now been renamed “Peninsula Crimes”. While Both Hal Challis and Ellen Destry are both still very much main characters in this outing, Disher’s focus in this series of procedurals has always been much broader than the leads, ranging across a number of members of the Peninsula police force and the local community. In Signal Loss, Disher tackles a major current issue – ice production and addiction, particularly in rural Australia. As with other books in this series there are plenty of other crimes to go round – sexual assault, theft, murder. But the to make sense of the various aspects of those crimes as they emerge and in particular as they become confused with in other investigations. Once again both the procedural and social/character elements of Disher’s writing are strong. Destry has her challenges managing a new sex crimes unit and dealing with her sister’s new crises. While Challis finds himself butting up against the drugs squad and…

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Crime , Review / 28/10/2016

In his latest book Anthony Horowitz tries have several cakes and eat them all. The fictional work Magpie Murders is an Agatha Christie-style golden age detective novel that is embedded in a novel that is itself a bit of a homage to golden age detective novels. And while being two murder mysteries in one, it is also both a critique and a celebration of the public’s love of cosy English-style murder mysteries. All of which is no surprise coming as it does from the pen of the author who brought us on TV the likes of Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War and Poirot and recently in novel form loving reconstructions of Conan Doyle (House of Silk and Moriarty) and Ian Fleming (Trigger Mortis – reviewed here). Novelist Alan Conway has delivered his ninth Atticus Pünd novel to his publisher. As we learn in the cute frontpieces to the novel in the novel, Pünd is a famous literary detective in the mould of Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey. We get an introduction from Susan Ryeland, the editor of Magpie Murders, before the first six parts of the novel, a murder mystery set in the quaint English village of Saxby-on-Avon….

Conclave by Robert Harris
Review , Thriller / 26/10/2016

Robert Harris seems to be on a mission to prove that you can find drama anywhere. Or at least, to demonstrate his ability to bring inherently dramatic situations more vividly to life. One of his early works, Enigma, injected additional drama into the already fraught industry of breaking of Nazi codes during World War 2. In his trilogy focussing on Cicero he drew out the political parallels of ancient Rome and the present day. And in An Officer and a Spy (reviewed here) he created a spy novel and legal thriller around one of the greatest miscarriages of justice of the 19th Century. In Conclave, Harris turns his attention to the arcane practices surrounding the election of a new pope. And in his hands it turns out to be both as fascinating and as deeply human as all of his previous books. The reader’s guide through Conclave is Cardinal Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals. It falls on Lomeli to organise and run the election of the new Pope when the previous Pope dies. This involves gathering over one hundred cardinals from around the world and sequestering them in the Vatican, away from the eyes of the world, until they…

Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds is probably best known for multi-book space operas including the Revelation Space series and more recently, Poseidon’s Children. While these books can sometimes be a little ponderous, Revenger is anything but – it has a plucky heroine, space battles, cliffhangers, double crosses, buried treasure and an implacable, violent and possibly mythic foe. Revenger is pre-steampunk far-future retro pirate-homage – from the space craft that fly under sail to the antiquarian speech (people are “coves”, eyes are “lamps”) to the clothes. And while the concept of space pirates is not a new one, the setting is the type of deep, fascinating and ancient-feeling piece of universe building that sets Reynolds’ novels apart. In this universe, the human (aka “monkey”) civilization is spread across a myriad of artificial habitats, in a single solar system that has survived numerous rises and falls. This includes previous and continuing interactions with aliens given common names like Ghosties, Crawlers and Clackers. Sisters Adrana and Arafura Ness, seeking to rebuild the family fortune, sign on with Captain Rackamore (shades of Calico Jack Rackham, a real pirate famous, among other things, for inventing the Jolly Roger) who with his crew, hunts for ancient treasures. But when…

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Literature , Recommended , Review / 20/10/2016

After spending time in the Amazon in the magnificent State of Wonder, Ann Patchett comes home in her latest novel, Commonwealth. The book at first feels like an example of the old Tolstoyan cliché that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. Not that the families in Commonwealth are unhappy, per se, but they are complex. And while at first blush their members seem to fall into identifiable types, nothing is that simple. Commonwealth opens at a christening in 1964. Policeman Fix Keating is celebrating the birth of his second daughter Frannie, little knowing that this party will bring with it a seismic upheaval not only to his life but the lives of two families. Attending almost by accident while trying to escape his own wife and children, Bert Cousins catches sight of Fix’s wife Beverly and the rest is history. In a sometimes circular fashion, Patchett traces the lives of the six Cousins and Keating children who ended up spending summers together in Virginia as they grew up until a tragedy throws them all apart. Patchett’s strength in this book is charting the growth of these characters. All of their life choices and decisions are informed by character and circumstance…

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami
Literature , Review / 18/10/2016

Hiromi Kawakami is one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists but only a few of her works have been translated into English. She is known for “offbeat” fiction and in some ways her latest novel, set in a small ‘thrift shop’ in Tokyo, fits that bill. But it is also beautifully observed and the characters, while odd, feel real. Mr Nakano, the ageing shop owner surrounds himself with what can only be described as bric-a-brac – old ashtrays, bowls, paperweights – and has a growing on-line auction businesses. The Nakano Thrift Shop has a strong ongoing narrative (although one that takes a while to get going) but is told as a series of tales, often based around an item in the shop or one of the odd range of customers who frequent the store. The narrator of these tales is Hitomi, a young woman who works in the shop and finds herself becoming besotted by her fellow worker Takeo. Takeo is a taciturn character and the two develop a fairly chaste on again off again relationship. In the meantime, Mr Nakano is having one, and possibly more, affairs and his sister Masayo, who also spends time in the shop and provides…

Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry
Crime , Review , Thriller / 14/10/2016

Under the Harrow is a short sharp psychological thriller in which a woman investigates the murder of her sister and in doing so needs to confront the secrets of their shared past. The book practically opens with Nora finding the bodies of her sister Rachel and her dog brutally murdered in their house in a small village outside of Oxford. Not able to fully trust the police, Nora decides to stay in town and try and uncover the murderer herself. There are secrets in the sisters’ shared past. Rachel was beaten by a stranger on her way home from a party when they were in their teens. When no assailant was found the two girls kept watch over all similar assaults and haunted the courts of North Yorkshire, trying to identify the assailant. Despite Nora warning her off, it seems that many years later Rachel was not only still looking but also living in fear that the man will return. Nora at first comes across as one of the many cut-out domestic thriller protagonists currently appearing across crime fiction. She has issues with alcohol and finds herself losing her identity as she immerses herself in her sister’s world. But she…

Aftermath: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig
Review , Science Fiction / 11/10/2016

Life Debt, the second book in Chuck Wendig’s Star Wars sequel/prequel trilogy reintroduces some much loved characters from the Star Wars Universe. The Aftermath series is set not long after the events of Return of the Jedi but Wendig liberally sprinkles it with Easter eggs and foreshadowing of The Force Awakens. Being part of the new official Star Wars canon, Wendig also throws in connections to other official books, comics and TV series. Life Debt, like Aftermath (reviewed here) before it, focusses on Norra Wexley, ex Y-Wing pilot. Norra and her bunch of misfits go round the galaxy capturing former imperial officers so they can stand trial. The team, includes an ex-imperial officer, a bounty hunter, a soldier and Norra’s son Temmin “Snap” Wexley (who, as Star Wars aficionados know, grows up to be Poe Dameron’s wingman in The Force Awakens). The group formed in the previous book but were not particularly memorable and so it takes a while to reacquaint with them. To do this, Wendig throws in an opening action sequence that serves to highlight the strengths of this series. While the characters grow through this book, they still feel like “types” when the final credits roll. The plot itself…