Ruins by Rajith Savanadasa
Literature , Review / 06/07/2016

As the war in Sri Lanka ended and a kind of normality slowly returns to the country, a number of novels have emerged exploring the war and its effects. Last year saw The Island of A Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera (reviewed here). That book followed a family touched by the violence who choose to leave their country behind. In his debut novel, Australian author Rajith Savanadasa takes readers past that time, to the middle classes of the “new” Sri Lanka. But the war is never very far from the surface. Savanadasa’s novel focusses on a middle class Sri Lankan family in Colombo. He starts from the point of view of their servant Latha and subsequent chapters are from the points of view of the younger teenage daughter Anoushka, newspaper editor father Mano, his wife Lakshmi and their elder son, and prospective venture capitalist, Niranjan. Each of these characters give a different perspective on the “new” Sri Lanka in which they live. Issues of class, government control, racism, the influence of the West against ancient traditions are aired from different generational and cultural perspectives. Each of the characters has their own arc and trajectory. Each is well drawn and while…

The Girl in Green by Derek B. Miller
Historical , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 01/07/2016

There have been plenty of thrillers in recent years that use the conflicts in the Middle East as a setting and jumping off point. And for thriller authors there is plenty of material to draw on: a volatile situation, plenty of excuse for violence and action and often a grey moral zone in which characters operate. The Girl in Green at first blush, seems like one of these. But while it cloaks itself in the trappings of a thriller, author Derek B. Miller has serious concerns. The Girl in Green opens in Iraq at the end of the first Gulf War, also known as Operation Desert Storm. An American company is set up at Checkpoint Zulu, on the outskirts of an Iraqi town and close to the Kuwaiti border. When Saddam’s death squads arrive to slaughter the inhabitants of the nearby town in order to quell a nascent uprising, the troops are ordered not to interfere. This approach, and its consequences, will haunt two men, one a young soldier, Arwood Hobbes, and the other an English journalist, Thomas Benton, so that over twenty years later they are still trying to make amends. The bulk of the novel is set in…

Sunset City by Melissa Ginsburg
Crime , Review / 28/06/2016

Sunset City opens like a classic noir thriller with a gender twist. A dark, rainy night in Houston, a world weary first person narration, a mysterious stranger at the door, a murder. The narrator is Charlotte Ford and her attractive visitor is Detective Ash, who has come to tell her that her old friend Danielle has been found beaten to death in a hotel. If Sunset City was the noir thriller that the opening seems to suggest then Charlotte would go out to investigate, trawling the mean streets of Houston in a quest to find her friend’s killer. But this is not that book. Charlotte goes into a spin on learning of the death her friend. She had seen her for the first time in two years only a few days before and Charlotte wonders what she could have done to prevent the killing. At the funeral and later the wake, Charlotte falls in with Danielle’s new friends, workers and producers in the internet porn industry. No stranger to drugs and alcohol, and seeking to reconnect with Danielle, Charlotte spirals down into a world of constant highs, casual sex and not a little bit of violence. Somewhere at its heart…

The Dry by Jane Harper
Crime , Recommended , Review / 24/06/2016

The Dry, the debut novel by journalist Jane Harper won the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Award for best unpublished manuscript. But it is a wonder that it had to go this route to get published. The opening of The Dry is a sadly familiar story. In a small town in drought affected country Victoria a struggling farmer, Luke Halpern, kills his wife and ten year old son and then turns the gun on himself. Only his baby daughter survives. Aaron Falk, driven out of town as a teenager and now a federal policeman specialising in fraud, returns for the funeral and is asked by Luke’s parents to look into the deaths. It soon appears that that all is not what it seems. But Aaron, still held under the suspicion by the town for the death of his friend Ellie Deacon twenty years before, does not want to stay. The Dry does what all good crime novels do – it uses Aaron’s investigation of both the current and historical crimes to shine a light on the town, its inhabitants and their often unforgiving environment. In doing so, Harper is able to explore broader social themes and issues affecting rural Australia. There are…

This Census-Taker by China Mieville
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 21/06/2016

Last year, China Miéville released Three Moments of an Explosion (reviewed here), a book of short stories that once again confirmed him as one of the pre-eminent voices in world fantasy. While readers are waiting for the next full length Miéville novel, expected around August this year, he has released a story described as a “novella”. At just over 200 pages long, This Census-Taker was probably a little too long for the recent anthology, but possibly not long enough to be called a novel. This Census-Taker opens with typical Miévillian flourish: a young boy is running down a hill – away from what? towards what? is that blood on his hands or dirt? how old is he (even he isn’t sure)? The first paragraph is part third person, part first person, the facts are in question – but it is immediately engaging. The story only becomes both stranger and more obscure from there. The boy lives on a mountainside above an unnamed town that exists on two sides of a bridge in the mountains. There has been a war of some sort, there is a distant city on the coast but few go there and fewer return. The boy’s father,…

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith
Literature , Recommended , Review / 16/06/2016

At one point in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos it is the late 1950s and a young Australian art student is in conversation with a middle age New Yorker. She is trying to explain to him why an Australian audience would be more likely to identify a good piece of classical music as European rather than Australian. “What does that say about Australians?” He asks, and she replies: “That we don’t trust our own talents. That anything foreign or exotic is automatically better or more refined.” Australian cultural cringe in a nutshell. An observation which has little to do with the plot or major concerns of the novel but just one of the many themes of this accomplished and engaging novel. The events of 1958 are the fulcrum of the novel. Ellie Shipley, a young Australian art restorer and academic is talked into creating a forgery of a painting by a female 17th century Dutch artist. When he discovers the theft of his family heirloom, the painting’s owner Marty de Groot takes on a false identity to track her down. Forty two years later, and Ellie is an art expert in Sydney, assisting with the curation of an…

The Fireman by Joe Hill
Review , Science Fiction , Thriller / 14/06/2016

Another day, another apocalypse. In Joe Hill’s latest novel, the apocalypse is brought about by a virus, nicknamed dragonscale. Dragonscale causes people to exhibit black and gold tattoo-like markings all over their bodies and, when stressed, burst into flame. The sudden onset of this disease, creating conflagrations across the globe, leads to a societal collapse and a clean-versus-infected mentality in the population (at least in the United States). “Cremation crews” scour the countryside looking to kill the infected in order to stem the spread of the disease. But unlike most epidemic apocalypse books, The Fireman is on the side of the infected who find that dragonscale may not be quite as fatal as people first think. The centre of the The Fireman is not the titular character but a pregnant nurse – Harper Willows. Harper is a great character – compassionate, resourceful, steely when she needs to be – and fairly kick-arse, even when nine months pregnant. In fact most of the characters with significant agency and personality in the novel are women, a point which Hill can’t help but pat himself on the back for and reference directly in one passage of dialogue. And while there are some women…

Jonathan Dark or the Evidence of Ghosts by AK Benedict
Crime , Fantasy , Review / 10/06/2016

Even the name of this novel gives the hint that this is a mash up of two genres. Modern day police procedural meets Victorian-style ghost story on the streets of (where else?) London. Ghost stories and crime novels seem like a natural fit. And Benedict brings them together reasonably effectively in her second novel. Although, as the title suggests, she is not really sure whether this is a crime novel (about detective Jonathan Dark) or a ghost story (about ghostwhisperer Jonathan Dark). Jonathan Dark is a police detective, on the trail of a stalker who killed his last victim and has moved on to a new target. That target is Maria King, blind since birth but recently given her sight back through surgery. Maria is a mudlark, spending time on the banks of the Thames digging for pieces of old London. She still walks the streets of London with a blindfold, unable to bear the thought of using her newly regained vision. At the same time Finnegan Finch has died after taking part in a deadly game while trying to escape the clutches of a shadowy organisation. Finnegan returns to London as a ghost, helped by his old mate and…

The Long Count by JM Gulvin
Crime , Historical , Review / 08/06/2016

JM Gulvin is initially a little coy about the timeframe of The Long Count, the first in a new series centered around Texas Ranger John Quarrie, or John Q to his friends. Hints are dropped through the early text – Vietnam gets a mention and it appears that student rioters are taking up the time of the police – slowly building a picture of the late 1960s.  The secrets that drive this book are also closely held and sparingly doled out, through to the startling revelations left to the very end of the book. When the book opens, John Q, his young son James and his friend Pious are grabbling – freediving for catfish in the submerged wreck of a train. The long count of the title refers to the length of time an experienced grabbler can stay submerged. But their idyll is disturbed by the discovery of bones in the wreckage. This is closely followed by John Q being called out to investigate the killing of a policeman. That killing, followed a separate murder, and spirals out into a wave of other crimes and John Q starts to track the killer across Texas. Soon the trail points to Ishmael, an…

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…