Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Ghost Wall, the sixth book by British author Sarah Moss, is as short and sharp as a flint knife. The book is a coming-of-age tale that explores the power of the past to inform and drive action. Along the way, Moss deeply questions the Brexit movement and gender power dynamics. Ghost Wall opens in prehistoric times, with the death of an Iron Age woman at the hands of her tribe. Cut to almost modern day, sometime not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and teenage Sylvie and her parents have joined a university project conducting an experiment in living archaeology in the Northumbrian countryside. The aim of the project is for the family, along with the professor and his three young adult students, to live as far as possible as people did in the Iron Age. As Sylvie observes: … that was the whole point of the re-enactment, that we ourselves become the ghosts, learning to walk the land as they walked it two thousand years ago, to tend our fire as they tended theirs and hope that some of their thoughts, their way of understanding the world, would follow the dance of muscle and bone. To do…

Thin Air by Richard Morgan
Review , Science Fiction / 05/11/2018

Richard Morgan returns to science fiction after a bit of a break with a sequel of sorts to his last scifi outing Black Man (called Thirteen in the US). That break has seen the Netflix adaptation of his best known scifi work (and debut) Altered Carbon. Those who have read or seen Altered Carbon might find themselves experiencing a strange sense of déjà vu when reading his latest book Thin Air. Hakan Veil is an overrider. Genetically engineered from before birth to be a supersoldier, he is forced to spend four months of every year in hibernation. When he emerges from that state he “runs hot”, prone to anger and violence. When Thin Air opens, Veil has just been woken and is on an assassination mission in the nightclubs of Mars. Veil was decommissioned from the overriders and exiled to Mars where he makes a living working for underworld figures. Mars is a frontier world, riddled with gangs, corruption and vice, a milieu that Veil slots into perfectly. At one level Thin Air is a crime story and political thriller although it takes a long time to get there. Veil is assigned to one of the auditors who has come…

The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

It has been over 65 years since Asimov published the first of his Foundation series in which a group of scientists come up with a plan to save a dying galactic federation. While the Foundation trilogy is seminal science fiction, many readers these days find it a bit of a slog. John Scalzi’s Interdepency series takes a similar premise but has given it a modern spin in the vein of contemporaries like James SA Corey, Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee but with his own brand of verve and wit. The Consuming Fire picks up not long after the end of The Collapsing Empire. The flow lanes, which connect the planets of the Interdependency and are necessary for their survival, are shutting down and the route to the one planet that might sustain survivors is blocked. While the first book concerned itself with the discovery of the impending end of everything and for that reason sometimes felt like a lengthy prologue, this book gets down into the consequences of knowing that the Empire is under threat and exploring how people respond to that knowledge. The book opens with the emperox, Grayland II, announcing that she has had visions of the…

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
Literature , Review / 31/10/2018

Washington Black is the second book for Esi Edugyan to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It mixes brutal realism and social commentary with a quixotic fantasy with steampunk trimmings that takes its protagonist across the globe. Washington Black is a young slave on a Barbados sugar plantation called Faith in 1830. The reader finds out that he is soon to be free but the sting is in the journey that gets him there and the way he is treated once he attains that status. Life on Faith is hard and becomes harder when the plantation owner dies and the running is taken over by the violent Erasmus Wilde, a man who sees the slave population as inhuman and expendable. Erasmus arrives with his brother Christopher, a dreamer and scientists who is building a flying machine that he calls the Cloud Cutter. Christopher, aka Titch, asks for and is given the young Black as a servant and goes to work making his dreams a reality. When the brothers learn that their father has died, Titch flees with Black in tow beginning a years-long odyssey. Black’s journeying takes him to Virginia, the arctic where he is abandoned by Titch, Newfoundland, England,…

Thylacines by Deborah Sheldon
Review , Science Fiction / 26/10/2018

The characters in Deborah Sheldon’s new horror novella Thylacines had clearly never read or seen  Jurassic Park. Scientist Rose Giuliani works in the Resurrection Lab at the usually sleepy Fraser University outside of Melbourne. Rose and her team have brought the extinct thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, a marsupial carnivore extinct since the 1930s, back to life through DNA extraction and cloning. This work has actually been postulated in real life by Professor Mike Archer, formerly of the Australian National Museum. But, as readers (and viewers) of Jurassic Park already know, bringing extinct species back to life is an endeavour fraught with risk. Rose has managed to raise a successful litter of five thylacines. But even she admits that these are not ordinary thylacines. They are more than twice the size of the original animal and super-aggressive.  At the same time as a visit by representatives for the company that funds their research, a group of incompetent animal libbers break in and manage release the animals. The groups collide, the animals escape and it quickly turns out the super-thylacines really enjoy the taste of human blood. The rest is mayhem, cliffhangers and gore. There are more Jurassic Park echoes as the…

Severance by Ling Ma

When Severance opens the apocalypse is underway and people are madly googling survival tips before the internet ‘cave[s] into a sinkhole’ and the electrical grid shuts down. Yes, it is another post-apocalyptic survival tale. But like many recent post-apocalypses, the humanity-ending event is kind of beside the point. Instead, in Severance Ling Ma has written an ode to the Millennial generation and the intensely, insanely capitalist world in which they live, but with zombies … sort of. When the book goes back to the beginning of its tale, Candace is contemplating her future. She is in a fading relationship with Jonathan. Disillusioned with life in New York, he wants to leave the rat race and move to the country. He wants to avoid the future, which he sees as: … more exponentially exploding rents. The future is more condo buildings, more luxury housing bought by shell companies of the globally wealthy. The future is more Whole Foods, aisles of refrigerated cut fruit packaged in plastic containers. The future is more Urban Outfitters, more Sephoras, more Chipotles. The future just wants more consumers. The future is more newly arrived grads and tourists in some fruitless search for authenticity … But their…

The Lost Man by Jane Harper
Crime , Recommended , Review / 23/10/2018

Jane Harper burst onto the crime scene with The Dry, a book set in a small Victorian rural community beset by drought. Her second book, Force of Nature returned with the character of Aaron Falk as investigator and while there are few easter egg connections to The Dry, her third book The Lost Man is a standalone mystery. In some ways it covers similar territory to The Dry – a rural community, an apparent or possible suicide and plenty of secrets – but shows a development in confidence and style. The book opens with the discovery of a body. Cameron Bright has been found, dead from dehydration, at the lonely single grave of a long forgotten stockman. It appears that he walked nine kilometres from his vehicle, became disoriented and never made it back. The place is outback Queensland, 1500 km west of Brisbane where pastoral properties are the size of, well, pick any smallish country in Europe. It is a large, empty landscape in which it is easy to go missing, cars are sporadic and people stay in touch by radio. And in summer the heat is relentless, unforgiving and potentially deadly. Cameron is the middle of three brothers…

Time Was by Ian McDonald
Review , Science Fiction / 19/10/2018

British author Ian McDonald is best known for his futuristic novels set in India (River of Gods) or South America (Brasyl) or Turkey (Dervish House) or his more recent kick-arse Game of Thrones on the Moon series Luna. In Time Was he shifts a gear. This novella is an intimate time travel tale. Emmett, an antiquarian bookseller in London, comes across a letter tucked into an old book of poetry. The letter, written in World War II, sends Emmett on a quest to find out more about its author. Emmett’s research takes him to a woman named Thorn who lives in an old house in the Fen country where he learns the name of the author of the letter (Tom Shadwell) and its recipient (Ben Seligman). But when he takes a photo of the two that Thorn has given him to a contact at the British War Museum and it exactly matches a picture of two young men from the early years of World War I, things start to get weird. Emmett becomes obsessive about solving the mystery of the two men and following their path as it seems to take them in and out of different parts of the…

A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White
Science Fiction / 17/10/2018

Most science fiction books have short, punchy names. Think Dune or Foundation or, more recently, The Martian. But when Becky Chambers came out in 2014 with a book titled The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet it appears she might have started a trend in long, easy to grasp science fiction book titles. Now we have Alex White’s A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe, a book which, with its high-octane, action-oriented approach is pretty much a polar opposite of Chambers’ more thoughtful, emotional and humanist work. Nilah Brio is a driver in the intergalactic version of Formula One. When a fellow driver is killed in the middle of a race, she barely escapes and is implicated in the murder. At the same time Elizabeth ‘Boots’ Elsworth, an expert in salvage and mysteries, is running from both a mysterious attacker who has destroyed her office and the crew of her old ship, the Capricious, who she sent on a wild goose chase to find non-existent relics. Nilah and Boots end up joining the Capricious’ ragtag crew, both on the run from their attackers and on the hunt for a legendary warship. From this point in the story,…

Snap by Belinda Bauer
Crime , Recommended , Review / 15/10/2018

The members of the Booker Prize Committee were very proud of themselves when they longlisted a crime novel for the 2018 Booker. With Peter Temple having won a Miles Franklin a few years back it feels like Australia might be a little ahead of the game in recognising that crime genre fiction can be (and often is) “literary” enough to be considered for these awards. Unfortunately Belinda Bauer’s Snap did not make the Booker shortlist, but hopefully this represents a chink in the armour. The book opens with a tragedy. It is 1998 and eleven year-old Jack and his two younger sisters have been left in a broken-down car by the side of the M5 while their mother goes to find a phone. Their mother never returns. Three years later the children are living on their own, their father having left them, all still traumatised in some way by the events of that day. Jack has become a thief to support his siblings and he always holds on to the idea that he can find his mother’s killer. At the same time, heavily pregnant Catherine scares off a burglar but returns to her bed to find a wicked looking knife…

At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong
Literature , Recommended , Review / 10/10/2018

In At Dusk, award winning Korean author Hwang Sok-Yong delivers another beautifully observed tale of lives impacted by the developments that have swept his country in the last fifty years. The book opens with Park Minwoo, a successful architect receiving more than one call from the past, forcing him to revisit and reconsider the path he has taken to success and what it has cost him. At the same time, a young, struggling playwright Jung Woohee lives a hand to mouth existence in the pursuit of her craft and slowly gets drawn into Park’s story. At Dusk is a book about memory – how we remember things and the spin we put on those events. Park Minwoo, on the way to visit an old friend from the village where he was born considers this on the way: … I’d long ago resolved not to care too much about a world that didn’t care about me in return, and had therefore distanced myself from him aswell… After a while, being ambitious means having to sift out the few values we feel like keeping and toss out the rest, or twist them to suit ourselves. Even the tiny handful of values that…

Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Rosewater is a first contact story, an alien encounter story, but it takes a while to get there, a story about humans with mutant-style powers, at times a zombie story. Tade Thompson takes his time, delivering a multi-dimensional mosaic that reveals as much as it hides. But he makes the journey worthwhile and the pay-off sticks hard. Kaaro lives in the town of Rosewater, a donut shaped metropolis, only a few years from being a shanty town, that has grown up surrounding a giant alien dome.  Rosewater sits in the middle of Nigeria, a few hours drive from the capital Lagos. The dome was not the first arrival of aliens, but appears to be the most permanent. The first contact occurred back in 2012 in London and brought with it a seeding of the atmosphere with a fungus that has led to a range of powers in certain individuals. Since that time America has “gone dark” – nothing and nobody comes in or out and no one knows is this is because aliens have taken over or whether America has quarantined itself against invasion or infection. No one goes in or out of the dome but once a year the…

The Last Brother by Andrew Gross
Historical , Review , Thriller / 04/10/2018

Thriller writer Andrew Gross dips into his own family history for inspiration for his latest book The Last Brother. While there is plenty of action and a little suspense this is down the line historical fiction exploring the growth of the rag trade in New York in the early twentieth century and the organised crime that grew up around it. The Last Brother opens with a tragedy. One child of a Jewish immigrant family of six children dies in an accident putting Harry, the twin of the boy who died, on a different course to his siblings. Sol, the oldest son goes on to study accounting while the youngest brother Morris at thirteen goes to work for a coat maker and his wife. The narrative proper starts years later when Morris and Sol are running a successful business and Harry is running with some petty criminals. Morris and Sol are under pressure from the unions who are backed by the local mob and when one of his fellow coat makers is attacked and his stock destroyed Morris takes it on himself to see the mob boss Buchalter. It turns out that Morris and Buchalter have a long history, which Gross…

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry
Crime , Historical , Review / 02/10/2018

Ambrose Parry is the pen name of multi-award winning Scottish crime writer Chris Brookmyre and his wife Marisa Haetzman. It was Haetzman’s research into medical practice in Edinburgh in the 1850s that put the two down the track of collaborating on a novel set in the period. Being a crime novel, The Way of All Flesh opens with a death – a prostitute named Evie, found by one of her regular clients, but also friend, Will Raven. Raven runs from the scene, straight into the arms of the debt collectors looking for repayment of the money he had borrowed to help Evie out. Raven is hoping that his new apprenticeship with famous “male midewife” (aka obstetrician) James Simpson, will help him earn the money that he needs. In Simpson’s house, which also serves as his clinic, is housemaid Sarah who has the capacity to be more and yearns for something better. It takes some time for the murder mystery to come into focus. Some news about other deaths slowly builds in both Raven and Sarah a suspicion that something strange is afoot. They form a loose partnership as they tentatively investigate. Both characters are engaging and distinctive enough to avoid…

The Quantum Magician by Derek Kunsken
Review , Science Fiction / 28/09/2018

Derek Künsken makes clear right from the outset that The Quantum Magician is a heist story. Belasarius is a self-confessed conman who is contracted to do the impossible – get a fleet of warships carrying game changing technology through a protected wormhole without being captured or destroyed. In order to do carry out his plan he puts together a team of misfits. Künsken leans heavily into heist tropes as Belasarius recruits an old flame, an crazy AI, an old mentor, a slightly unhinged demolitions expert, a geneticist and representatives of each of humanity’s new genetic branches. The Quantum Magician then follows Belasarius and his crew through the heist with its requisite double and triple crosses and unexpected turns. Künsken uses the heist as a scaffold on which to do a prodigious amount of universe building. He introduces four new human species – homo quantus (of which Belasarius is one) who have the capacity to go into a fugue state and see quantum-based probabilities, Puppets (who are genetically programmed to serve and worship another human subspecies called Numen) and Mongrels, descendants of ancient settlers genetically altered to be able to live in the extreme depths of icy interplanetary oceans. The key…

Under Your Wings by Tiffany Tsao
Literature , Review , Thriller / 24/09/2018

In her first “literary fiction” novel, Australian author Tiffany Tsao angles for the most shocking and engaging opening line this year: When your sister murders three hundred people, you can’t help but wonder why – especially if you were one of the intended victims. Told from her comatose state after barely surviving the poisoning, Gwendolyn delves into the past to try and unravel why her sister Estella would commit such a heinous act. And so begins an exploration of the lives of the super wealthy Chinese in modern day Indonesia, a society in which the two were deeply embedded. Under Your Wings is a generational family saga told from the perspective of the extremely privileged third generation. While there may have been some hard work and grind for their grandparents, Gwendolyn and Estella and their peers live the high life while being expected to keep the family businesses going. So that when Gwendolyn wants to start her own business she is bankrolled by the family and when Estella is looking for work she is put in charge of one of the family subsidiaries. A marriage between Estella and Leonard is seen a dynastic union of two powerful families but for…

The Boy at the Keyhole by Stephen Giles
Historical , Review , Thriller / 20/09/2018

The Boy at the Keyhole screams gothic from its opening pages. A nine year old boy is being both nursed and chastised by the housekeeper in the kitchen of a rambling English house in Cornwall. The year is 1961 and Samuel Wade, whose father has died, is being cared for by the housekeeper Ruth while his mother is in America trying to rescue the family fortune. The house itself is full of secrets and is fertile ground for Samuel’s imagination to run wild particularly when his best friend Joseph suggests that perhaps his mother is not actually away but has been killed by Ruth. Australian author Stephen Giles has previously written books for children (the equally gothic Ivy Pocket series written under the pseudonym Caleb Krisp). The Boy at the Keyhole is his first book for adults but very much locates itself in a child’s point of view. While this is not a first person narrative, everything the reader knows or sees is from Samuel’s perspective. And this is important as it makes it possible to see how he misinterprets everything around him to fit within his point of view. Samuel’s is a point of view that is clearly influenced…

Restoration by Angela Slatter
Crime , Fantasy , Review / 18/09/2018

Restoration is the third in what Angela Slatter describes as “the first Verity Fassbinder trilogy”. For fans of this series this means that, firstly, some hanging plot elements are likely to be resolved. But secondly, that there are likely to be more Verity Fassbinder books after this one. And that can only be a good thing. This noir-infused, wryly observational urban fantasy series about an investigator/enforcer for the Weyrd community of Brisbane has been a bright spot on the fantasy scene for the last few years. Restoration opens with Verity at a low point. At the end of Corpselight she made a deal with the self-styled ‘Guardian of the Underworld’ for the return of her mother. She had to give up her family and her position and work with Joyce, a kitsune (were-fox) assassin who has an axe to grind, to find a “grail and a tyrant”. But Joyce is only one of a long line of people who are seeking revenge on Verity. At the same time, the police still call on Verity to help them solve a string of strange deaths and there is a coup in the offing in the Weyrd society of Brisbane. While it takes…

Greenlight by Benjamin Stevenson
Crime , Review / 12/09/2018

The rise of the popularity of true crime podcasts and tv shows has not gone unnoticed in the fictional world. The fact that journalists or entertainers are reviewing settled court decisions and, through their interpretation of the evidence, putting pressure on lawmakers to reconsider these cases is a situation ripe for drama. This year already we have had Charlie Donlea’s Don’t Believe It and now we have Benjamin Stevenson’s debut Greenlight. In both cases, a documentary maker exploring a cold case becomes a little too close to their subject. Greenlight opens with an intriguing cold open, cheekily headed “Cold Open” (in fact the chapter structure and names are taken from the fictional series, including a final, twisty “Mid-Credits Sequence”). A woman called Eliza has been held in a cellar of some kind for an indeterminate length of time when something strange starts to happen and walls of her cell appear to start bleeding. Cut to the present where producer Jack Quick is wrapping up the last episode of his TV series which casts doubt on the conviction of Curtis Wade, accused of murdering Eliza whose body was found on his vineyard. When Curtis is released and his defence laywer dies…

A Double Life by Flynn Berry
Crime , Review / 06/09/2018

Flynn Berry burst on the crime thriller scene with her page-turning debut Under the Harrow, a book with a female narrator who may have been a little unhinged but was not unreliable. And so to A Double Life which boasts a similar, reliable, if not particularly stable main character. Only Claire has reason to be as she is – a trauma early in her life which she and her brother are still trying, in their own ways and unsuccessfully, to outrun. A Double Life is loosely based on the very famous Lord Lucan affair, although transposed to a more modern frame. In 1974, Lord Lucan, killed his childrens’ nanny, Sandra Rivett, and then attacked his wife. His wife identified him as the assailant but he was never found. All that was found was his car, abandoned, covered in blood stains. On the way to that point he had stopped at a friend’s house. But he was defended by his friends and no one admitted to helping him. While an inquest and later the coroner brought down a finding that Lucan had killed Rivett, he was never found and has since been declared dead. In A Double Life, Berry uses these…