Head On by John Scalzi

John Scalzi’s 2014 science fiction/crime mash up Lock-In posited a world in which survivors of a worldwide flu epidemic were struck with what is called Haden’s syndrome, in which they have fully functioning brains in bodies that do not otherwise function. To counter this disability, neural interfaces have been developed that allow Haden sufferers to interact with each other in a virtual space called the Agora and to get around using either android bodies, known colloquially as ‘threeps’ (think C3-PO), or through specially wired humans known as Intefacers.  In Head On, the protagonist of Lock-In, famous Haden and FBI agent Chris Shane and his partner Agent Vann are back. This time they are investigating the first death during a game of the Haden-centric sport of Hilketa. In Hilketa specially designed threeps compete on field to rip off and score with the head of a randomly selected member of the opposing team. Shane and Vann’s investigation into the death of player Duane Chapman blows out from the original crime to take in corruption, money laundering, murky corporate shenanigans and Haden rights. As with the previous book, much of the plot is driven by the US Government’s previous disability support for Hadens and its decision to stop that support.  Lock-In is worth catching up with in its own right, but despite the obvious connections Head On works fine as a standalone. Scalzi manages to bring his usual verve and humour to the plot, the characters and their interactions and has a deep understanding…

Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee wraps up his stunning Machineries of Empire trilogy with all of the style of the first two volumes. Both the eye-opening Ninefox Gambit and its satisfying sequel Raven Stratagem were shortlisted for the Hugo Award (Lee’s debut was shortlisted for pretty much every award going). And it will be no surprise if Revenant Gun joins them. The third book of the trilogy takes the universe and characters that Lee created in these earlier books and once again twists them into new shapes. Being a mathematician, Lee seems to be constantly finding new answers to the same equation. At the end of Raven Stratagem the status quo of Lee’s universe has been seriously upended. The calendar-based system which powered the universe has been overthrown, many of its architects (the hexarchs) are dead and chaos is threatening to flow in their wake. Revenant Gun jumps forward nine years from that point – the former empire is split in two, and an ancient enemy is rising, keen to see the status quo re-established and for the universe go back to the way it was. Saying too much more about the plot would invite more spoilers. Suffice to say that Lee…

The Neighborhood by Mario Vargas Llosa
Historical , Literature , Review / 07/06/2018

Mario Vargas Llosa is one of the great chroniclers of life in South and Central America. This was recognised with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010. So it is no surprise that it he has returned to the bad old days of his native Peru for his latest novel The Neighborhood. What is a surprise is the prurient, telenovela, over-the-top style of the plot and the lack of depth to the many characters who circle around the plot. And the feeling that this is a novelist who still has an axe to grind.  The Neighborhood opens in Lima in the 1990s during the second term of president Alberto Fujimori (who defeated Llosa himself in the previous election). Life is tough – people are being kidnapped, there is violence on the streets and the secret police, led by a man known only as The Doctor, are flexing their muscles. As one character observes:  ‘With all these blackouts, bombs, kidnappings and murders every day, who can live peacefully in this city? In this country?‘  All this drives people off the streets, and if Llosa is to be believed, into each other’s beds. The opening scene is one of to wives discovering an attraction to each other and starting a secret affair….

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton
Literature , Review / 05/06/2018

Tim Winton is back well within his comfort zone in his latest book The Shepherd’s Hut. The book centres around a teenager, Jackson ‘Jaxie’ Clackton, in a voice that is clear, distinct and engaging right from the first page. On that page readers find Jaxie behind the wheel of a car, racing across the salt flats of Western Australia, away from something… towards something else. The book itself is his retelling of how he got there.   Jaxie was and is an abused child who has grown into a damaged teen. His father would drink and beat both him and his mother. That violence translated to his relationships with his peers and his schooling then became a litany of violence and suspension. Then events in town put him on the run. Taking little, Jaxie heads out towards the salt flats on foot. He makes a fair go of life on his own in a small prospector’s hut that he finds but things change when he chances on another loner. Fintan, an ageing priest living in a small hut by the salt pans, takes him in.   Much like other Winton books, the focus of the main part of the narrative is on a mentoring, quasi-parental relationship between the teen and the old man. Jaxie needs to learn…

Void Black Shadow by Corey J White
Review , Science Fiction / 01/06/2018

Australian author Corey J White exploded onto the science fiction scene with his first Void Witch novella – Killing Gravity. That all-action story focused on void witch Mariam ‘Mars’ Xi, who has extreme telekenetic powers and is taken in by a group of scrap traders when pursued by the authorities.   Void Black Shadow opens not long after Killing Gravity ends. The challenge for White is what to do with a character who (spoiler alert) has just used her mental powers to literally destroy a whole armada of space ships.  He does what many writers in this situation do – he starts by creating a more powerful enemy (in this case Borg-like hive-mind cybernetic soldiers called The Legion) and then finds a way to take away Mars’ powers. Mars loses her powers as for a while as she gives herself up to get into a moon-sized prison to try and rescue Mookie, one of her comrades from the first book.  Mars once again is the centre of this story. And while she has a few moments of introspection she is really defined by her actions. And she is constantly in action. Even when she has her powers stripped from her she manages to cause plenty of trouble…

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Warlight is Booker Prize winning author Michael Ondaatje’s first novel in seven years. And he has not lost his touch. Much like his early novels In The Skin of a Lion and The English Patient, this is a simply but beautifully told tale full of secrets, revelations and complex characters. Set in Britain in the years after World War II, it explores the secret lives of a people who worked in intelligence during and after that war.   But this is not how it starts. Warlight starts with a killer opening line:   In 1945 our parents went away and left us with two men who may have been criminals.  Nathaniel, the narrator, and his sister Rachel are in their teens and yet their parents leave them in the care of their lodger to go to Singapore. Although it is soon clear to the children that perhaps their mother has not gone with their father after all. They call the man they are left with The Moth and he fills the house with a range of disparate characters. One of these, an ex-boxer known to them only as The Darter, does get the two involved in some vaguely criminal enterprises. This opening has an almost mythic, fairytale feel which then morphs into more of…

Census by Jesse Ball
Literature , Review / 28/05/2018

American author Jesse Ball returns to a more metaphorical and contemplative mode after the more naturalistic and confronting How to Set a Fire and Why. Census, as the foreword explains, is a book written for Ball’s brother, who had Down’s Syndrome and lived to 24. Census reimagines their relationship and in doing so explores the way the world related to his brother.  The man has just found out that he is dying. His wife has already died and their son is in a home. The man was a surgeon but he has decided to throw his former life in and join the Census. This is not a census as we know it. The man’s job is to traverse the county and interrogate every member of the populace. Each person he adds to the census receives a small tattoo on their ribs to prove they have participated.  He takes his son with him on the journey, knowing that this is the last chance they will have to be together before he dies.  Census is a Kafkaesque roadtrip charting their journey north through a series of anonymous towns. From the metropolitan centre of A through increasingly small, cold and desolate towns progressing through the alphabet. As they progress, the two spend time with the inhabitants of the places they visit, learning about their lives and…

The Wren Hunt by Mary Watson
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 23/05/2018

Enter another conflicted, sparky girl onto the YA fantasy stage. Joining a recent slew of female fantasy heroes in books likes of The Last Namsara, Children of Blood and Bone and Caraval, Mary Watson brings another spin. Set in a modern day Ireland but referencing an ancient feud, The Wren Hunt is wholly original even when it treads some familiar story beats.  Wren Silke is an augur. Like many a YA protagonist before her she was not raised by her parents. Her father is unknown and her mother abandoned her as a baby. The augurs, one of a cast of magic users, are in an ongoing war with the judges. Wren has been recruited into that war, picked to be the augurs’ spy into the judge stronghold and to steal a map that will help tip the balance in their ongoing war.  But this is not quite the quest novel that it sounds. It reads more like a spy novel where the protagonist is a trainee spy and her handlers are using her to play much larger games.  Wren herself is a likeable, conflicted heroine who has to chart her own course when the world shifts around her and alliances and friendships turn out not to be what they at first seemed. Thrown into the mix, not surprisingly, is a love interest, who happens to also be the…

Evacuation by Raphael Jerusalmy
Literature , Review / 18/05/2018

Evacuation is the second novel by French/Israeli author Raphaël Jerusalmy. Actually more of a novella, it takes as its background a war in the Middle East and a threat to Tel Aviv that leads to a decision to evacuate the city. The story is narrated after the emergency has ended. Naor, a young filmmaking student is driving his mother from his father’s kibbutz in the north of the country back to Tel Aviv.   The story itself focuses on how Naor, his girlfriend Yaël and his grandfather end up staying in the city after its evacuation. When the busses come, Yaël and Naor’s grandfather simply refuse to leave, the bus departs with all of their belongings and the three set up in an apartment owned by Naor’s friend who is in the army. The narrative then is their exploration and lives in the empty city. Naor, being a filmmaker, starts to make a film of their experience.  There is plenty of post-apocalyptic styling to this tale. The need to live without power or running water, looting local stores for food and clothing, the hint of other “survivors” just out of view, and a constant threat of missile attack. But this is more of a love letter to the city of Tel Aviv as the characters visit famous sights and art galleries. As Naor observes:  It’s true…

The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H Winthrop
Historical , Review / 17/05/2018

Elizabeth H Winthrop’s The Mercy Seat presents a mosaic of life in the American South during World War 2. The plot centres around the impending execution of Willie Jones, a young black man sentenced to death for allegedly raping a white girl. Based loosely on some real events, Winthrop’s authorial eye roves across a range of characters involved and affected by this event and in doing so reveals both the prejudices of some and the deep humanity of others.  The mercy seat of the title is the electric chair which was sent from town to town for local executions. When the novel opens, Lane a trustee prisoner is driving Captain Seward and the device to the small town of St Martinville where Willie Jones is to be executed at midnight. At the same time, Willie’s father is trying to get to the town with a donkey and cart carrying the slate gravestone he has purchased. But there are plenty of other characters around this tale. Dale and Ora, owners of the local petrol station, whose son has gone off to fight in the Pacific. The District Attorney Polly who pushed for the death penalty despite his misgivings about the case, his wife Nell and son Gabe; the local priest Father Hannigan, fighting his own demons and trying…

The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong
Crime , Review / 14/05/2018

South Korean literature has been slowly finding its way in translation. The Good Son, is the first English translation of You-Jeong Jeong’s and sits very snuggly in the mainstream psychological thriller realm. It has everything readers are looking for in the genre – a twisty tale, an unreliable, then too reliable narrator and plenty of violence. The Good Son opens in a clichéd enough way. The protagonist, Yu-jin wakes in his bedroom covered in dried blood. He has gone off his medication a few days before and has only flashes of memory of the previous night, certainly not enough to explain his bloody state. When he finally leaves his room he finds his mother, dead in the kitchen downstairs. And just when the reader starts to get comfortable, with some idea where this is going, his memory returns and the narrative goes in a completely different (and much darker) direction. Yu-jin is not an easy character to spend time with. It is tempting to try and be compassionate but once his memory starts returning this becomes more and more difficult. At this point the twists, which are based within his behaviour and memories start to become a little more predictable….

The Memory Chamber by Holly Cave
Review , Science Fiction / 10/05/2018

The success of Black Mirror seems to have opened up a new wave of fiction on the edge of speculative. Holly Cave’s The Memory Chamber treads ground explored in Black Mirror episodes like San Junipero, USS Callister and Hang the DJ – all of which involve some form of neural upload and an existence in a computer-generated reality. And this is clearly fertile science fiction ground with plenty of room to explore which Cave manages to put her own twists on. Isobel is a Heaven Architect. Her job is to design a personal heaven for those dying and rich enough to afford it. The heaven that she creates contains memories of people and events from the client’s life. The memories are mapped from the client’s brain and a personal heaven is created. When they die, a bunch of their neurons are taken from their brain and uploaded and their consciousness gets to live on in their heaven for ever. This set-up raises a bunch of moral and ethical issues, many of which Cave lays out early on. Why is it only the rich who have access to this technology? What does it achieve? Why are their two levels of consent (one…

The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh
Crime , Review , Science Fiction , Thriller / 08/05/2018

Crime novelists have always found fertile ground in closed communities. Small towns or complexes where everybody knows everybody else, much of the tension coming from crimes (usually murder) that causes those relationships to fray. Adam Sternbergh takes this idea and plays with it, throwing in a further, science fictional premise, to up the stakes just a little further.  The town of Ceasura, known by its residents as “The Blinds” is a completely closed community. It is a fenced-in, self-contained compound built in the middle of Texas, at least one hundred miles from the nearest town. The Blinds is an experiment in what might be termed restorative justice. The residents of the town either committed unspeakable crimes or have given evidence and are on the run from some bad people. As part of the experiment they have agreed to have relevant memories wiped so they have no idea what crimes they committed or whether, indeed, they are a criminal or an innocent. The sheriff of the town, Calvin Cooper, has been hired to keep watch but even this is more of an honorary position, his star is a fake and he too is hiding from his life. Calvin is supported by two deputies, both of whom are also employed to work in The Blinds.  Murder comes into this…

Don’t Believe It by Charlie Donlea
Crime , Recommended , Review / 04/05/2018

Charlie Donlea turns his attention to true crime in his latest stand alone thriller Don’t Believe It. He takes the public’s fascination with podcasts and tv series that forensically investigate old crimes and often reveal problems with the prosecution and turns it into a page turning story of crime and possible redemption. Along the way the narrative asks readers to consider how much of these series are as much a construction of the facts to make a particular case as the original prosecution might have been.   In 2007 someone killed Julian Crist on the Caribbean holiday island of St Lucia. Julian had been there with his girlfriend as part of the wedding party for old friends Charlotte and Daniel. Suspicion immediately fell on his girlfriend Grace Sebold who was arrested, convicted and sent to prison on the basis of forensic evidence. Ten years later, Sidney Ryan has produced three series in which she cast serious doubt on the convictions of long term prisoners. She agrees to take up Grace’s case and pitches a “live” TV series to the network she is working with. The idea is that the series will be aired week to week and the audience will learn the information simultaneously with the production crew. After four episodes, as problems with the original evidence begin to pile up, the show becomes a monster hit. But Sidney…

Force of Nature by Jane Harper
Crime , Review / 02/05/2018

How do you follow up a globally celebrated, multi-award winning debut like Jane Harper’s The Dry? Well, if you are Jane Harper you do it by trying not to do the same again. She follows her main character, Aaron Falk, from The Dry, but she puts him in the middle of a situation that could not be more different and in doing so draws on another Australian literary archetype – the lost bushwalker. Aaron Falk works for the financial crimes section of the Australian Federal Police. But he is drawn into the search for a lost bushwalker as she happens to be his prime informant in a money laundering case the police are building against an establishment family firm. The woman, Alice Russell, was on a corporate team building exercise with a group of other women from the firm including the sister of the CEO. The women get lost and Alice separates from them, seeking her own way out. But Harper makes clear right from the opening paragraph that Alice was not liked (or missed) by any of the other women. Harper intercuts Falk and his partner’s investigation with the story of what really happened on that ill-fated bushwalk. This…

Steal the Stars by Cassidy and Rogers
Review , Science Fiction / 27/04/2018

Back in the age before television, one of the most popular forms of entertainment was the radio serial. People would sit around their radios listening to dramas being acted out with sound effects. And now it seems, the art has come full circle. Podcast drama, essentially the modern day version of the 1930s radio serial, is the perfect medium for speculative fiction where the big budget special effects all happen in the head of the listener. There are plenty of great science fiction and fantasy podcasts out there – a few that make best-of lists include Welcome to Night Vale, Limetown, The Bright Sessions and Alice Isn’t Dead. Some of these have become so successful that they are branching our into other media. For example, there are now two books set in the Night Vale universe and a mooted Bright Sessions tv series in the works. Steal the Stars was the first dramatic podcast developed for Tor Labs. Created by writer Mac Rodgers it told a story that included a secret alien spaceship being studied by a powerful military contractor, forbidden love between security personnel and an almost impossible heist carried out at huge personal cost. Steal the Stars the…

One Way by SJ Morden
Review , Science Fiction / 24/04/2018

Frank Kittredge is a lifer. Sentenced to jail for killing his son’s dealer, he is offered a chance: join a mission to Mars crewed by convicts to construct a settlement in anticipation of a crew of NASA astronauts or stay in prison and rot (Botany Bay, anyone?). He takes the deal, and not only that, is later offered a trip home and a pardon if he keeps an eye on his six fellow crew members for Brack, their unnecessarily sadistic and overbearing supervisor.   After way too long describing the team’s training, including how they learn to drive Mars buggies and build habs, the crew head to Mars. Almost immediately things start going wrong and crew members start to die. This finally kicks a thriller element into gear as an Agatha Christie-style And Then There Were None situation starts to develop and Frank has to investigate the mounting death toll without becoming a victim himself.   Andy Weir’s The Martian managed to hit a certain sweet spot between technobabble, scientific accuracy, character and plot. SJ Morden goes down a similar road in One Way but with less success. He spends in inordinate amount of time on the science and engineering challenges of training for and building a settlement on Mars. The idea to use convicts as a disposable labour force is original but given their easily avoided one man oversight, not worth thinking about too hard. The slowly creeping dread as one by one the crew…

Babylon Berlin by Volker Kutscher
Crime , Historical , Review / 23/04/2018

Just in time for the release of the German-made Netflix series of the same name is the translation of the first of Volker Kutscher’s crime fiction series set in Berlin in late 1920s on which the series is loosely based.  Both series, are based around the exploits of homicide policeman Gereon Rath, who in this first volume has recently been moved to Berlin after an incident in his home town of Cologne. After a cold open involving torture and suicide, the story moves to Rath’s work with the Vice Squad. While he was homicide detective in Cologne, his move to Berlin has resulted in a bit of a demotion and he is keen to get himself back investigating murders. His break comes when it turns out that an unidentifiable body fished out of a canal is the same Russian who came to his door, looking for the man who used to live in his rooms. Rather than sharing this information with his colleagues, Rath decides to investigate himself, hoping to use this investigation to leverage himself into homicide. In the process he starts a relationship with Charlotte, the stenographer of one of lead homicide investigators, who is studying law at…

Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel
Review , Science Fiction / 19/04/2018

Sylvain Neuvel returns to his world of giant robots in the third and final of the Themis Files series Only Human. Like the second book in the series, Waking Gods, this volume jumps forward ten years from the cliffhanger ending at the end of the previous entry. That cliffhanger saw the giant robot Themis and the four people inside whisked away to the planet of the robot builders. This volume starts with their return to a very changed Earth but also, in flashbacks charts their ten year stay on an alien planet. Following the massive destruction of Waking Gods, the Earth is a changed place. America has managed to restore the last remaining giant robot and uses it as a tool of aggressive expansion. During the events of Waking Gods, the world learned that many people were genetic descendants of aliens who arrived thousands of years ago. Those with high levels of genetic traces of alien DNA are being persecuted and put in camps. Many of those persecuted are Muslim, although the connection between the alien DNA and Muslims feels like a stretch by Neuvel put in to bring his allegory home to readers who do not do allegory well….

America City by Chris Beckett

Multi-award winning UK science fiction author Chris Beckett turns his eyes to the  issue of climate change in his latest stand alone America City. The book casts forward one hundred years to an America affected by drought in the Southwest and superstorms along its eastern seaboard. This has created a movement of people – otherwise known as “barreduras” – an internal refugee problem within the United States that is threatening to tear the country apart.   Holly Peacock is an expat-British PR guru, comfortably living with her academic husband in Seattle when she is given the chance to work for conservative senator Stephen Slaymaker. Slaymaker has a plan to build America by resettling the internal refugees in the northern states, a plan that makes him unpopular not only with his base constituency but with his party. But he rides a wave to the presidency when, with the help of Holly, he manages to turn the eyes of the country further north, towards the largely unsettled Canadian provinces.   Much like Omar el Akkad’s recent American War, Beckett is interested in how America might behave when problems it has been ignoring in other parts of the world become internalised. In this case how America might deal with climate refugees when they are coming from inside the country itself. In doing so, Beckett focuses on politics…