City of Lies by Sam Hawke
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 08/08/2018

Sam Hawke’s assured debut fantasy novel City of Lies starts intriguingly. Jovan, the narrator has been trained from a young age in the family trade of poison taster for the Chancellor of Silasta. He has been exposed to multiple poisons by his uncle as part of his training and has become partially immune to them as he learnt to identify them. He has been trained in the place of his elder sister Kalina whose constitution was too weak to handle the small amounts of poisoning. Despite this they are close and are both also close to Tain, heir to the Chancellorship. Their world is thrown into stunning and sudden disarray when both the Chancellor and their Uncle Ethan are poisoned with something neither Ethan nor Jovan can identify and their city is besieged.  While City of Lies can be read by anyone it definitely has a young adult bent. While not teenagers, the main characters are all young adults, thrust into an adult world, learning quickly how to navigate treacherous political waters while dealing with a series of escalating crises. Their relative youth allows them to question the way things have been done traditionally (particularly as tradition has partially led to current events) and find new ways forward. But it also sometimes makes them easy prey for more experienced political operators.  The narrative of City of Lies alternates between Jovan and…

Lonely Girl by Lynne Vincent McCarthy
Crime , Review , Thriller / 07/08/2018

Lynne Vincent McCarthy’s debut novel Lonely Girl is a thriller with a bit of a gender swap. Gone is the femjep woman kept in a basement. Instead, McCarthy turns the tables on this tired trope and in this psychological thriller puts the woman in charge. But like many books and plays of this type, the interest is not in the kidnapping itself but in the mind games that are played between the captive and captor.  But before she gets to that, with the exception of some short tantalising POV sections about a dangerous affair, McCarthy spends some time setting up Ana, her protagonist. And this groundwork is really important to give some credence to how the plot later plays out. Ana lives on her own in a small house in a secluded valley some distance from the Tasmanian capital of Hobart. Her only companion is River, a dog she has had since she was twelve. But she is now twenty-seven and River is dying and she has decided that when he dies she too will take her own life as no one will miss her.  One night she witnesses a couple having sex in a van outside a local bar. For readers, this gels with the hints of…

The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers

The Seventh Cross is not a new book, at least not in the usual sense. It is a new translation of a book written by Anna Seghers, an author from a Jewish family that had fled Germany and was living in Paris in the late 1930s. The book itself, written before the start of the Second World War is not about that war or the Holocaust. But Seghers could see all of these coming and her novel allows readers to trace a line from the totalitarian, anti-semitic, fascist attitudes of the mid-1930s to the Germany that plunged the world into war less than five years later. The Seventh Cross is set in 1935 and centres around an escape from the concentration camp. The camp had been established to punish political prisoners. Although it turns out that the definition of a political prisoner is anyone who the local authorities don’t particularly like. Seven men escape and, as they are recaptured they are strung up against a row of trees at the entrance to the camp as punishment and warning to others. These are crosses of the title. The seventh cross is reserves for George Heisler, the escapee that Seghers spends the most…

Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth
Historical , Recommended , Review / 01/08/2018

Australian author Paul Howarth’s debut novel is a blood soaked, confronting exploration of the Australian frontier of the late nineteenth century. Not for the faint of heart, this coming of age story is reminiscent of the works of modern American western writers like Cormac McCarthy. When the book opens it is 1885, Billy and Tommy are sixteen and fourteen year-olds living on their family property in the drought affected wilds of central Queensland, in North-Eastern Australia. Their father is just managing to eke out a subsistence living on a slowly dying property while also feuding with his much more powerful neighbour John Sullivan. The boys’ world is thrown into disarray when they come home from a day out to find their mother and father dead and their younger sister shot. They ride to the neighbouring Sullivan property where they are quickly convinced that the culprits are members of the local Aboriginal tribe, the Kurrong. Sullivan has been steadily trying to wipe the Kurrong out and uses the boys to bring in the sadistic head of the Native Police, Noone. The two, fuelled by thoughts of revenge, are allowed to ride out with Sullivan, Noone and his posse of Aboriginal trackers…

A Sand Archive by Gregory Day
Literature , Review / 30/07/2018

Gregory Day, award winning Australian poet and author, has returned to a theme that underpinned his 2005 musical CD The Flash Road: Scenes from the Building of the Great Ocean Road. The Great Ocean Road is the scenic tourist trail that runs along the Southern Victorian coast between Torquay and Allansford. Originally built by returned servicemen from the First World War, the road is now considered one of the great scenic drives of the world. But this is not really the story of the road or its construction, it the story of one man, FB Herschell, and his relationship with the shifting sand dunes that made construction of the road a challenge for engineers. Narrated by an anonymous bookshop employee, A Sand Archive relates the story of Herschell, jumping off from a small self-published volume of his unexcitingly entitled The Great Ocean Road: Dune Stabilisation and Other Engineering Difficulties. This book, written late in Herschell’s life, is one in which the narrator believes “all of the most important things have been left unsaid”. A Sand Archive reveals all of those important things by charting the important, personal aspects of Herschell’s life. This includes his fascination with early Mondrian paintings of…

Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio

Christopher Ruocchio’s debut novel and first of a new series owes a debt to the space opera classics. The opening of Empire of Silence feels cribbed from the opening of Frank Herbert’s all time classic Dune. A galaxy-wide human empire ruled by aristocratic houses, a young man chafing against his place and struggling to find his destiny, a powerful and sinister religious order, computer technology outlawed and replaced by human “computers”. But it also has echoes of other space operas from that age and earlier in which humanity has spread to the stars but in doing so has retained its classical roots.  The society Ruocchio presents is a pastiche of high tech, Roman and medieval.  Empire of Silence picks up the pace a little when narrator Hadrian Marlowe goes on the run from the privilege of his family but is dumped on a backwater planet where he has to live by his wits. This middle section of the book morphs into a retelling of Gladiator as Hadrian gets work as cannon-fodder in the local colosseum and manages to train a rag tag group to survive. The book then switches again to become an exploration of ancient mysteries and finally attains some forward momentum when Hadrian encounters humanity’s enemy – the Ceiclin who ravage through human space.  Empire of Silence is the first volume of a memoir. Hadrian narrates from an old age in which he has done some horrific things that are only…

84K by Claire North
Fantasy , Review , Science Fiction / 25/07/2018

Claire North used the travels of the main character in her last book The End of the Day to highlight global inequities and social issues. Despite its fantastical premise (that character we the harbinger of Death), that book focussed on the present. In 84K, North takes this social commentary into frighteningly plausible dystopian vision of the future.  There is nothing particularly original about the starting point for 84K – concentration of corporate power, collusion between a monolithic Company and the Government, the wealthy coming out on top and a population sleepwalking into servitude in the pursuit of the good life. But North takes this premise further – into a monetised society, where everything, including human life, literally has a value.  Theo Miller works at the Criminal Audit Office, assigning indemnity value to different crimes, If you can pay you get on with your life but if you can’t, you go into government mandated menial work – essentially slave labour or worse. Miller, is much like Charlie from The End of the Day, a grey English bureaucratic exterior hiding a revolutionary soul. And that soul slowly emerges  and he is forced to take action when a face from the past emerges and he is forced to reevaluate his life.  The book jumps between three time periods – Miller’s backstory, his…

Wyntertide by Andrew Caldecott
Fantasy , Review / 23/07/2018

Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird was one of the most English and original fantasy novels of 2017. It focussed on the eponymous town hidden away from the rest of England and guardian of a secret door to another dimension called The Lost Acre. Rotherweird was full of Dickensian characters engaged in an ancient struggle but also had Monty Pythonesque flourishes. The epilogue to the action in Rotherweird indicated that more was going on than the protagonists suspected and this second volume is clear that all of the frenetic activity in that book was just “the end of the beginning” and so to Wyntertide. Wyntertide has a similar structure to Rotherweird. Historical vignette’s establish the backstory of a number of long lived characters still either making mischief or trying to prevent it. In the meantime the townsfolk are gearing up for a major event, in this case the mayoral election, which is being manipulated for nefarious purposes. Caldecott ranges across a kaleidoscope of characters as various factions manoeuvre and a centuries old plan fall into place. Rotherweird  anchored its sprawling narrative around an outsider – Josiah Oblong, the new history teacher – who was also the reader’s proxy into this strange world. It…

Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh
Crime , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 18/07/2018

Steve Cavanagh’s Eddie Flynn legal thrillers have been one of the best thing to happen to the courtroom drama in a long time. Part of the reason is that Cavanagh is continually trying to work out how to top himself in terms of upping the tension on his protagonist. And when the first book, The Defence, started with Flynn being strapped into an explosive vest and having his daughter kidnapped, the bar has always been pretty high. The premise of the fourth Eddie Flynn novel is irresistible. Joshua Kane is a high functioning, socially disconnected serial killer who does not feel pain. And he has a plan. But while Kane’s story is very much part of the narrative, his connection to the high profile case that Flynn has been brought in on only emerges slowly. Flynn has been hired by high flying lawyer Rudy Carp to second chair on the defence of movie star Bobby Solomon, accused of murdering his wife and their security guard. Flynn, with his radar for guilt and innocence, believes that Bobby is innocent and takes the case. Before long Kane’s roll in this affair becomes clear as he is not only the actual killer but…

Lifelike by Jay Kristoff

Hot off the success of the Illuminae trilogy, Jay Kristoff launches a new science fiction series that also mines deeply from and mashes elements of the science fiction pantheon. Just in case readers might be in any doubt, the cover described Lifel1k3 as “Romeo and Juliet meets Mad Max meets X-Men with a little bit of Blade Runner cheering from the sidelines”. The Romeo and Juliet reference refers to the romantic tropes that seem to drive every YA book that has been released this century. And there is more than a little bit of Blade Runner here given this is a post-apocalyptic tale focussing humanoid robots. But Lifel1k3 has deeper and older antecedents – Isaac Asimov’s robot books, particularly his famous three laws of robotics, and Pinocchio. Eve drives a robot fighter in a post-apocalyptic California. When a fight goes bad and she exhibits a mental power that fries electrical circuits she becomes a target of local religious nutters, street gangs, corporations and a group of murderous, super strong, self-healing humanoid robots called Lifelikes. She goes on the run with her best friend Lemon Fresh, a small snarky robot called Cricket, a robot dog and a Lifelike who claims he…

The Other Wife by Michael Robotham
Crime , Review , Thriller / 06/07/2018

Michael Robotham admits in his Afterward that he never expected his Joe O’Loughlin series to go as long as it has. But the character continues to surprise and engage and in The Other Wife, Robotham gets to dig deep into O’Loughlin’s childhood and the experiences which shaped O’Loughlin as a character. Fresh off his stand alone thriller The Secrets She Keeps it is perhaps not a surprise that the latest O’Loughlin thriller could also be described as domestic noir, if categorization was your thing. It begins with O’Loughlin being told that his father is in hospital having fallen down the stairs of a London house. He is also told that his mother has given the hospital his number but when he arrives he finds not his mother but another woman who claims that she too has been married to Joe’s father for the past twenty years. From here the plot spins out into a range of family secrets and revelations which shake O’Loughlin’s image of his father and forces him to reconsider their relationship. At the same time he is dealing with the aftermath of his own wife’s death and the effect that has had not only on himself but…

The Escape Room by Megan Goldin
Crime , Review , Thriller / 03/07/2018

Megan Goldin follows up her domestic noir unreliable narrator debut The Girl in Keller’s Way with something completely different. The Escape Room does what a good thriller should do. It takes something new and faddish, in this case escape room games, and makes it sinister. At the same time, Goldin takes square aim at corporate greed-is-good culture. And with new studies showing it is environment as much as personality that makes financial workers corrupt, this is a very timely thriller. After a bloody cold open, Goldin winds the clock back 36 hours. Four corporate high fliers – team leader Vincent and his team – Sam, Jules and Sylvie – are invited to an escape room challenge. Despite reservations they go, because when the company calls, they respond. Only they quickly find out that this is no ordinary team building challenge. Stuck in an elevator (lift for those in the colonies) with no mobile reception and a series of increasingly obscure clues, the four start to turn on each other. The first clue refers to Sara Hall, neophyte financial analyst who joined their team many years before and is quickly socialised into the greed mentality of the firm. And Sara’s story,…

The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo
Historical , Literature , Review / 29/06/2018

Enza Gandolfo’s new novel takes as its centerpiece the 1970 collapse of the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne. This tragedy resonates through the lives of the people involved and the people who continue to live in the shadow of the Bridge. Most of the narrative is set forty years later and centres around another tragedy, one that is much more intimate and unfortunately common than the collapse of a major engineering work.  Antonello is a 22 year old rigger working on the Westgate Bridge in 1970. An immigrant from Italy, he has found his place in the multicultural melting pot that was the construction crew. When the unfinished bridge collapses, killing many of his workmates Antonello retreats into a shell. Forty years later, Antonello’s teenage granddaughter is killed in a car accident, the driver Jo was her best friend and all four teenagers in the car had been drinking. The accident itself happened in the shadow of the Westgate Bridge.  The Bridge is heavy going for most of its length as it delves deeply into the psychology of Jo in the aftermath of the accident and Antonello, still suffering forty years on but slowly finding a way to deal with his pain. Thrown into the mix is Jo’s lawyer Sarah who…

Connect by Julian Gough
Review , Science Fiction , Thriller / 28/06/2018

In 2010, Irish author Julian Gough created a stir when he called out the Irish writing establishment for not writing about anything contemporary. In 2018 he apologised to the likes of Colm Tóibín and John Banville. As he said in a recent interview with the Irish Times:  ‘… like a big eejit I projected that on to other people and said, why aren’t they writing the novel I want to see. Of course, I have to write the book I want to see.’ And now he has. Connect is a big-ideas technothriller with a strong central relationship, but also with roots in cyberpunk, biopunk and Terminator-style crazy artificial-intelligence science fiction. Connect opens in the not too distant future. Naomi Chiang and her 18-year-old son, Colt, live on the fringes of Las Vegas. Nancy is a bioresearcher with some startling ideas about cellular regrowth. Although never directly stated, Colt is somewhere on the autism/Asperger’s spectrum and spends most of his life in a virtual reality that he and other gamers have collaboratively built. This is not a dystopia but a slightly more connected future with intelligent appliances, self-driving cars and more immersive virtual technology. A believable and achievable day after tomorrow:…

Chemistry by Weike Wang
Literature , Review / 28/06/2018

Chemistry is the debut novel by author Weike Wang. This first novel was recently acknowledged by the National Book Foundation who recognised Wang as one of its ‘5 under 35’ honourees. Wang, who herself has an undergraduate degree in chemistry and a doctorate in public health had some experience to draw from in this first novel. When the book opens her main character, never named, is in the third year of a chemistry doctorate program. But fairly soon she is questioning all of her life choices.  A child of Chinese immigrants, the narrator finds herself caught up in the immigrant dream – to study hard and excel beyond her parent’s achievements. So that when she has a crisis of confidence, stops going to the lab and eventually drops out of her PhD program, she does not tell her parents, choosing instead to maintain a fiction that she is continuing. At the same time her long term boyfriend has proposed and she does not know how to deal with the proposal. And so the narrative becomes an exploration of almost crippling indecision. Caught knowing what the “right” thing but unwilling to commit to any of it.  The narrator of Chemistry is not an easy character to like but one that over the course of the novel readers come to understand. She is, like…

A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising by Raymond A Villareal
Fantasy , Review / 19/06/2018

The last boomtime for vampire stories was about ten years ago. Books series like the True Blood and Twilight which then became movies and tv series ruled the airwaves and cinemas. And plenty of pretenders flowed in their wake. But they were just the longest in a line of vampire tales stretching at least as far back as Bram Stoker and probably further. So it is perhaps no surprise, after a short period of relative dormancy (driven into the shadows by zombie hordes perhaps?) that vampires are back. A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising tells the story of the rise of the vampires (or Gloamings as they prefer to be known) and a small resistance movement against them. The story is delivered in documentary style. Following the discovery of a new virus by the CDC in New Mexico, each chapter is a form of testimony and many are also preceded by snippets from newspapers and magazines. While this gives a feeling of authenticity it also serves to distance the reader from the action. The narrative is almost all telling rather than showing, four hundred pages of exposition, an approach that wears thin after a while. Villareal’s narrative is an…

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…