The Legion of Flame by Anthony Ryan
Fantasy , Review / 10/10/2017

The dragons in Anthony Ryan’s Draconis Memoria series are not, as the saying might go, your grandfather’s dragons. In this world there are dragons of varying colours – green, red, blue, black and white. Each has a different preferred mode of attack and the blood of each can give specially talented humans (the blood-blessed), short-lived superhuman capabilities. Only, as The Legion of Flame opens, the dragons, led by the super intelligent white dragon, are revolting. Having taken over their home continent and either killing or enslaving the populace, the dragons are on the move. The main point of view characters from The Waking Fire return. Lizanne, arsekicking secret agent for the Ironship Corporation, is sent on a mission to their sworn enemy the Corvantine Empire. Lizanne’s mission quickly spins out of control as she ends up in a prison city and formenting revolution. Meanwhile, blood-blessed adventurer Clay Torbeek is heading to the south pole to see if he can “save the world” following a vision of the future that he had in his encounter with the white dragon. Clay’s trajectory, while full of adventure and close calls, is a little more surreal when he finds himself in a strange world…

Provenance by Ann Leckie

When you have built an award-winning universe, there is little point starting a new one. Much better to go, as Ann Leckie does in Provenance, and explore another corner of it. Iain Banks understood this and, similarly, set many of his science fiction novels in and around his expansive Culture universe. For readers steeped in Leckie’s universe, having been on board for the trilogy that started with her multi award winning debut Ancillary Justice, small call backs and particular characters and situations have greater import. For those new to Leckie’s universe it allows her to produce a stand-alone novel with a more epic feel. The events of the Ancillary trilogy are referenced but as one of the characters herself observes “that was very far away”. Provenance opens with Ingray Aughskold  trying to pull off an audacious plan to attract the attention of her mother, the Netano. Ingray, in competition with her brother to take the title of Netano, pays all of the money she has to organize the release of a prisoner from “Compassionate Removal” a prison from which, supposedly, no one returns. It is after the transaction does not go as planned and she is down her luck that…

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 03/10/2017

Matt Haig often takes an outsider’s view of the world. In his debut novel The Last Family in England, the main character was the family dog. In The Humans, Haig looked at the world through the eyes of an alien trying to understand humanity. He takes a similar tack but from a very different angle in How to Stop Time. While The Humans was about placing humanity in space, How to Stop Time is about looking at people from outside the realm of time. Tom Hazard is an “albatross”. Born in 1581, he has a condition which stopped him ageing at a normal rate at around thirteen. Since then he has aged at one fifteenth the normal speed. So that in the present he is 439 years old but still looks like he is in his forties. Hazard’s condition means he is always on the move, trying not to be found out by starting fresh every eight years in a new location. But he is also beholden to a shadowy organisation of Albatrosses, blackmailed into carrying out missions for their leader Hendrich with a promise of finding his missing daughter Marion. The narrative skips effortlessly between various time periods. Tom…

City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C Anderson
Crime , Review , Young Adult / 29/09/2017

City of Saints and Thieves has an immediately engaging open. Sixteen year old Tina is a thief in the Kenyan city of Sangui. Together with her street-criminal backers she is embarking on an audacious robbery of the Greyhill mansion in an upmarket part of town. But Tina has more on her mind than just theft. Her mother was killed in that house while working there as a maid and Tina believes that Greyhill senior was responsible. So the theft is also about revenge. But the heist does not go as planned and from there the tale spins out with Tina only barely in some kind of control. Natalie C Anderson, the author of City of Saints and Thieves has a long history of working with refugees in Congo, Rwanda and Kenya and this experience shows. Anderson brings both the Kenyan and Congolese settings vivdly to life. The book is rich in detail about the lives of women and children in Africa’s conflict zones and the role of blood gold in fuelling the violence. As a young girl living on the streets of a fictional Kenyan city, Tina’s skills as a thief are the only thing keeping her from a life…

City of Crows by Chris Womersley
Historical , Literature , Review / 27/09/2017

Chris Womersley’s first novel, The Low Road won the Ned Kelly Award for best debut crime fiction. His second novel, Bereft was short listed for the Ned Kelly for best crime fiction and while it didn’t win that award it did go on to win a slew of others that year. But Chris was never going to let the trappings of genre (not that either of these two books were classic crime genre) hold him back. Now, with his fourth book, City of Crows, Womersley takes a sharp turn away from anything he has done before. And the results are no less impressive. Set in 17th Century France, City of Crows opens in the village of Saint-Gilles. Charlotte Picot has already lost three children and has a young son surviving when her husband dies of plague. She flees the town with Antoine but he is kidnapped while they are on the road. Charlotte is wounded and in the book’s first detour into the occult, ends up being healed by the local witch. At the same time Adam du Coeuret, a galley slave imprisoned for practicing magic is unexpectedly freed and renames himself Lesage. The two end up travelling together to…

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for and Eye by David Lagercrantz
Crime , Review , Thriller / 25/09/2017

Steig Larsson had originally intended his Millenium series to run for ten volumes but only managed to finish three. The decision of Larsson’s estate to appoint Lagercrantz to continue the series was no whim. In The Girl in the Spider’s Web David Lagercrantz took the extremely popular Millennium series and made it his own. The first of Lagercrantz’s forays into the world of Salander and Blomkvist showed not only a deep understanding of those characters but was in many ways a better novel than any in the original trilogy. When the latest volume opens, Lisbeth Salander is in prison due to her actions in the previous book. With plenty of popular fiction now venturing into women’s prisons, placing Salander in this environment seems a little lazy. There are the usual tropes here – Benito Andersson, a queen bee who rules the prison with an iron fist, corrupt guards and a helpless victim, Faria Karzi. But Lisbeth Salander is such a unique character that there is interest even in putting her in this situation. Salander is not really interested in prison politics, more about finding a way to investigate a new lead into her past while also protecting Faria. She puts…

Whipbird by Robert Drew
Literature , Review / 20/09/2017

Robert Drew is one of the great chroniclers of the Australian history and the Australian condition with previous works like The Drowner, The Bodysurfers and Our Sunshine. In Whipbird he takes on the large chunk of recent Australian history and the Australian experience. Based around a family reunion of the descendants of a 15 year old Irish immigrant to Australia in the 1850s, Drew ranges his authorial eye across what Australia has become in the early twenty first century and in some respects how we have arrived here. The Whipbird of the title is a new hobby vineyard, owned by barrister Hugh Cleary and venue for the Cleary family reunion. As the various branches of the family arrive – 1193 out of 2946 possible descendants of the original Conor Cleary – they are given different coloured t-shirts to identify their ancestry and Drew starts to wander among them, the point of view shifting between various family members. Drew focusses in particular on Hugh, his father Mick, brother Simon and sister Thea but also has time for plenty of other side branches of the family. Drew uses his characters to highlight and gently satirise different aspects of the Australian experience. Most…

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley
Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 19/09/2017

Natasha Pulley burst onto the fantasy scene last year with her stunning debut The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. This slightly steampunk tale of Victorian London was full of charm and whimsy but also beautifully observed, historically fascinating and populated with interesting characters. Now she follows this up with The Bedlam Stacks, and while one character from Filigree Street, at least, makes a brief appearance, no familiarity with that book is required. In fact The Bedlam Stacks, while in some ways initially resembling its predecessor and  a kind of prequel to it, turns out to be a very different beast. It is the 1850s and the East India Company is desperately trying to find a reliable source of quinine to treat malaria. The Peruvians have a monopoly on the cinchona tree, the bark of which is used to produce quinine. Numerous expeditions to the Peruvian interior have failed to bring back viable cuttings of the plant. The company approaches Merrick Tremayne to lead an expedition into the Peruvian interior. Tremayne is a former employee injured in the opium trade and has family connections to Peru through both his father and grandfather. He is to be accompanied by his old naval colleague…

Her by Garry Disher
Historical , Recommended , Review / 14/09/2017

Garry Disher is probably best known for two crime series – the Peninsula Crimes books centred around the police in Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula and the Wyatt books, recently rebooted, which focus on a career thief. But he has other strings to his bow, with both contemporary and historical “literary” novels in his long career. Her, a historical novel set in the northern Victorian countryside in the years following the turn of the century, gives a blunt and confronting look at of the time.   The main character of Her does not even have a name for the first third of the novel. In 1909, at a young age the protagonist is sold by her family to the local scrap man and for years she is only known as “You”. The scrap man already has a wife and a teenager (known as Big Girl) who he possibly acquired in a similar way and who he later gets pregnant. You is put to work, catching rabbits, making items out of scrap and rags for sale and learning how to be a pickpocket and a thief. Life is already tough for the three women and the abusive, manipulative actions of the scrap man towards them make it even tougher.   Disher follows You as she grows up in this environment. When she is older she names herself Lily and goes travelling with the…

Three Days and a Life by Pierre Lemaitre
Crime , Review / 07/09/2017

Pierre Lemaitre is one of the premier French crime writers. His crime novels have won numerous awards and his recent post World War I novel about a pair of con artists, The Great Swindle, won the Prix Goncourt, a premier French literary award. So it is no surprise that his latest novel Three Days and a Life (translated by Frank Wynne) is a very literary crime novel. The crime comes early, the culprit is clear but what Lemaitre is interested in is the psychological impact and the consequence of the crime on both the perpetrator and the small community in which the crime takes place.  It is hard to talk about the plot without giving too much away. But suffice to say that 12 year old Antoine commits an unforgivable crime which he covers up. He then spends the next few days, as the town around him works itself into a frenzy, trying to come to terms with his actions and expecting to be caught. He has to watch as townsfolk are accused and arrested and start to turn on each other. The narrative returns to the town many years later to explore the ongoing effects of the crime.  Three Days and a Life is a psychological thriller. Most of the tension comes from the mind of a twelve-year-old boy….

The Truants by Lee Markham
Fantasy , Review / 05/09/2017

Vampires are back on the streets of London in Lee Markham’s visceral debut The Truants. Just when you thought the vampire mythology could not take another go round, Markham takes this corner of the horror genre and gives is a shake. His stated aim is to create some discomfort for readers and he succeeds.  On a bench facing east the old one waits to die. A long-lived vampire, the old one has decided to end his life by facing the sun. But before he can complete the ritual he is attacked by a street kid after money. The kid stabs him and then escapes with a broken arm but the damage has been done. The knife that is carried away is somehow infused with the spirit of the dying vampire and every person it touches absorbs that spirit. The first two of these are a two year old boy and a ten year old school boy. From there all hell, literally, breaks out.  Markham has crafted a vampire tale for modern times. His vampires are dispossessed of the streets and the tower blocks of London. The baby that the old one possesses early on is living in squalor in a drug dealer’s squat so that it is almost a relief when he is given some agency even with…

The List by Michael Brissenden
Review , Thriller / 31/08/2017

Coming not long after Steve Uhlmann and Peter Lewis’ Marmalade Files and hot on the heels of Tony Jones’ The Twentieth Man, Michael Brissenden, another ABC journalist, has penned a thriller. The List seems designed with the tag “ripped from the headlines” in mind. It concerns itself with the repercussions of recent wars in the Middle East, the effect it has had both on soldiers and on the recruitment of young Muslims in Australia, and more broadly Australian religious tolerance and multicultural ideals in a world dominated by terrorism and a national security debate. In the middle of this powderkeg is the Australian Federal Police’s K-unit, a bridge between the operations of that force and Australia’s security organisation ASIO. Sid Allen and his partner Haifa Harouni, are brought in when young radicalised Muslim men in Sydney are found dead and with their right arms cut off. This is just the first act in a much deeper plot that goes back to Afghanistan and turns into a race against time for the investigators. As is usually the case with the thriller genre, both of the main characters have skin in the game. Sid’s girlfriend and former colleague Rosie was killed in…

Killing is My Business by Adam Christopher
Crime , Review , Science Fiction / 29/08/2017

A few years ago, Adam Christopher had a fantastic idea based on a dare from a long dead author. Raymond Chandler, one of the greats of noir fiction derided science fiction. Out of his comment “they pay brisk money for this?” came Christopher’s short story Brisk Money, which itself morphed into the science fiction noir detective mashup novel Made to Kill. Made to Kill was set in the 1950s and centred on Ray Electromatic, the last robot in America, plying his trade as a private detective, only not. Ray’s handler, a computer called Ada, had reasoned logically that assassinations paid more money and so while Ray’s cover was as a detective his day job was an efficient killer. Killing is My Business is a the second in a projected trilogy about Ray Electromatic. Early on, Ray’s first couple of hits go wrong, the first through apparent suicide and the second because his target has done a runner.  So Ray takes on another job, getting close to a mafia boss in order to find out his secrets before killing him. There is lot of set up here and then a huge leap of faith that the mafia boss would take Ray…

The Undercurrent by Paula Weston

Superpowered teens seem to be everywhere you look at the moment. From the third time lucky reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, to the YA book world with series like Zeroes. In the world of The Undercurrent there is only one superpowered teen – sixteen year-old Juliette DeMarchi. But as is “normal” in the superpowered teen world her ability to manage her powers quickly becomes a metaphor for growing up. The Undercurrent opens with a bang. An attack on the headquarters on mega corporation Pax Fed in Brisbane, where Juliette was going for an abortive job interview. When things go pear shaped, Juliette is rescued in a bit of a “meet-cute” by young soldier Ryan, part of a squad of soldiers sent to protect her. This is the set up for a tale of coming-of-age and corporate skullduggery. Juliette’s mother Angie is talked into going back into her old protest group, the Agitators who have become more extreme in her absence, to foil a plot to attack a nuclear power plant in South Australia. Meanwhile Juliette is sent into protection with Ryan on his family’s dying farm not far from the plant. Weston manages to ramp up the tension in both…

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O by Stephenson and Galland

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O is the new hefty tome from the pen of Neal Stephenson. But this is not a tech or maths heavy read like Seveneves or Anathem. This time he has brought along fellow author Nicole Gallard who manages to considerably lighten the tone. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O can best be described as a romp. It is science fiction that never takes itself all that seriously. Even the acronym provides a cute running gag in the early part of the book. In 1851, witchcraft died in the world. In the present day, a group of American military scientists are trying to bring it back using quantum theory. When they manage to do so, they use witchcraft to send their operatives back in time and manipulate history. And then their problems really begin. D.O.D.O is narrated in a documentary style. Much of it is the memoir of Melisande Stokes, one of the early operatives of the organisation, stuck in 1851 as witchcraft is dying and writing for future prosperity. But there are also plenty of other diary entries, emails, memos and letters and even an ancient Viking Saga entitled “The Lay of Walmart”. There is…

October is the Coldest Month by Christoffer Carlsson
Crime , Review , Young Adult / 17/08/2017

Christoffer Carlsson is a Nordic crime writer best known for his crime series starring ex-cop Leo Junker. October is the Coldest Month is ostensibly his first Young Adult novel and has won a Swedish crime award for writing for young readers. But parents beware, when the Swedish Crime Writing Academy says “young readers” they are skewing well towards the more adult end of the young adult spectrum. That said, there are good reasons why this novel may have picked up that award. Vega Gillberg, the sixteen year-old narrator of October is the Coldest Month, is woken by a policeman looking for her brother Jacob. She does not know where Jacob he is but knows that he is in trouble and has an inkling why. That inkling drives her to go looking for her brother and to try and solve a mystery that no one wants solved. In the best tradition of noir detectives, Vega is not content with being kept in the dark and keeps pushing at people and pulling at loose ends of their stories until the truth emerges. October is the Coldest Month is a coming of age story of sorts. Vega deals with the depths of the…

Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott
Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 15/08/2017

The English fantasy resurgence continues with the delightful and strange Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott. A debut which joins the likes of Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell), Tim Clare (The Honours) and Padriac O’Donell (The Maker of Swans), as another uniquely and intrinsically English take on the genre without resorting to the tired or the Tolkienesque. Rotherweird is a town out of time. Administratively cut off from the rest of England during Elizabethan times to hide a terrible and dangerous secret. The school’s history master disappears after illegally investigating pre-1800 Rotherweird history and strange forces are starting to rise again. The action is precipitated by the arrival of two new ‘outsiders’ to town. Jeremiah Oblong, the new modern history master, a typical English fop in the mould of Arthur Dent, and Veronal Slickstone, wealthy new owner of The Manor. They are surrounded by a colourful bunch of Dickensian characters with names like Orelia Roc, Vixen Valourhand and Sidney Snorkel. The first half of Rotherweird is a delight. Not only doling out small hints of its fantasy setting but also full of comedic set pieces based on Rotherweirdian traditions including the annual coracle race down the river Rother where contestants…

On the Java Ridge by Jock Serong
Recommended , Review , Thriller / 11/08/2017

Jock Serong seems to determined to shine a light on every dodgy part of Australian culture. In his Ned Kelly Award winning debut Quota it was the illegal abalone and drug trades in a small coastal town. In his follow up, The Rules of Backyard Cricket it was corruption in professional sport. And now, in On The Java Ridge, he takes on Australia’s border protection attitudes, policies and practices. The Java Ridge is a tour boat for rich Australian surfers. Built to represent an Indonesian fishing vessel, it is taking seven surfers out to remote Indonesian Islands in search of perfect waves. At the same time, people smuggling boat the Takalar has left Indonesia, its passengers, including ten year old Roya, hoping to find refuge in Australia. The two crews come together when the Takalar is wrecked on the fringing reef of a tiny island where the surfers have made camp. Serong has crafted an incredibly tense novel. He does not pull any punches in the plight of the refugees and the surfing party, both thrown into disarray by the wreck and dealing with significant injury and death. And their subsequent search for safety is nerve wracking. At the same time,…

The Twentieth Man by Tony Jones
Crime , Historical , Review , Thriller / 07/08/2017

ABC journalist and host of Q&A Tony Jones put the cat among the pigeons last year when he suggested that there was Croation terrorism in Australia in the 1970s. There was fierce debate at that time around this suggestion about Croatian extremists and the involvement of the Communist Yugoslavian Government in potentially creating or manipulating the threat. In The Twentieth Man, Jones doubles down on his claims, in a historical thriller that gives Australian its own Day of the Jackal. The Twentieth Man opens with a historical bombing in the heart of Sydney in 1972. The bombs are planted by an anonymous Croatian terrorist seeking to destroy targets associated with the Yugoslavian government. Jones uses this opening to introduce a range of characters and it is a while before the narrative settles down around a few key players, particularly Anna Rosen, junior ABC journalist and daughter of a known Communist, Al Sharp, with the Federal Police, and rogue ASIO agent Tom Moriarty. Later in the book the action moves to Yugoslavia where a group of twenty Croatians have infiltrated the country with the aim of creating a popular uprising against the Communist Government. The Twentieth Man of the title is the survivor of this mission. Jones has crafted a fine historical thriller. The threat, when it emerges, is…

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 03/08/2017

Another day, another apocalypse. In Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, England has been hit with some unspecified catastrophe that involves rising flood waters. The usual post-apocalyptic actions take place: people are evacuated, the military comes out, borders and checkpoints are established. In amongst all of this, the unnamed narrator has her first child, Z, and the story follows Z’s first few years of life in post-disaster Britain.  Megan Hunter’s prose is spare to the point of almost being poetry. Short sentences in short paragraphs, interspersed with quotes. None of the characters have names. This gives a point of difference to a story that has now been told a few too many times. All of the clichés are there – the refugee camps, nasty roadside border guards, saviours with a boat, a short time of salvation on a remote island – but in a poetic form that makes it, to a minor extent, feel new.  The focus of the book is Z’s first few years of life. While growing up in the middle of a crisis, the narrator’s relationship with her son and her observations might well have just been happening in any daycare centre. Z smiles, Z learns how to eat solids,…