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…

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 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 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…

The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith
Crime , Literature , Recommended , Review / 10/04/2018

The Fighter is the follow-up to Michael Farris Smith’s debut Desperation Road, which was longlisted for the UK Crime Writers’ Association 2017 Gold Dagger Award. And it could well have been given the same title as it charts the build-up to the final fight of ageing cage fighter Jack Boucher. It may well also find itself on long and shortlists itself when award season rolls around. Set in a depressed American South, from the opening Smith perfectly captures an air of desperation tinged with hope that somehow always seems to go awry, because life just does not work like that. When the book opens Boucher has just had a big win at the casino and is finally heading to pay off a debt to local loanshark Big Mama Sweet. But that is not his only problem. He also needs to find a much larger amount to pay off the bank and stop his foster mother’s house being sold. But he never gets to Big Mama Sweet and the money goes missing. So Jack has to contemplate going back into the cage. Through all this Jack is self-medicating his constant pain and using a notebook to try and keep track of…

Taste of Marrow by Sarah Gailey
Review , Science Fiction / 09/04/2018

Sarah Gailey burst onto the speculative fiction scene with her spectacularly original debut novella River of Teeth. In alternative late 19th Century America that Gailey built, hippos that had been imported to the country in the 1850s have become a source of food and a means of transport in the swampy American South. That book was a heist caper involving a group of outlaws and miscreants up against a bigger bad guy and ended, literally with a bang. Gailey takes up the narrative with protagonists scattered and thinking each other dead. Being the second book in the series, she does not need to bother with much of the world building which allows Taste of Marrow, still a novella and not much longer than River of Teeth, to be a slightly richer experience that can  deepen the story that began in the earlier volume. Taste of Marrow is, like its predecessor, a lot of fun. There is not a lot that is deep and meaningful here and it still not long enough to really dig into the characters. But at novella length, it is a quick, tasty morsel of a book. A Wild West adventure full of killers and ne’er do…

Autonomous by Analee Newitz
Review , Science Fiction / 26/03/2018

Before the release of her debut novel, Annalee Newitz was better known as one of the founders of io9 and wrote about new technologies. So she is well placed to craft a futuristic scifi novel that even set one hundred and twenty odd years from now, still feels like a natural extrapolation of where we are today. Judith “Jack” Chen is a biological pirate. She takes drugs manufactured by the big pharma companies, reverse engineers them and produces cheaper copies for those in need. She operates from a submarine that moves her between manufacturing centres in Northern Africa and her home base of northern Canada. But Jack has a problem. Her latest batch of reengineered drugs designed to improve focus on work is killing people by making them overly addicted to those tasks. It turns out, though that this is not due to any mistake of hers but because the drug’s big pharma manufacturer had been lying about its potential side effects. Even so, she sets out to make amends. Meanwhile the corporation has hired some muscle to clean up the mess. Artificially intelligent battle robot Paladin is paired with a human Eliasz and they are sent to hunt Jack…

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 22/03/2018

Children of Blood and Bone is one of the most anticipated YA books of 2018. Movie rights have already been sold and YA blogger sites have been singing its praises. And there is a lot to like here. Tomi Adeyemi has constructed a fast paced, roller-coaster quest-based fantasy book set in a well realised West-African-inspired setting and delivers the kind of thrills and characters that her YA readership craves. Zélie, is a Diviner, part of a subgroup of people in the kingdom of Orisha subjugated and feared for their former ability to use magic. Magic was banished from the world by the moustache-twirlingly evil King Sanara thirteen years before. Those with white hair, who carry the mark of magic users, are reviled and repressed. But an encounter between Zélie and runaway princess Amari changes the equation. Amari has stolen a relic that can respark magic in individuals and, together with Zélie and her brother Tzain, embarks on a quest to unite three sacred artefacts and bring magic back to the world. While Children of Blood and Bone has a unique and fascinating African setting and mythology, the plot and characters owe as much to recent YA-fan favourite series like The…

Lightning Men by Thomas Mullen
Crime , Historical , Recommended , Review / 05/03/2018

In 2016, Thomas Mullen delivered one of the crime novels of the year with Darktown. That book told the story of the first Black policemen in Atlanta, a force established in the years following World War II. Darktown showed the institutionalised racism that sat behind and around that decision. The group of eight policemen were set up in a basement of the YMCA with no vehicles and if they wanted to arrest someone they had to call the white police to do it. They were only allowed to patrol the predominantly black areas of town and while they were feted for the steps they were taking they were also feared in their own community. Darktown was in other respects a straight down the line procedural in which two of the black policemen and one white policeman work a murder case from different angles. Lightning Men picks up a couple of years after the events of Darktown. Like its predecessor it focusses mainly on the black police partners of Boggs and Smith and their former co-conspirator Deny Rakestraw but it also ranges across a broader cross section of characters. Each of the three main characters have their own problems to work…

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Historical , Literature , Review / 27/02/2018

Chloe Benjamin’s new novel The Immortalists is a historical family drama with a conceit at its centre which starts as intriguing, develops as character building and then starts to drag on the whole enterprise. In 1969, four children, ranging in age from thirteen to seven and intrigued by stories running around their neighbourhood go to seek out a local fortune teller. Despite having scraped together their savings the woman, for no fee, purports to tells each of the children the exact date on which they are going to die. This event, and the knowledge it brought, will shape the lives and the decisions of the four and spark a furious internal debate in the novel between fate and free will. Each section of the book focuses on a different one of the children, in age order from youngest to oldest. When his father dies, Simon, seven when he is told his fortune and now fifteen, breaks away from his mother and the expectation that he will take over the family’s New York tailoring business. He runs away with his sister Karla to San Fransisco where he explores his gay identity in the heady days of the late seventies. This is…

Hellbent by Gregg Hurwitz
Crime , Review , Thriller / 23/02/2018

Hellbent is the third in Gregg Hurwitz’s Orphan X series. But if you have not read the other two (Orphan X and The Nowhere Man) and are in need of a pacey thriller you should not let that stop you. After a masterclass cold open, Hurwitz provides a quick two page expository primer before jumping straight back into the action. Evan Smoke was an Orphan, one of a bunch of highly trained secret agents working for a shadowy American espionage force. Evan has left the agency and set himself up as The Nowhere Man, an unstoppable coming to the rescue of people in need. But the agency, and particularly his nemesis and agency head Van Sciver, want him dead. Most of Hellbent is focused on Smoke organising his revenge against the Orphan program for killing his mentor Jack. But he does this saddled with his last mission from Jack: to protect Joey, a sixteen year-old Orphan in training who also escaped from the program. And of course, not wanting to put his Nowhere Man persona on hold, also helping out a father who wants to rescue his son from a deadly gang of thugs in Los Angeles. Evan Smoke is…

Persepolis Rising by James SA Corey
Review , Science Fiction / 16/02/2018

Being the seventh book in the series this review will contain SPOILERS but as this is one of the best space operas going at the moment, if you are not on board yet, perhaps it is time. With The Expanse TV series paused somewhere in the middle of Book 2 (Caliban’s War), authors Ty Frank and Daniel Abraham, aka James S A Corey, have taken the book series in a new slightly new direction. Persepolis Rising begins with what can only be described as a bold time jump. This volume takes the story thirty years forward from the end of Babylon’s Ashes. Given the ruin and destruction that reigned at the end of that book this is a sensible call. It finds James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante (and the ship itself) older and more grizzled but throughout this volume the intervening years are only vaguely sketched out. The most you can say is that their little family (XO Naomi, pilot Alex, psycho engineer Amos, ex-marine Bobbie and ex-killer Clarissa) have become even more of a tight family-like unit. The conflict here comes when radical ex-Martian Duarte returns to the solar system with enough alien tech to take…

Jade City by Fonda Lee
Fantasy , Review / 06/02/2018

Fantasy novels have traditionally been built on a medieval model. Even where there are no elves or dwarves or orcs, there is always plenty of swords and horses. This goes to Asian-based fantasy also, often based on mythology it will be full of bows and arrows and dragons. Urban fantasy seeks to move away from these tropes and locate fantasy in more of a contemporary frame. There are plenty of great authors working in urban fantasy – writers like Ben Aaronovitch, Neal Gaiman and Angela Slatter. And now, joining them, from a more Asia-centric approach is debut author Fonda Lee.  Jade City is set in a fantasy but recognisable Earth. It centres around the island of Kekon where the indigenous inhabitants are able to harness locally mined jade to give them a range of powers. Use of jade is dangerous and training is required to effectively harness and control the power. The island itself is only a generation after the inhabitants successfully repelled an occupying force through guerrilla action, and still the eyes of the two great powers of the world are on Kekon.  But this is not a story of that global conflict. Jade City focusses on the power struggle between the two top criminal gangs – the No Peak Clan and…

The Night Market by Jonathan Moore
Crime , Review , Science Fiction / 01/02/2018

The Night Market is the third in Jonathan Moore’s triptych of dark tales set in San Francisco. The first, The Poison Artist was psychological gothic horror. The second, The Dark Room, was a more down the line police procedural with decidedly creepy undertones. After the more straight forward narrative of The Dark Room it was interesting to consider where Moore would take this series. And he does not disappoint. The Night Market is something else again, a vaguely dystopian science fiction crime thriller, set in a recognisable day after tomorrow San Francisco. Once again there is a police investigation at the centre of the tale. But in this story, nothing is quite what it seems. Homicide investigator Ross Carver and his partner are called to a murder scene in a wealthy area of San Francisco. The dead body is like nothing they have ever seen but before they have a chance to investigate the FBI turns up and they are hustled from the building and roughly disinfected. Carver wakes up three days later with no memory of the events. His neighbour has been caring for him and despite little previous contact, offers to help him find out what happened during those missing hours. To say much more about the plot would spoil some of the twists. But as…

Bluebird Bluebird by Attica Locke
Crime , Recommended , Review / 30/01/2018

Attica Locke’s Pleasantville, the sequel to her nominated debut novel Blackwater Rising was one of the standout crime novels of 2015. It went on to win the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction in 2016 and was long-listed for the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction. That book centred around race, politics and crime in Houston. In her latest book, Bluebird Bluebird, Locke moves away from the urban and well into the rural. The majority of the action set in the little East Texas town of Lark where it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. Darren Matthews has followed in his uncle’s footsteps to become a Texas Ranger. The Texas Rangers are a highly respected, statewide police force in Texas. But few in the force are black and this creates challenges for Matthews and the work that he wants to pursue involving the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. When the book opens, Matthews has turned in his badge but is convinced by an old friend in the FBI to take a look at two murders in Lark, the first of a young black man from Chicago and the second of a young, female local a few days…

Seventh Decimate by Stephen Donaldson
Fantasy , Review / 17/01/2018

Stephen Donaldson turned the fantasy world on its ear in the 1980s with his groundbreaking series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. That series took the standard fantasy tropes and recast them with an antihero at the centre and richly described and highly original world building. Which is why it comes as a bit of a disappointment in the exposition heavy prologue to his new series that we seem to be back in fairly standard epic fantasy territory. The two kingdoms of Bellenger and Amika have been at war for as long as anyone can remember but the causes of the war are lost in the mists of mythology. Both armies have ground to standstill through their use of sorcerers who can conjure one of six decimates to defeat the opposition. Just as Bellenger gains a tactical advantage through the invention of the gun, all of their sorcerers lose their abilities, it is believed through the use of the little known seventh decimate by their enemies. Bellenger Prince Bifalt is charged with a mission to track down the knowledge of this power and bring it to Bellenger to restore the powers of their sorcerers before the kingdom is overrun. And that…

Top Five Crime – 2017
Crime , Top Fives / 13/12/2017

In 2017, most of the top crime was Australian. Adrian McKinty took out the Ned Kelly Award for the sixth novel in his Sean Duffy series – Police at the Station and they Don’t Look Friendly.               Candice Fox was shortlisted for the same award for Crimson Lake – the first book in her new series set in steamy far north Queensland.               Michael Robotham’s The Secrets She Keeps was a stand-alone page turning thriller with two intriguing women at its centre.               Mark Brandi’s debut novel Wimmera, a story of the impacts of child sexual abuse, not only on the victim but on all those around them, was a revelation.               And Attica Locke went to rural Texas and revealed the deep seated vein of institutionalised racism in the United states in Bluebird Bluebird               Honourable mentions: Under the Cold Bright Lights by Garry Disher Too Easy by JM Green Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyer Corpselight by Angela Slatter  

Top Five Science Fiction – 2017
Science Fiction , Top Fives / 11/12/2017

Some great science fiction reads in 2017 – here are five of the best (and three honourable mentions):   Claire G Coleman’ stunning debut Terra Nullius was speculative fiction that shone a new light on the colonisation of Australia.               John Scalzi created an empire just to start destroying it in the enjoyable space opera The Collapsing Empire.               Yoon Ha Lee continued to impress with Raven Stratagem, the mathematically-driven by deeply humanist sequel to last year’s standout debut Ninefox Gambit.           Becky Chambers also impressed with the follow up to her debut with A Closed and Common Orbit.               Ann Leckie gave us Provenance, a stand alone novel set in the same universe as her award winning Ancillary series.                 Honourable Mentions: Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyer Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel