The Reckoning by John Grisham
Crime , Historical , Review / 13/12/2018

John Grisham’s first book A Time to Kill was set in the fictional town of Clanton in the Mississippi region of Ford County. He has returned to Ford County a few times in his career and in The Reckoning he is back again. This is Clanton in 1946, just after the end of the Second World War, still surviving on cotton and low paid labour. When the book opens Pete Banning is preparing to commit an act which will reverberate through that small community for years to come. Pete Banning, latest in a long line of cotton farmers in Clanton, returned from the war a changed man. He had been missing presumed dead, his family having been notified of his death three years earlier. His experiences in the war, which he refuses to share but which are detailed later in the book, shaped him and his outlook on life. When the book opens, Pete plans and carries out a murder. He walks into the Methodist church, kills the preacher Dexter Bell, and essentially admits to the crime but refuses to explain why he did it. The crime splits the small community, many of whom revered Pete as a decorated serviceman….

November Road by Lou Berney
Crime , Historical , Recommended , Review / 07/12/2018

The Kennedy assassination is the literary gift that keeps on giving. Authors like Don Delillo, James Ellroy, Norman Mailer, Tim Baker and Stephen King just to name a few have used the assassination as the jumping off point to tell bigger stories. Lou Berney goes the other way. In November Road, the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath is used to tell an intimate tale of love and loss, with plenty of blood and violence along the way. Frank Guidry is a hood with not a huge serving of morals. Based in New Orleans, he works for the Marcello crime organisation. When November Road opens he is selling out his friends and sleeping with a string of women. Then the Kennedy assassination happens and it turns out that he may have tangentially been involved, having a few days before organised for a car to be waiting at a particular spot in Dallas. This was the getaway car for the actual shooter and before long Guidry has been given the job to make that car disappear. Only he quickly realises that, as a loose end, once this is done he too will be made to disappear. While he does not know it…

Space Opera by Catherynne M Valente
Review , Science Fiction / 21/11/2018

Catherynne M Valente did her own unique take on fantasy in her Fairyland series and produced the wildly original science fictional movie industry homage Radiance a couple of years ago. Now she takes on the Eurovision Song Contest in a Douglas Adams-inspired galactic romp. For Australians, who have embraced Eurovision and its stars, the idea of a bunch of countries getting together in a competition of glitz, glamour and pop music as opposed to, say fighting each other, is probably not all that out there. Americans, whose diplomacy has tended to be a bit more po-faced might find this concept a little harder to swallow. One day every person on Earth is contacted by an alien race. They are told not only that they are not alone in the universe but that in order to join the club of sentient races, humanity has to compete and not come last in Megagalactic Grand Prix. The Grand Prix was instituted as a way of resolving the long running and destructive Sentience Wars. For Australians, now competing at Eurovision but constantly having to put up with the accusation that Australia is not in Europe, this plot line has more than a little resonance….

The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

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

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

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

Severance by Ling Ma

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

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

In Becky Chambers’ previous Wayfarer books she has taken some standard science fiction tropes – space truckers, galactic confederacies, aliens, artificial intelligence – and given them a thoughtful and humanist spin. In Record of a Spaceborn Few she does the same again, this time tackling another scifi standard – the generation ship. While it is set in the same universe as the previous Wayfarer books and there are some tangential connections, Record can easily be read as a standalone. Many generations ago, humanity packed up its collective belongings and fled a crumbling Earth in a fleet of thirty-two generation ships headed to parts of the galaxy unknown. Following contact with advanced alien species, the Exodan Fleet parked itself around a star and humanity slowly spread out again. While no longer travelling, the Fleet remained, as did much of its population, continuing to live the way their ancestors did (with a little alien technological assistance). Record follows a group of characters aboard one of the remaining Fleet ships. They are of all ages and from all walks of life. Chambers uses these characters to dig deeply into Exodan society and in particular the constant tension between development and tradition. They go…

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…