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…

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…