Unearthed by Kaufman and Spooner

Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, together and separately have been staking out the science fiction corner of the young teen, young adult market. In the Illluminae Files, together with Jay Kristoff, Kaufman showed a willingness to recycle tried and tested science fiction tropes into a new format. Unearthed is a similar sort of hybrid – part Indiana Jones, part Tomb Raider, part Contact, part Arrival and part, well every science fiction novel that has humans exploring strange new worlds (with a dystopian back story that also involves a generation ship for good measure). And in the middle of it, two snarky, flirty, intelligent, likeable teens from opposite sides of the tracks who fall for each other while saving the day. An alien signal from a race called the Undying has opened the way to a barren planet called Gaia which contains potentially world-changing technology. Amelia is a sixteen-year-old scavenger who has gone to Gaia to find her fortune and Jules, slightly older, is a genius academic who wants to solve the riddle of the alien tombs. They meet cute and are forced to travel together. And while their attraction grows, they have to navigate a tomb by solving alien puzzles,…

The Core by Peter V Brett
Fantasy , Review / 06/12/2017

Back in 2008, Peter Brett released The Painted Man (also known as The Warded Man in some countries), the first of his Demon Cycle series. Brett’s world was intriguing and unique. In it, demons of different forms and with differing powers would rise at night to attack mankind who were able to repel the attacks using symbols known as wards. Over the course of the series, the use of wards has become more sophisticated and the demons have become smarter, upping the stakes of each battle leading to this final volume and the ultimate war between man and demon. But each volume also became longer and less focussed, spinning out with backstory and new point of view characters.  Like the last couple of instalments of this series, The Core needed a serious edit. Brett is unable to let any character or locale go. Dedicated fans of this series may appreciate the amount of detail and the sheer number of characters that Brett catches up with. But this means it takes over 450 pages before the main characters start on their ultimate quest to end the demon war. And even then there are 400 pages left. Most of these side stories and characters have little relevance to this main plot and most are eventually abandoned as the focus returns. That said, once the action starts it does not let up, as humans previously at each other throats join forces against the demons…

Artemis by Andy Weir
Review , Science Fiction / 05/12/2017

With his debut, The Martian, such a success, there is plenty of expectation riding on Andy Weir’s second novel, Artemis. Artemis is also set in the near future, in space (on the Moon to be precise) and most of his characters seem a little too obsessed with science (or economics) but narratively Artemis is a very different beast to The Martian. Artemis is the name of the small lunar colony, home to Jasmine ‘Jazz’ Bashara, down on her luck and looking to make her fortune. Jazz keeps her head above water running contraband into the colony but very soon finds herself in the middle of an economic war for control of the aluminium smelter which, as a by-product, produces unlimited oxygen for the station. With sabotage, murder and organised crime in the mix, things start looking bad for Jazz until she takes her life, and the future of Artemis into her own hands. Given the number of big name science fiction authors who have successfully used the Moon as a setting, Weir has set himself a mammoth task from the outset. Artemis is a frontier town where almost anything goes and the law is often in the hands of the…

It Devours by Fink and Cranor
Fantasy , Review , Science Fiction / 30/11/2017

Fans of the long running Welcome to Night Vale podcast will have been eagerly waiting the new novel from its creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. While the first Welcome to Night Vale novelisation felt like an extension of and introduction to the world of the podcast, It Devours is an experiment in something a little different. Nilanjana is a scientist who came to Night Vale four years earlier but is still considered an outsider. She meets Darryl, a proselytiser for the Church of the Smiling God, a bizarre newish religion which gave him a sense of community when his parents died. But as is always the case in Night Vale, something is not quite right. Pretty soon the town is facing an existential threat and the two come together to try and save Night Vale. While no prior knowledge of Night Vale is required, it certainly helps, and those in the know will get much more out the book. The narrative is partially based on a long running storyline, visits some well known Night Vale locales and features plenty of regular characters from the podcast. To enjoy the ride, those unfamiliar with the bizarre little town of Night Vale…

The Rooster Bar by John Grisham
Crime , Review , Thriller / 29/11/2017

John Grisham delivered not one but two novels this year. While there was some crime and legal shenanigans involved, the first,  Camino Island, was more of an excursion for Grisham into the world of writing and writers. The second, The Rooster Bar, is more in Grisham’s wheelhouse – a thriller of sorts based mainly  around the underbelly of legal training and practice.  Grisham took his inspiration for The Rooster Bar from an article called the Great Law School Scam. This was an exposé of private universities, set up as diploma factories for law degrees that in the end are not worth the paper they are printed on. The Government lends money to the students which goes straight into the coffers of the law school, the students themselves rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, get a substandard education and have no career prospects when they graduate.  The Rooster Bar is about four such students – Todd, Mark, Gordy and Zola. All are in the last year at the not very prestigious Foggy Bottom Law School in Washington DC and all have debts in excess of two hundred thousand dollars which they will have to start repaying as soon as they graduate. But the four have other things on their minds. Zola and…

Strange Weather by Joe Hill
Fantasy , Review , Science Fiction / 27/11/2017

With many short story collections, it is often instructive to read the author’s comments before diving in. At the front of Neal Gaiman’s recent collection Trigger Warning there was a general overview and then some insight into the genesis of each story in the collection. Joe Hill references Gaiman in his afterward where he talks about the idea behind this collection. And that reason is that after producing a couple of massive tomes (including 2016’s post-apocalyptic doorstop The Fireman) he wanted to get back to writing that was “lean and mean”. As he says, short novels are “all killer no filler”, and goes on to list some of his favourite authors at this length including Gaiman, David Mitchell and even HG Wells.  In Strange Weather, Hill has delivered four novellas which, if nothing else, serve as a great advertisement for his range. The four stories traverse a range of ideas and character and each is, in its own very different way, a killer.  The first story, Snapshot, starts out feeling very genre. Set mainly in 1988 it features A thirteen-year-old nerdy narrator (although the knowing narration itself comes from when he is an adult), a mysterious dark force that threatens him and people he loves. Possibly a bit of a Stranger Things vibe to it, which is not a bad thing. Hill effectively uses his horror tropes to…

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 23/11/2017

Dystopia has a long history in literary fiction. A breakdown in social order, or a reshaping of society, is a useful lens through which we can examine our own society and actions. So it comes as no surprise that Native American author Louise Erdrich is another in a long line of literary writers who have taken on dystopia. The dystopian present creeps up slowly in Future Home of the Living God. The opening passage has narrator Cedar Hawk Springmaker – ‘the adopted child of Minneapolis liberals’ – heading to an Ojibwe reservation to meet her Native American birth-family. She does mention in this opening passage that ‘Our world is running backward. Or forward. Or maybe sideways, in a way as yet ungrasped.’ Cedar is four months pregnant but this is a secret that she has kept from her adopted family. Of all the sections of the novel, Erdrich treats those on the Ojibwe reservation with a refreshing naturalism. Cedar arrives to find very few of her preconceptions of her birth family met. While she seems to have a very Native American name, her birth name was Mary Potts. Her mother is welcoming but not apologetic about Cedar’s life and her…

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Historical , Recommended , Review / 22/11/2017

Jennifer Egan is best known for her creative, experimental Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Visit From the Goon Squad. That book was a series of connected short stories in a range of styles including, famously, a PowerPoint presentation. A historical drama, Manhattan Beach is a long way from Goon Squad stylistically (mostly) but still demonstrates Egan’s literary flare to great effect. The book opens in the middle of the Depression, twelve year-old Anna Kerrigan is accompanying her father Eddie on business. He is going to visit a man called Dexter Styles. Eddie is a bagman for the union and his visit to Dexter is an attempt to change his fortunes. Eight years later, it is the middle of World War II, Eddie disappeared without a trace many years before and Anna, living with her mother and disabled sister, is part of a female workforce at the docks building and repairing warships. Dexter Styles, meanwhile, runs a series of nightclubs and gambling dens on behalf of a Chicago mobster. Both are haunted to some extent by Eddie’s disappearance. The plot itself is part coming of age, part mystery story, part gangster story. Egan masterfully juggles the various plot elements around the…

Girl In Snow by Danya Kukafka
Crime , Review / 02/11/2017

Another ‘Girl’ book, but this one is actually about a girl. When Danya Kukafka’s debut novel Girl in Snow opens, 15 year old Lucinda Hayes has been found dead in the local playground. The narrative that follows circles around her peers at the local high school and one of the policemen involved in the investigation. The book opens with Cameron who in the opening lines remembers Lucinda by “her shoulder blades and how they framed her naked spine, like a pair of static lungs”. While this gives the impression that Cameron has a relationship with Lucinda it quickly emerges that this relationship is all one way. Cameron has been obsessed with Lucinda and has been watching her at night through her window, quickly making him a key suspect. Although never stated, Cameron comes across potential as having aspects of autism or at least some sort of mental health issue. Cameron was out the night Lucinda was killed and has a drawing of her dead body but, conveniently for the thriller aspect of the plot, has blackouts occasionally and in this case can not remember anything about the night itself. At the same time, Jade, an old frenemy of Lucinda’s, takes…

The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille
Review , Thriller / 27/10/2017

Nelson DeMille has been pumping out thrillers for almost 40 years. Starting with By the Rivers of Babylon in 1978. His career has included a number of series including, most recently the John Corey novels which began with Plum Island and ended with appropriately A Quiet End. While The Cuban Affair is a stand alone novel it feels like DeMille is contemplating a new series of books with a new hero Daniel ‘Mac’ MacCormick. Mac, an veteran of a number of tours of Afghanistan (or as he calls is Allfuckedupistan), now runs a charter boat out of Key West. He hangs around in the local bar and takes tourists fishing or on sunset cruises with his crew mate Jack, himself a Vietnam vet. Both are somewhat bored with their lives so that when Mac is approached by some Cuban Americans to go into Cuba and retrieve a huge sum of money hidden before the revolution, he jumps at the chance. Helping him in his decision is the beautiful Sara Ortega who is to accompany him and a payday of three million dollars. This is a slow but intriguing set up. The timeframe of the book is during the Cuban Thaw…

Sea of Rust by Robert Cargill
Review , Science Fiction / 17/10/2017

Post-apocalypses now come in may flavours. One of those is the robopocalypse. Man builds robots, robots become sentient, man tries to reign in robot sentience, robots revolt. Whether or not the robots win tends to often be the point. Think Terminator for a good example of this trope. And actually, Terminator is a good analogy for the milieu of C Robert Cargill’s Sea of Rust, although instead of Skynet there are a bunch of artificially intelligent overlords, making things a little more chaotic. The other difference is that Sea of Rust is post-human, set in an age 30 years on from the death of the last human and only robots walk the Earth. So there is no human resistance to worry about. But as with animal evolution, these robots seem to have developed into every human-type of evolutionary niche. Sea of Rust opens with Brittle, a Caregiver model, eking out an existence in the badlands. Brittle is a scavenger, finding other robots on the edge of death, talking them into shutting down with the faint hope of salvation, and then stripping them for parts. She (yes, robots have gender in this world), operates in and around the Sea of Rust,…

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…

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…