The Last Brother by Andrew Gross
Historical , Review , Thriller / 04/10/2018

Thriller writer Andrew Gross dips into his own family history for inspiration for his latest book The Last Brother. While there is plenty of action and a little suspense this is down the line historical fiction exploring the growth of the rag trade in New York in the early twentieth century and the organised crime that grew up around it. The Last Brother opens with a tragedy. One child of a Jewish immigrant family of six children dies in an accident putting Harry, the twin of the boy who died, on a different course to his siblings. Sol, the oldest son goes on to study accounting while the youngest brother Morris at thirteen goes to work for a coat maker and his wife. The narrative proper starts years later when Morris and Sol are running a successful business and Harry is running with some petty criminals. Morris and Sol are under pressure from the unions who are backed by the local mob and when one of his fellow coat makers is attacked and his stock destroyed Morris takes it on himself to see the mob boss Buchalter. It turns out that Morris and Buchalter have a long history, which Gross…

Chemistry by Weike Wang
Literature , Review / 28/06/2018

Chemistry is the debut novel by author Weike Wang. This first novel was recently acknowledged by the National Book Foundation who recognised Wang as one of its ‘5 under 35’ honourees. Wang, who herself has an undergraduate degree in chemistry and a doctorate in public health had some experience to draw from in this first novel. When the book opens her main character, never named, is in the third year of a chemistry doctorate program. But fairly soon she is questioning all of her life choices.  A child of Chinese immigrants, the narrator finds herself caught up in the immigrant dream – to study hard and excel beyond her parent’s achievements. So that when she has a crisis of confidence, stops going to the lab and eventually drops out of her PhD program, she does not tell her parents, choosing instead to maintain a fiction that she is continuing. At the same time her long term boyfriend has proposed and she does not know how to deal with the proposal. And so the narrative becomes an exploration of almost crippling indecision. Caught knowing what the “right” thing but unwilling to commit to any of it.  The narrator of Chemistry is not an easy character to like but one that over the course of the novel readers come to understand. She is, like…

Steal the Stars by Cassidy and Rogers
Review , Science Fiction / 27/04/2018

Back in the age before television, one of the most popular forms of entertainment was the radio serial. People would sit around their radios listening to dramas being acted out with sound effects. And now it seems, the art has come full circle. Podcast drama, essentially the modern day version of the 1930s radio serial, is the perfect medium for speculative fiction where the big budget special effects all happen in the head of the listener. There are plenty of great science fiction and fantasy podcasts out there – a few that make best-of lists include Welcome to Night Vale, Limetown, The Bright Sessions and Alice Isn’t Dead. Some of these have become so successful that they are branching our into other media. For example, there are now two books set in the Night Vale universe and a mooted Bright Sessions tv series in the works. Steal the Stars was the first dramatic podcast developed for Tor Labs. Created by writer Mac Rodgers it told a story that included a secret alien spaceship being studied by a powerful military contractor, forbidden love between security personnel and an almost impossible heist carried out at huge personal cost. Steal the Stars the…

When the English Fall by David Williams
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 31/07/2017

After the sturm and drang of books like World War Z and Robopocalypse it seems the quiet apocalypse is becoming the order of the day. Books like Station Eleven and Good Morning, Midnight eschew the cataclysmic to focus more purely on the personal. When the English Fall starts with a bit of a bang (a passenger plane falls from the sky) and there is clearly some violence happening somewhere. But for the most part, things are pretty quiet in rural Pennsylvania. When the English Fall is told as a series of diary entries by an Amish man called Jacob. There is a fairly unnecessary intro by the soldiers or researchers who find the diary at some later time, an open which is never returned to or referred to again and shines no light on the open ending. The English of the title is the description used for anyone who is not Amish so includes their American neighbours. The Amish have lived a devout and simple existence – think the movie Witness – horses and buggies are commonplace, very little machinery is used in their farms and they have guns but they are only used for hunting. So while they are…

Camino Island by John Grisham
Crime , Review / 05/07/2017

John Grisham regularly turns out a legal thriller every year around October. This year he has delivered something extra for fans in which lawyers hardly feature. Camino Island is part heist novel, part satire/commentary on the literary world and part thriller. And while it sometimes moves as languidly as a day on a Florida Beach, Grisham is still professional enough to always keep things moving. Camino Island opens with the daring robbery of five F Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts held securely in the basement of a library at Princeton. Things almost immediately go wrong for the thieves but the manuscripts get away. Jump to a few months later and the insurer has an idea that the manuscripts are being held by Bruce Cable, an antiquarian bookseller who runs a successful bookshop on Florida’s Camino Island. They recruit, Mercer Mann, a struggling young author, to go undercover in the community and gather information on Cable. From there the book becomes, for the most part, a lengthy commentary on the American literary scene. Camino Island is full of authors of various genres and various stripes. All have something to say about the industry and advice for Mercer who has been unsuccessfully trying to…

American War by Omar El Akkad
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 29/06/2017

2017 seems to be the year of dystopias. The Handmaid’s Tale is on our screens and 1984 has rocketed back to the top of the bestseller list. But there are still plenty of authors looking for new ways to look at the present by considering a possible darker, grimmer future. Omar El Akkad’s American War follows the main events of the second American Civil War which takes place between 2075 and 2095 and is then followed by something much worse. American War opens in 2075. America has been ravaged by climate change and extreme laws relating to the use of fossil fuels have prompted four southern states – Missouri, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina to secede from the union. South Carolina is devastated by a biological plague and walled off leaving the other three states (the MAG) to fight. Sara T Chestnut, who calls herself Sarat, and her twin sister are six when the war starts. They live outside of the MAG but when their father dies in a terrorist attack, the family ends up in a refugee camp in the MAG. The story follows the progress of the war and in particular Sarat’s radicalisation. The key to the success…

Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
Crime , Review , Thriller / 19/05/2017

Dennis Lehane takes a swerve away from his long running Kenzie and Genaro series (which includes Gone, Baby Gone) and his recent prohibition and gangsters trilogy to deliver a psychological thriller of sorts. Since We Fell is a book that is hard to categorise. In some ways it is an extended character study and in others it is an extremely long con not only of some of the characters but of the reader. For that reason it takes a long time for the novel to really come into focus with some readers possibly only hanging in to resolve the strong opening hook. Since We Fell opens with a bang, literally. Rachel shoots her husband on the deck of a boat and he flops over the side. Why she has taken the shot and what happens next will have to wait as Lehane takes us back to Rachel’s childhood and her difficult relationship with her mother. Following her mother’s death, Rachel goes on a years long search for the father that she never knew and who her mother refused to tell her about. Through this search she meets Brian, a private detective who, after much trauma on her part comes spectacularly…

The Liar by Steve Cavanagh
Crime , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 17/05/2017

Eddie Flynn, con man turned lawyer is back and once again it is not long before he is in all types of trouble. Trouble that only a man with his unique skill set and view of the world can even begin the sort out. The combination of roguish law breaking and courtroom antics are what have made the previous two Eddie Flynn outings (The Defense and The Plea) so much fun. The Liar is no exception. The first third of The Liar charts the course of one night that Eddie would probably rather forget. Besides being served with a subpoena in a lawsuit that is going after his old mentor Harry, Eddie is called to help out Lenny, an old family friend from his grifter days. Lenny has made his money specialising in helping with kidnap cases and ransoms. When his own daughter is kidnapped Lenny looks to Eddie to help him outsmart not just the kidnappers but the FBI and police who he believe will get her killed. Immediately, Eddie is using his conman skills to help Lenny out. He may be on a legal retainer but the law is a long way away. Six months later, the action…

The Girl Who Was Taken by Charlie Donlea
Crime , Review / 16/05/2017

Another day another ‘Girl’ book. But don’t be fooled by the title which is linked to the current marketing zeitgeist but is actually is a subtle commentary on the plot. The Girl Who Was Taken, second novel by American author Charlie Donlea, is not the “domestic noir” the title might suggest but is actually a fairly straight down the line crime thriller with a resourceful investigator helped by a lucky victim, the girl famous for escaping. The Girl Who Was Taken starts with a potential abduction and an escape. An unspecified time after she was kidnapped, Megan McDonald finds herself in a cabin in the woods and disorientated, staggers out through the rain and onto the highway where she is rescued. A year later and she has become famous for a ghostwritten book about her experiences which does not mention the second girl, Nicola Cutty, who disappeared on the same night she did and has never been found. While everyone expects Megan to be the “girl” she was before the kidnapping, Megan finds herself unable to return to a normal life as she works with a hypnotherapist to delve into the memories of the two weeks in which she was…

Spoils by Brian van Reet
Historical , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 28/04/2017

In Spoils, Brian Van Reet returns to the early days of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. By following the lives of two US soldiers and one of the mujahideen, he creates a visceral but nuanced exploration of that conflict. The book opens with a firefight at a road crossing outside an Iraqi village which the American troops have nicknamed Triangletown. Specialist Cassandra Wigheard, a female gunner is wounded and captured by the mujahideen. Van Reet then flicks back in time to explore how she and the mujahideen arrived at that point, including the view of a second soldier, Sleed, who fails to support Cassandra’s platoon as he was too busy looting an Iraqi palace. About half way through, van Reet returns to this present and the plight of Cassandra and her two crew mates captured by the mujahideen cell and occasionally on the army’s hunt for them. Inside the mujahideen cell itself there is dissent around what to do with the prisoners, their new leader seeing opportunity for propaganda. This is a small story in the context of the broader war. The initial conflict is a limited roadside firefight and the characters are a long way down the chain of command….

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

John Scalzi kicks off his new space opera series with a mutiny, gun running and the potential of space pirates. There is also plenty of exposition about hyperspace lanes known as the Flow but delivered with such verve that it is a joy to read. The mix of high concept science fiction and a slightly tongue in cheek tone should come as no surprise from the author who gave us both the Old Man’s War series and the award winning Redshirts. Scalzi is not backwards in building his universe from some fairly common tropes – there is an empire ruled by an emperox who is also head of the church and the most powerful trading guild, there are noble families, mainly also connected with trading guilds, and arcane trade relationships. The empire itself, known as the Interdependency is a bunch of planets that can only exist by relying on trade with each other facilitated by the mysterious and not well understood Flow lanes. But the Flow is breaking down, potentially isolating and condemning to failure, all of the interdependent outposts of the Empire. So that even before his scenario is fully understood, Scalzi has started to tear it all apart…

Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig
Review , Science Fiction / 18/04/2017

Chuck Wendig ends his post Return of the Jedi series with a series of bangs. As one of the vanguard in the creation of the new official (Disney) Star Wars Universe, Wendig has tried to be true to the spirit of the now defunct expanded universe while strongly anchoring his narrative in the new Star Wars continuity. While it has taken a while to be become clear, what he delivers is a much deeper and longer endgame than has previously been apparent and some specific connections particularly to the action in The Force Awakens are revealed. Empire’s End opens following the chaotic assassination attempts that closed out the second book in this series Life Debt. It is not long before hero Norra Wexley and her misfit crew have tracked the evil Rae Sloane and the remnants of the Empire. They find them massing around and dug in on a backwater desert planet called Jakku. Jakku is the home of Sloane’s enemy and now ruler of the remnant Empire Gallius Rax and is, as fans know, the location that opens The Force Awakens. Desperate for revenge, and under heavy fire, Norra flings herself at the planet in an escape pod together with…

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
Literature , Review / 10/04/2017

There have been plenty of books about art and artists – painters, novelists, musicians, film makers – but not so many about cartoonists. Animation as an art form has often been seen as something for children and so less worthy of consideration. And while the main characters of The Animators grew up on 1940s Loony Tunes they also discovered the very adult oriented animation of the seventies and eighties. The Animators is a book about the art form, how it works and what it means for the people who love it. The story of The Animators revolves around two very different women both from lower class, rural America. Mel is the wild card, the rule breaker but also extremely gifted animator while Sharon, from rural Kentucky, is more straight down the line, as she says: “my virtue is in my constancy”. After a brief description of their meeting in college, Whitaker skips forward ten years to their ongoing successful collaboration as animators. Mel continues to be the wild and original one while Sharon keeps the enterprise together while deep down believing that Mel is “the real artist.”.  As Sharon herself notes: “Mel’s having all the fun… while I’m the steady…

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel
Crime , Literature , Recommended , Review / 06/04/2017

Right from the prologue, Amy Engel’s first novel for adults announces itself as, well, a novel for adults. A young girl has a dream about the place in Kansas that her mother came from. Was it a nightmare? Her mother asks. No, she replies. Then it isn’t right, her mother says. And as the story of Lane, her mother and her mother’s extended family unfolds, as a reader, you can not help feeling that her mother knew what she was talking about. Lane is fifteen when her mother commits suicide and she is taken to live with her grandparents and cousin Allegra on the family estate called Roanoke in rural Kansas. For reasons that become abundantly clear fairly early on, Lane ended up running away but is drawn back, eleven years later when Allegra disappears. The story alternates between that long ago summer and the present, building to some explosive revelations along the way. Lane is one of the latest in a line of Roanoke girls, including her mother, aunt and great aunt  who either died or ran away from the place. So that Allegra’s disappearance should not come as a great surprise. That Lane and Allegra are both damaged…

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
Literature , Review / 22/03/2017

The early parts of John Darnielle’s second novel, Universal Harvester have the feel of a horror story. Set in the age of VCR and starting behind the desk of the local Video Hut, it is not long before elements of Japanese horror story The Ring creep in an even a reference to Blair Witch Project. But Darnielle has other things on his mind, the videotape mystery opening up into something more profound than straight horror. Unsettling and sad, and possibly able to be described as American Gothic, but far from the horror that could have flowed from the premise. People returning videos to the Video Hut in Nevada Iowa are complaining that their movies contain snippets of other films in the middle of them. Jeremy Heldt, stuck in a dead end job while he still tries to process the six year gone death of his mother, takes the tapes home and finds disturbing sections of black and white footage spliced into the middle. Both his friend Stephanie and his boss Sarah want to investigate and Jeremy is slowly drawn in to their obsession. Before any answers come clear, Darnielle returns to the 1960s and the story of Irene and Peter…

The Dark Room by Jonathan Moore
Crime , Review / 20/03/2017

Jonathan Moore’s The Dark Room is the second panel in his “triptych of San Francisco’s nighttime scenery”. After the psychological twistiness of his debut The Poison Artist, The Dark Room comes across a fairly down the line procedural. But as before, one that plumbs the depths of human depravity. Just to get the atmosphere established, The Dark Room opens with the exhumation of a thirty year old grave sometime after midnight. Detective Gavin Cain is called away from this scene at the request of the Mayor, who has received a series of disturbing photographs and a note from a potential blackmailer. The photographs, also thirty years old are of a woman in fear. It does not take long for Cain to wonder if the two cases are connected. The Dark Room is an effective procedural. Cain has to navigate the political landscape of his boss’s connection to the Mayor and the involvement of the FBI, time increasingly becomes a factor as the pressure mounts and the case unravels in strange directions. Par for the course in this genre, Cain himself eventually comes under threat. Cain himself is a well drawn character. An experienced detective, he is not a basket case…

The Nowhere Man by Gregg Hurwitz
Review , Thriller / 13/03/2017

The world seems to be full of highly trained, disaffected, black ops, renegade loners who are trying to do good deeds while being hunted down by their government. Last year, Orphan X, also known as Evan Smoak, joined the ranks of the likes of Jason Bourne and Jack Reacher as the latest highly skilled loner on the block. But there is no need to have read Orphan X to get right into this novel as Gregg Hurwitz covers all of the necessary detail in one paragraph: “…the Orphan Program, a deep-black project buried inside the Department of Defense. It had identified the right kind of boys [and as it turns out, girls] lost in the system of foster homes, covertly culled them one by one, and trained them to do what the US government could not officially do in places where it could not officially be. A fully deniable, antiseptic program run off a shadow budget.” When the book opens Smoak has turned his back on the Program and has taken his budget and skills to the street. He is “The Nowhere Man” and will help people in trouble, asking in return only that they pass on his phone number when…

A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 08/03/2017

As if many of the names don’t give it away (“The Punish”, “The Moans”, “The Blood Drip”), this is a particularly creepy short story collection. The collapse of horses of the title is the vision of a man with a possible brain injury. Four horses lying still in a field, possibly dead, possibly alive and another man at the water trough keeping his back to them. Imagining himself as that other man “unable to turn and look” the narrator considers this scene to be the “state of the whole world, with all of us on the verge of turning around and finding the dead behind us”. This is before he goes and (possibly) burns down the family home, possibly (and possibly not) killing his family. It is not hard to see why Evenson chose this image as the title of this collection of horror stories. The terror in many of the stories comes from a type of existential angst. An inability of the narrator to make sense of a world that does not work the way they think it should, an unwillingness to turn around to see if the dead are in fact behind. Evenson, even in the space of…

City of Secrets by Stewart O’Nan

Stewart O’Nan explores the world of terrorists and terrorism in a historical context in City of Secrets. Set in Jerusalem in 1946, O’Nan focuses on the exploits of Jewish resistance fighters, working to end the British Mandate of Palestine. The central player in City of Secrets is Brand, a Lithuanian survivor who lost his wife, parents and sister in the Holocaust. Brand only survived himself due to his mechanical skills and a survival instinct that saw his fellow prisoners die while he stood by, a failure that still haunts him. Washing up in post-war Palestine he joins the Haganah, a group of Jewish resistance fighters and takes on a false identity as Jossi, a taxi driver in Jerusalem. The Haganah was a more moderate resistance force and had joined with the British during World War Two, while the more extreme groups Irgun and Stern Gang continued their bombing campaign. Now, with the war over and the British turing away Jewish refugees, Brand and his fellow activists are drawn into the Irgun. As the violence of their campaign escalates so do the risks of getting caught. At the same time Brand is in a desperate relationship with Eva, a fellow survivor…

The Tourist by Robert Dickinson
Review , Science Fiction / 23/02/2017

It is probably an indicator of the publisher’s lack of faith that Robert Dickinson’s The Tourist sells itself as a thriller rather than a time-travel tale. Because how thrilling can things be when the future is already written? Spens is a rep for a tour company that takes people from the 24th century back in time on quaint early 21st century expeditions to English shopping malls and pubs. The enterprise is not a secret – the 21st century community know that the future tourists are among them and have adapted to serve the market. Meanwhile, back in the future, a prisoner is asked to be guide for an operative who has been sent forward from the recent past to track down some high value people lost in the Badlands. For no apparent reason, the two narrative streams are differentiated by being told in first and second person. The two plots intersect when one of Spens’ tourists goes missing and all hell starts to break loose in 21st century UK. Time travel makes it difficult to generate any tension. People in the book keep talking about not wanting to know the future so as to have some form of agency. And…