NK3 by Michael Tolkin
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 20/02/2017

Another day, another literary Armageddon. While there are already a plethora of genre Post apocalypses (zombies, robots, diseases, environmental cataclysms), it seems that there is a conga line of ‘literary’  authors looking to get in on the act, some more successful than others. Recently, just to name a few, we have had  Margaret Atwood’s third in a Post-apocalyptic trilogy Maddaddam, Good Morning Midnight, a quiet contemplative apocalypse, The Fireman, a horror thriller style apocalypse, and Gold, Fame, Citrus, set in California and its surrounding desert. NK3, by Michael Tolkin, best known for The Player, most resembles the last of these. Set in and around a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles in the wake of a genetically engineered plague released by North Korea dubbed NK3. NK3 is an inventive plague at least. Designed by North Korea to subdue the South by wiping the will of their enemies it has mutated and spread. NK3, now four years gone essentially reset the minds of anyone it came in contact with. They forget everything about themselves and become mindless drones. A method was developed to partially restore people and the process was used first on technicians and tradesmen to ensure things kept running. But those who were…

The Jekyll Revelation by Robert Masello
Fantasy , Historical , Review / 17/02/2017

The Jekyll Revelation is a strange hybrid of a novel. It constantly flicks between the diaries of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, and the struggles of a present day environmental scientist tracking coyotes in Topanga Canyon outside of Los Angeles. In the process deep secrets are revealed. The Robert Louis Stevenson story line is told in diary form. It starts with a murder then flashes back to Stevenson’s sojourn with his family in a Swiss health retreat while he writes Treasure Island. Stevenson was seeking (and received according to his diary) radical treatment for a chronic lung condition. The story of Stevenson’s stay at the sanitarium and his bizarre treatment is told in the best tradition of gothic horror. The results provide more than the inspiration for the novel about Jekyll and Hyde which, once published and adapted for the West End stage, draws Stevenson into the Jack the Ripper investigation. The Jekyll Revelation leans heavily on historical record to create a fictional Stevenson. And Robert Masello effectively manages to blur the line between what is likely to be the truth, fictional licence and out and out fantasy. Meanwhile, in the bright sunshine of Topanga Canyon, Rafael Salazar is dealing with…

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet, Becky Chamber’s eye-opening debut, brought a bit of humanism into science fiction. Like recent film Arrival, and much of Star Trek, Chambers was interested in using science fiction to explore elements of the human condition through science fiction. You would expect that the sequel would build on Chambers’ rich universe and diverse cast. But Chambers, bravely and successfully, takes a different approach. Focusing on two of peripheral characters from the original book and based mainly in a familiar locale. At the end of Planet, rebooted Artificial Intelligence Lovelace had been illegally installed into a human body-kit and spirited away by fix-it guru Pepper, leaving the crew of the Wayfarer to go on their way. Chambers tells the story of Lovelace, now Sidra, as she adjusts to being in human form and the history of Pepper, who started her life as a throwaway clone and was rescued and raised by a ship’s AI called Owl. Whereas Planet had some semblance of a plot and some secrets among the crewmates to drive the action, Orbit is almost pure character drama. While there is some tension in the fact that Sidra is effectively illegal and…

Marshall’s Law by Ben Sanders
Crime , Review , Thriller / 09/02/2017

Ben Sanders is a New Zealander but you would not know it from his all American gun-fest that is the Marshall Grade series. These books steeped in the American super hard-boiled tradition, usually anchored by a violently proficient loner, popularised by authors like Lee Child. Marshall’s Law opens months after the events in American Blood. There is still a contract out on Marshall, Sander’s Jack Reacher style loner and former cop who went into witness protection after an undercover operation gone wrong. Unable to find him, they go after his US Marshal contact Lucas Cohen in Santa Fe. Cohen survives a kidnapping attempt and alerts Marshall who then leaves his hiding spot in LA to travel to the East Coast to try and get some information. For no real reason, Cohen also heads to New York with a view to helping Marshall out. Meanwhile, a violent crime boss called Dexter Vine is looking to capture or kill Marshall for the bounty which he needs to pay off debts to a bigger crime boss. Much of the narrative focusses on the cat and mouse games between Vine’s goons and Marshall with Cohen providing some related back-up as he puts things together….

The Possessions by Sarah Flannery Murphy
Fantasy , Literature , Review , Romance / 08/02/2017

Sarah Flannery Murphy’s debut novel is a difficult one to pigeon-hole. It is on its face a high concept speculative fiction that could almost be described as literary fantasy but with a dark, contemporary edge. But it also has shades of romance and thriller. Even the name of the book provides a number of ambiguous entries into the themes that Murphy explores. But first, the concept. In Murphy’s world there are people who are able to channel the souls of the deceased. By taking a particular drug and using certain triggers they can allow their bodies to be possessed by someone who has died. Eurydice, or Edie, is a ‘body’, working in an establishment known as Elysium, the only sanctioned game in town for people who wish to spend time with their departed loved ones. Edie is the longest serving of the bodies at Elysium, the work causing most to burn out. While there is nothing physical about the trade, the analogies with prostitution run strongly through the narrative. Two things happen to shake up Edie’s world. The first is a man who comes to spend time with his wife Sylvia who accidentally drowned while they were on a holiday….

The Terranauts by TC Boyle
Literature , Review / 17/01/2017

Two of TC Boyle’s long running themes collide in his latest novel The Terranauts. On the one hand is his continuing exploration of the power of visionaries to create a following (read cult) and bring people along with their vision (The Road to Wellville is a good early example of this). And on the other, the environment, its fragility, and man’s continuing struggle to both live in harmony with it and destroy it (When the Killing’s Done is a good recent example of this). And like many of his previous books, The Terranauts is built around a true story, because sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up. It is the mid 1990s and eight intrepid explorers, the Terranauts of the title, have been chosen from a group of 16, to spend two years inside a completely sealed habitat known as Ecosphere 2 (the “2” because the Earth itself is Ecosphere 1). Just a note that in the real world, the original was called Biosphere 2 and is still going strong reinvented as a research facility. Ecosphere 2, built in the middle of Arizona, has been established with different biomes – a rainforest, a desert, a small ocean – and…

Invasive by Chuck Wendig
Review , Science Fiction / 09/12/2016

Chuck Wendig takes a break from the Star Wars universe to delivers an X-Files meets Michael Crichton thriller Invasive. Ostensibly a sequel to 2014’s Zeroes, no familiarity of the previous volume is required. Hannah Stander is futurist who consults to the FBI. Her job is to try and see into the future, one she divides neatly before the action even starts as an apocalypse versus apotheosis or evolution versus ruination scenario. The idea here, not a new one, is that technologies and technological advances are neither good or bad – the issue is what humans make of them. Hannah is called in by her FBI handler Hollis Copper when a body is found seemingly skinned alive by thousands of genetically engineered ants. The ants contain a patented genetic marker of a company run by Einar Geirsson “billionaire contemporary of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs (maybe even Iron Man’s Tony Stark)”. This introduction an early indicator that the reader is pretty much in comic book territory. Hannah ends up on a remote Hawaiian atoll, openly invited by Geirsson to investigate his company on the basis that he has nothing to hide. But pretty soon the killer ants are on the march…

Babylon’s Ashes by James SA Corey
Review , Science Fiction / 07/12/2016

Six books into a projected nine book series and you would expect Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham aka James SA Corey to slow down just a little. And coming off a massive solar system shaking event in last year’s Nemesis Games (reviewed here), this is what they do. Babylon’s Ashes, for all of its action set pieces feels like a consolidation and table setting for the projected final three volumes of this epic space opera series. That does not mean they have throttled back on the action but there is only a little of the weird alien goings on or massive events that have characterised earlier volumes. Rather the focus is on the shifting allegiances, politics, battles and fixes required to manage both a war and a crisis on an unprecedented scale. The book opens on an Earth completely devastated by the Belter Free Navy in Nemesis Games. Millions have died and millions continue to die as pawns in a political struggle between the combined forces of Earth and Mars and the Free Navy, armed by Martian military dissidents. In the middle of it all, as always, are James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante. While Holden, Naomi, Alex…

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
Literature , Review / 25/11/2016

Jonathan Safran Foer has the literary equivalent of a mid-life crisis in his latest novel, the intensely Jewish Here I Am. The title, explained early on in the novel, refers to Abraham’s answer when asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. But it could just as easily refer to Safran Foer himself, waving his literary arms and putting his head over the parapet ten years after his well received debut Everything is Illuminated and its post-9/11 follow up Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Here I Am is essentially two stories – a domestic tale of the end of a marriage and the global crisis foreshadowed in the first line of the book – the destruction of the State of Israel. The domestic tale centres around Jacob, a writer for television married to Julia for sixteen years with three children, suffering from a mid-life crisis and looking down the barrel of a separation from his wife. The metaphorical earthquake in Jacob’s life is paralleled by a real earthquake in the Middle East leading to an array of Arab forces moving in on a weakened Israel. The global crisis comes halfway through the book and both heightens and throws a spanner into…

Dodgers by Bill Beverly
Crime , Review / 21/11/2016

Bill Beverly has taken out 2016 Golden Dagger Awards for both best crime fiction and best debut for Dodgers. This is the type of crime novel that is steeped in the criminal world. There are no murders to be solved, no stunning late novel twists, no confession in the library or carefully staged plea bargains. This is a story about criminals, about crime and redemption, that shines a light on modern America. East is a yard boy for a Los Angeles drug operation. His job is to manage the group pf teenage boys who stand guard around the houses where people come to buy and take drugs. At fifteen he is already lost to the system, living out of a cardboard box, having to find his own way and working for that gang to support his young single mother. When the drug operation is blown, East is given a new assignment by his boss Fin, a man to whom he is also related – to go with three other boys, including his trigger-happy younger brother Ty, to Wisconsin to kill a potential witness in an upcoming trial. East and his three companions, young black teens, are all out of their…

The Whistler by John Grisham
Crime , Review / 17/11/2016

The Whistler is an issues novel that uses the framework of a legal procedural. In his recent Grey Mountain, Grisham took on the coal industry, in The Whistler it is the Indian-run casinos and the range of social and political issues that they raise. But in focussing too much on the issues and the path to their resolution, he loses sight of the need to for a legal thriller to thrill. An informant (the whistleblower or ‘whistler’ of the title) brings a potential corruption case to the attention of the Florida Board of Judicial Conduct. The allegation is that a Florida judge has been working with an organised crime gang and has been instrumental over the years in helping establish and then keep in business a casino on Tappacola  land. This not only included favourably ruling on land deals but also possibly having an innocent man sentenced to death in return for a cut of the casino profits. For BJC Investigator Lacy Stolz and her partner Hugo Hatch, this investigation promises to be the most far reaching of their careers. But as they start to investigate they soon find themselves well out of their depth and a target of criminal forces. Despite some of…

To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

Eowyn Ivey, known for her first novel The Snow Child, takes readers back to a no less mystical Alaskan frontier in her follow-up novel To the Bright Edge of the World. The novel is centred around an expedition in the 1880s to the source of the wild and little known Wolverine River. But it is much more than that, it is a love story of sorts that also touches on the issues of changing nature of the landscape and the relationship that people have with it and the destruction of indigenous Alaskan cultures that followed the arrival of Europeans. The tale is told in a number of strands. The first is mainly through the diaries of Allen Forrester, a military man charged with leading a very small expedition (himself, two men and their guides) to navigate the Wolverine. The second is the diaries of his younger wife Sophie, left behind at a military camp in Canada, and having to deal with her own personal struggles. All of this is set in a meta-narrative of a correspondence between a latter day relative of Forrester’s and the curator of a museum in the modern Wolverine town of Alpine to whom he has sent…

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
Review , Science Fiction / 09/11/2016

Blake Crouch, author of the Wayward Pines series, goes all Sliding Doors in his latest mind-bending thriller Dark Matter.  Jason Dessen is a science teacher at a local college, he and his artist wife Daniella having given up promising careers to raise a child. Then everything goes a little haywire. Jason is kidnapped and knocked out. When he wakes up he is in a different reality, one in which he is a famous scientist who has been missing for fourteen months and Daniella is a famous artist who hardly remembers him. The question that plagues him is which reality it actually real. There have been plenty of books, TV series and movies that have dealt with the multiple world theory of quantum physics. That is, the idea that every time someone makes a decision two worlds branch off, one in which the decision was made and one in which it was not made. Many of these also involve time travel with the time travel event creating new multiverses. But there is no time travel in Dark Matter, time moves inexorably forward as Crouch’s characters explore various similar, utopian and dystopian versions of present day Chicago.  And about two thirds of…

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Literature , Recommended , Review / 20/10/2016

After spending time in the Amazon in the magnificent State of Wonder, Ann Patchett comes home in her latest novel, Commonwealth. The book at first feels like an example of the old Tolstoyan cliché that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. Not that the families in Commonwealth are unhappy, per se, but they are complex. And while at first blush their members seem to fall into identifiable types, nothing is that simple. Commonwealth opens at a christening in 1964. Policeman Fix Keating is celebrating the birth of his second daughter Frannie, little knowing that this party will bring with it a seismic upheaval not only to his life but the lives of two families. Attending almost by accident while trying to escape his own wife and children, Bert Cousins catches sight of Fix’s wife Beverly and the rest is history. In a sometimes circular fashion, Patchett traces the lives of the six Cousins and Keating children who ended up spending summers together in Virginia as they grew up until a tragedy throws them all apart. Patchett’s strength in this book is charting the growth of these characters. All of their life choices and decisions are informed by character and circumstance…

The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel
Literature , Review / 28/09/2016

The Summer That Melted Everything is a novel that defies characterisation. Part coming of age story, part American gothic, part social commentary. And it manages to be all of these things at once while plumbing the depths of the worst of humanity with poetic prose. It is 1984, a year of wonders, and Autopsy Bliss, long time prosecuting attorney in the town of Breathed, Ohio, puts an ad in the newspaper inviting the devil to come to the town. And the devil appears, possibly, in the form of a lost thirteen-year-old African American boy who instantly befriends Autopsy’s youngest son Fielding. Whether Sal, as he calls himself based on the S from Satan and L from Lucifer, is actually the devil remains ambiguous through the book. Certainly he seems to know things that he should not know and his presence seems too impact on the weather of the town which becomes unbearably hot. But in many ways, Sal is just a thirteen-year-old boy. The story of that summer is narrated by Fielding from a remove of seventy years. An ageing Fielding lives in an Arizona trailer park in a very sparsely described mid-twenty first century. But the affect of those…

The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 27/09/2016

Heidi Heilig’s The Girl From Everywhere is a heady mix of time travel, fantasy, romance and historical fiction for young adults. Nix Song, a sixteen year old lives on a tall ship called the Temptation, captained by her father Slate. Slate has the power to navigate the ship anywhere in time and space so long as he has a written map to guide him. But there is only one thing Slate wants – to return to Honolulu in 1865 and prevent his partner from dying just after she gave birth to Nix. The question that troubles Nix is what might happen to her and her life if he succeeds. Nix is probably the least interesting character in the book. A plucky teenager with father issues and a burgeoning but fairly chaste love life, caught between her roguish shipmate Kashmir and the more straightlaced, shore-bound Blake. But this blandness also makes Nix the perfect guide to this world for the intended audience of the novel, which would be teenage girls at the younger end of the young adult spectrum. As if the time travel element is not enough, there is more than a smattering of fantasy in The Girl from Everywhere…

Darktown by Thomas Mullen
Crime , Historical , Recommended , Review / 23/09/2016

A crime novel set in Atlanta in 1948, Darktown uses the genre to shine a light on a point in time in American history and, in doing so, on present day America. Thomas Mullen uses as his jumping off point the true story of the appointment of the first eight black policemen in Atlanta. They do not have an office, instead they are forced to operate out of the basement of a local YMCA. They were not given cars and had to call in white detectives when a matter needed investigation. Distrusted almost as much by the locals in their own, segregated neighbourhoods as by their fellow police officers, they were nevertheless part of the vanguard of a nascent civil rights movement. Lucius Boggs, son of the local preacher and recently returned from the Second World War, is one of the first eight black policemen in Atlanta. He and his fellow recruits are keen to clean up their part of town, rife with bootleggers, gambling and prostitution. To add to their problems, many of those enterprises are either sponsored or actively managed by their white police colleagues who make money from turning a blind eye and who are not keen to see any change to the…

Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman
Crime , Review / 20/09/2016

Laura Lippman steps into To Kill a Mockingbird territory in her latest legal thriller Wilde Lake. But this is not a coming of age story about a girl who sees her lawyer father do the right thing. Quite the opposite. Where Wilde Lake delves into the past, and it spends a lot of its time there, it is to highlight how much we miss and reinterpret as children and how those events may look different in the harsher light of adulthood. Luisa Brant has recently fought a bruising political battle with her now ex-boss to become the first ever female district attorney of Howard County, Maryland. The win was particularly bittersweet as it was that same boss who had hired her during a particularly low period in her life. Lu is also the daughter of the most famous, and still loved prosecutor in the state’s history. So expectations are high but from her first murder trial, a seemingly open and shut case involving the killing of a woman by a local with a mental illness, things start to unravel. At the same time as the contemporary case, Lippman takes readers through Lu’s childhood. Starting with an incident involving her brother…

Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

Hot on the heels of Colson Whitehead’s magical realist version on slavery in the antebellum south The Underground Railroad (reviewed here) comes Ben Winter’s alternate history exploring similar issues. Ben Winter’s version of the present is one in which Abe Lincoln was assassinated before the civil war and in the aftermath of that event a compromise was reached in which the Southern states were allowed to maintain slavery. Modern day America still has four slave states (the Hard Four) and has spent the twentieth century as an economic pariah, suffering trade embargoes from Europe but finding alternative markets for its goods in Africa and Asia. The Underground Airlines of the title describes the system in place to help escaped slaves, known in the vernacular as People Under Bond or Peebs, reach the safety of Canada. They are unable to stay even in the free states of the US because of laws which allow Federal Marshalls to recapture and return them. The book opens on Victor, a former slave who managed to escape to the North only to be blackmailed and trained into working for the Marshalls to track down other escaped slaves. But all is not what it seems with…

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

With Black Lives Matter in the news in the US it is perhaps no surprise that fiction and non-fiction explorations of slavery are once again coming to the fore. Fiction which focuses on slavery, while important to an understanding of historical context, also casts a light on current events. Recent films like 12 Years a Slave, the remaking of Roots on TV and now, among a number of new books which take slavery as their focus, comes Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad begins with the origins of the slave trade. The story of Cora’s grandmother who was transported to America and passed through a number of hands before arriving at a cotton plantation in Georgia from which she never left.  But the focus of the novel is on Cora, forced to find her own way after her mother escaped from the plantation, when she was eleven, leaving her behind. Cora, encouraged by a fellow slave, also decides to flee despite the severe and violent consequences of failure. When she does, Cora discovers the underground railroad used to transport escaped slaves North. In Whitehead’s world this is no metaphorical device but an actual railroad dug into the earth by unknown hands, run by white station agents committed…