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….

Static Ruin by Corey J White
Review , Science Fiction / 10/12/2018

The final book of Corey J White’s Voidwitch trilogy (which started with Killing Gravity)  opens in the same vein as the previous two – with an action sequence as protagonist and voidwitch Mariam ‘Mars’ Wu pursues someone through the crowded hallways of a space station. She is trying to find a cure for Pale, the boy who had been turned into a living weapon and who she rescued at the end of the previous book – Void Black Shadow. Once again, before too long her enemies are at the door and she has to dip into her prodigious power set (this is a woman who managed to pull a moon out of the sky in a previous volume) to escape. Static Ruin follows many of the same plot beats as the earlier two books – Mariam searches for something, find bits of the puzzle, then the bad guys arrive and she has to flee, usually leaving behind a large amount of carnage. In this book her quest is to find her father and creator both as a last hope for curing Pale but also to understand her own origins. It allows White to briefly consider issues of family, loyalty and…

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…

Kill Shot by Garry Disher
Crime , Review / 05/12/2018

Garry Disher’s Wyatt, master thief with a code, returned spectacularly in the eponymous reboot in 2010 which went on to win the Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction. Kill Shot is now the third book in what is essentially a second series of Wyatt books (the first series coming out in the late 80s and early 90s) and it starts to provide a glimpse as to why Disher might have given the character an initial sabbatical. Kill Shot opens in Sydney. Wyatt has moved to the harbour city to carry out a series of jobs scoped by an old criminal mate called Kramer. Kramer is in prison but while on day release he passes information about potential jobs to Wyatt. When the book opens, Wyatt is in the process of stealing Ned Kelly memorabilia from an old collector, a job that goes off without a hitch. Wyatt keeps a cut for Kramer which he doles out to Kramer’s family. Unfortunately for Wyatt, that family includes waster son Josh who brags about the cash to an Afghanistan vet mate of his. At the same time, a dogged policeman has put some facts together and is also closing in on Wyatt. So…

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Pat Barker came to prominence in the 1990s with her trilogy of novels set in the First World War (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road), the third of which took out the Booker Prize. In The Silence of the Girls she goes much further back in time, to the Trojan Wars. This story, told in The Iliad, has been reinterpreted and retold many times. Barker takes a new tack, telling the story not from the perspective of the soldiers but the women who were their chattels and their prizes and their slaves. The Iliad opens with an argument between Achilles and Agamemnon over a woman. That woman is Briseis, a prize of war claimed by Achilles earlier in the campaign. Barker opens her book earlier in time, with Briseis watching as Achilles and his troops sack her city and kill her family. She and the other women are taken back to the Greek camp and distributed as prizes. Briseis, the biggest prize, is ‘awarded’ to Achilles. Through Briseis’s story, Barker explores how women are used, abused, marginalised, ignored and blamed. Early in the book,  Briseis is brought as a child bride to King Mynes and ends up…

The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell
Crime , Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 30/11/2018

Paraic O’Donnell’s debut novel The Maker of Swans was one of the standout fantasy novels of 2016. In a genre that often deals in warmed over tropes, The Maker of Swans was a work of beguiling originality. So the question was, how would O’Donnell follow this debut up. Much like another debutant of the previous year, Natasha Pulley, he does so with an emphatic change in direction which maintains the features that made his debut so enjoyable. The Maker of Swans was set in a more contemporary time but always had the feel of a more Victorian novel. The House on Vesper Sands is Victorian so allows O’Donnell more licence to lean into period flourishes (also drawing further comparisons with Pulley’s works which are both set in this era). In the cold open a seamstress, suffering from some undisclosed medical condition, who is brought to the house of Lord Strythe late at night to complete a secret commission commits suicide. The story proper opens with young Gideon Bliss coming down from Cambridge to see his uncle and failing to find him runs into a young woman from his past. At the same time, society reporter Octavia Hillingdon has happened on…

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
Crime , Literature , Review / 28/11/2018

Award winning Polish author Olga Tokarczuk follows up her first novel Flights (which won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018) with something completely different. While that book concerned itself with travel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is located in one small village in Poland near the border with the Czech Republic. The main character and narrator, an old woman named Mrs Duszejko, seems to have lived in that location her whole life and has a deep connection to the place and its wildlife. When the book opens Duszejko and her neighbour Oddball (she gives everyone nicknames, trusting them more than their real names) discover a third neighbour Bigfoot dead in his cabin. When they arrive there are deer outside his cabin and when they find that Bigfoot died by choking on a deer bone Duszejko comes up with a theory that he was killed by the deer as revenge for his hunting of them. Duszejko herself has been waging a campaign against the local hunters (a group which involves all of the high and mighty in the town) so this fits with her own view of the practice. Bigfoot is only the first death and…

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson has spent a bit of time recently in the Second World War. While researching her previous book A God in Ruins she came across the story of Jack King, a bank clerk who helped in the early days of the war to entrap Nazi sympathisers in Britain. This true story became the inspiration for her latest novel, Transcription, which has the feel of a spy novel although one that is on occasion slyly winking at its audience. Transcription opens in 1981, ageing Juliet Armstrong is knocked over while crossing the road. Nesting backwards, the accident sends her memory back to 1950 when she worked at the BBC and then, remembering how she caught site of someone she worked with during the war, back further to 1940. In 1940, Juliette was recruited by MI5 to help them with a sting operation. Godfrey Toby has been cultivating local fascists and Nazi sympathisers. Juliet’s job is to sit in the flat next door and transcribe the conversations between Toby and his marks. Later she is also recruited to go undercover and infiltrate a circle of sympathisers. Neither job ends quite the way Juliet expects and she is concerned that the repercussions…

Preservation by Jock Serong
Crime , Historical , Review / 23/11/2018

Australian author Jock Serong never does the same thing twice. He has gone from corruption in sport in The Rules of Backyard Cricket to a political thriller in On the Java Ridge and now to historical investigation in Preservation. But in each case he shines a light on some aspect of Australian life or, in some respects the Australian condition. In Preservation, besides being a cracking tale of survival, betrayal and psychopathy, Serong explores the earliest days of the colony of Sydney. Preservation is based on a true story. In 1797, a boat called the Sydney Cove running rum into the fledgling colony of Sydney (rum being a currency at that time) from India, runs aground on a tiny island just north of Tasmania. A group of seventeen, including four Englishmen and thirteen Lascars, leave the rest of the survivors behind on the island to go for help. They founder off the coast of Victoria, make land and then proceed to walk the fifteen hundred kilometres to Sydney. Only three survived the walk. Serong builds his tale around these three but also their interrogator, Grayling and his wife, who has been struck down by a debilitating illness. It emerges early…

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 Cold Summer by Gianrico Carofiglio
Crime , Recommended , Review / 19/11/2018

Much like the spy thrillers penned by former head of MI5 Stella Rimington, Italian author Gianrico Carofilgio brings a significant amount of authenticity to his crime novels. Carofiglio was an Italian senator but before that he was an anti-mafia prosecutor. He is best known for a crime series featuring lawyer Guido Guerrieri but in his new book The Cold Summer he comes even closer to home with a protagonist who is a police investigator and an investigation that takes place during an internal mafia war in the early 1990s. A war seems to have broken out in the Apulian mafia of the Bari area. Due to the codes of silence and honour the police are playing catch-up. But then a rumour gets around that the son of the mafia godfather Grimaldi has been kidnapped and everything heats up. The first third of the book deals with the police trying to get to the bottom of a kidnapping that no one will talk about and which has tragic results. The second third explores the mafia war in detail. One of the instigators  of that war hands himself in to the police to prove he had nothing to do with the kidnapping…

And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 15/11/2018

You could imagine the elevator pitch for Patrick Ness’s new novel And the Ocean Was Our Sky: “Think Moby Dick, but from the whale’s point of view”. But while Moby Dick is a touchstone, fantasy writer Ness, responsible for A Monster Calls, the Chaos Walking trilogy and the Doctor Who spinoff Class, takes this well known story into new territory. The book opens with “Call me Bathsheba” a riff on that famous opening line. Bathsheba is a whale who has been told that she has a destiny as a hunter of men. In Bathsheba’s world, whales hunt humans as much as humans hunt whales in a war that seems to never have an end. The whales carry harpoons and drag boats behind them underwater as a way of storing and transporting human bodies which they use as resources. These whales have developed an underwater civilization and have a breathing technology that enables them to only venture to the ocean’s surface, known as the Abyss, infrequently. Bathsheba’s story centres around a hunt for the great white ship of legendary whale killer Toby Wick. After picking up the lone survivor of a massacre of humans which hints at the work of Wick,…

Wintering by Krissy Kneen
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 13/11/2018

People have been disappearing in the Australian fictional landscape for years. In Picnic at Hanging Rock, the disappearance and of a group of girls is seen through the eyes of those left behind, having to deal with the “menace” of the unknowable bush. Wintering starts with a similar premise. Jessica is a PhD student researching glowworms in the far south of Tasmania. She lives with Matthew, a local who, it emerges fairly quickly, completely dominates her life. But then Matthew disappears in mysterious circumstances, his car abandoned by the side of the road, impenetrable forest on either side and a strange video on his phone. With his disappearance, Jessica finds herself both trapped by grief and free at the same time. Krissy Kneen sets the creepy tone of this book early with Jessica’s discovery of a possum corpse impaled on a stalagmite in a tourist cave. After Matthew’s disappearance the creepiness ratchets up as Jessica finds herself isolated in her shack, unable to shake the feeling that she is being watched by something malevolent. Once she starts to establish a connection with the local townsfolk she also learns that she is the thirteenth “widow” whose husband or boyfriend has vanished…

Tree Spirits and Other Strange Tales by Michael Eisele
Fantasy , Review / 09/11/2018

Michael Eisele’s latest book of short stories, as the name suggests, is full of spirits and fae creatures and is rich in mythology. The opening story “Mouse” is one of many stories in this collection where humans interact with otherworldly beings and so sets the tone for most of the book. In this story, a struggling artist finds that his mentor is caring for a small spirit creature that has lived in the town from when the town was still a forest. The artist is inspired to paint a canvas of the spirit creature’s lost world, a painting that opens up much more. In “Tree Spirit”, a wood carver makes a deal with the spirit of a fallen tree to turn her into a boat so they can both see the world. In these, and many of the other tales of deals with the spirit world, the outcome is driven by the mythology that the spirits inhabit and is never quite what the humans might have expected. Many stories follow a similar trajectory of discovery, interaction and twisted resolution but draw on a range of different traditions, including Irish, Germanic and Native American. While many of the stories feel like…

The Anomaly Michael Rutger
Review , Thriller / 08/11/2018

The Anomaly is an old school adventure story, if your school is action movies of the 1980s and 1990s. A cross between Indiana Jones, the works of Dan Brown and the X-Files, The Anomaly follows a group of documentary makers in search of the unknown who, never thinking they will actually find it, stumble on an ancient mystery. What follows is a thriller that ticks all of the haunted house boxes. Nolan Moore is a washed up screenwriter who is scraping by making a web-based TV series called The Anomaly Files. In the show he pursues hidden secrets, myths and conspiracies. He never actually finds any but he tells a good story. In this case he is planning to tell the story of a mysterious cave found in the depths of the Grand Canyon by some explorers in the 19th Century. Bankrolled by a new sponsor, Nolan sets off with his crew and a journalist, to see if he can locate the cave. But when he actually manages to find it and is trapped inside with his crew, an ancient mechanism is triggered and all hell breaks loose. Michael Rutger (pen name of British novelist Michael Marshall Smith) is, according…

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Ghost Wall, the sixth book by British author Sarah Moss, is as short and sharp as a flint knife. The book is a coming-of-age tale that explores the power of the past to inform and drive action. Along the way, Moss deeply questions the Brexit movement and gender power dynamics. Ghost Wall opens in prehistoric times, with the death of an Iron Age woman at the hands of her tribe. Cut to almost modern day, sometime not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and teenage Sylvie and her parents have joined a university project conducting an experiment in living archaeology in the Northumbrian countryside. The aim of the project is for the family, along with the professor and his three young adult students, to live as far as possible as people did in the Iron Age. As Sylvie observes: … that was the whole point of the re-enactment, that we ourselves become the ghosts, learning to walk the land as they walked it two thousand years ago, to tend our fire as they tended theirs and hope that some of their thoughts, their way of understanding the world, would follow the dance of muscle and bone. To do…

Thin Air by Richard Morgan
Review , Science Fiction / 05/11/2018

Richard Morgan returns to science fiction after a bit of a break with a sequel of sorts to his last scifi outing Black Man (called Thirteen in the US). That break has seen the Netflix adaptation of his best known scifi work (and debut) Altered Carbon. Those who have read or seen Altered Carbon might find themselves experiencing a strange sense of déjà vu when reading his latest book Thin Air. Hakan Veil is an overrider. Genetically engineered from before birth to be a supersoldier, he is forced to spend four months of every year in hibernation. When he emerges from that state he “runs hot”, prone to anger and violence. When Thin Air opens, Veil has just been woken and is on an assassination mission in the nightclubs of Mars. Veil was decommissioned from the overriders and exiled to Mars where he makes a living working for underworld figures. Mars is a frontier world, riddled with gangs, corruption and vice, a milieu that Veil slots into perfectly. At one level Thin Air is a crime story and political thriller although it takes a long time to get there. Veil is assigned to one of the auditors who has come…

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,…

Thylacines by Deborah Sheldon
Review , Science Fiction / 26/10/2018

The characters in Deborah Sheldon’s new horror novella Thylacines had clearly never read or seen  Jurassic Park. Scientist Rose Giuliani works in the Resurrection Lab at the usually sleepy Fraser University outside of Melbourne. Rose and her team have brought the extinct thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, a marsupial carnivore extinct since the 1930s, back to life through DNA extraction and cloning. This work has actually been postulated in real life by Professor Mike Archer, formerly of the Australian National Museum. But, as readers (and viewers) of Jurassic Park already know, bringing extinct species back to life is an endeavour fraught with risk. Rose has managed to raise a successful litter of five thylacines. But even she admits that these are not ordinary thylacines. They are more than twice the size of the original animal and super-aggressive.  At the same time as a visit by representatives for the company that funds their research, a group of incompetent animal libbers break in and manage release the animals. The groups collide, the animals escape and it quickly turns out the super-thylacines really enjoy the taste of human blood. The rest is mayhem, cliffhangers and gore. There are more Jurassic Park echoes as the…