Booktopia - Australia's local bookstore
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…

Closing Down by Sally Abbott
Review , Science Fiction / 21/06/2017

Sally Abbott’s Closing Down won the Richell Award, a prize given to emerging writers judged on the first three chapters and outline of an unpublished work. And Closing Down’s first three chapters effectively set the tone of the rest of the piece. The opening image particularly, of a large drunk man riding a small pony to death is a powerful and startling one and serves as a guiding metaphor for the whole (a metaphor with is unfortunately unpacked a few chapters later). Closing Down is set in a near future where climate change and economic breakdown has pushed Australia to start emptying its small rural towns and concentrating people into larger centres. This is part of a global movement to address the impacts of climate change and it is creating a global wave of refugees all being housed in massive new refugee centres. The narrative focusses on Clare, living in one of the Australian inclusion zones but struggling to get by, and Roberto an international journalist and his lover Ella who works in refugee resettlement. The tenuous connection between Roberto and Clare comes through Roberto’s grandmother, Granna Adams, who raised him and who takes Clare in when she is evicted….

The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey
Crime , Review / 08/06/2017

Sarah Bailey’s debut Australian crime novel The Dark Lake opens strongly. The body of a popular teacher is found by an early morning jogger in the town lake, surrounded by long stemmed red roses. The teacher is Rosalind Ryan, daughter of wealthy family of developers, who left town but had returned a couple of years before under cloud. Detective Gemma Woodstock is called to the scene. She comes across very quickly as on edge and conflicted both about the case and her life.  Gemma went to school with the victim and knows her better than the casual acquaintance than she makes it sound, although the full details of their connection do not emerge until much later. The Dark Lake falls into the crime sub-genre of police procedural run by a too-invested, damaged cop. Gemma Woodstock is a fairly unlikeable but not uninteresting protagonist. Woodstock has lived in the small town of Smithson all her life and has a young child but is also having an affair with her work partner Felix, who himself has a wife and three daughters. So from the start she is juggling a complicated personal life with potential unearthing of deeper secrets and trauma from her…

The Girl in Kellers Way by Megan Goldin
Crime , Review / 02/06/2017

Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins have a lot to answer for. While The Girl in Kellers Way is an effective, sometimes creepy domestic thriller there are no girls in it (except for little Alice who is not a main player). The two main characters are women, and the body found in Kellers Way is also a woman. The word “Girl” in the title is the tool used to give bookshop browsers an idea that this is a domestic noir. Australian author Megan Goldin’s debut does tick off on some of the aspects of the domestic noir sub-genre indicated by the title: strained domestic relationship, creepy controlling male character and an unreliable narrator. And she does so in a way that brings something new and a little chilling to the genre. The narrative of The Girl in Kellers Way flicks between Julie and Mel, two very different women. Julie is the second wife of charismatic psychology lecturer Matt, bringing up Alice, the daughter by his first marriage. That first marriage ended in a tragedy that is widely known in the small American university town in which they live. Julie, still jealous of the dead Laura, has been on some cocktail of…

Ragdoll by Daniel Cole
Crime , Review , Thriller / 11/05/2017

In a short author interview at the end of Ragdoll, Daniel Cole explains how he put the novel together. He wanted something that was less po-faced that the run of the mill British television crime drama but something not as cheesy as American television crime drama like Castle. And while he has partially succeeded in Ragdoll, he does end up leaning very heavily towards the cheesy/contrived end of the spectrum. Ragdoll opens with the trial of the Cremation Killer – a man known for burning his young, female victims. The trial goes south and police investigator William Oliver Lawton-Fawkes, aka the Wolf, unable to take this miscarriage of justice, attacks and almost kills the defendant. When he is later proved right, Wolf is reinstated to the Force so that four years later when a body is found composed of the body parts of six different people he is on the case. The body, nicknamed the “ragdoll” has been left in such a way that it points towards the flat in which Fawkes in living. And when the head of that body turns out to be the Cremation Killer, connections to that earlier case start to haunt the current investigation. Things become…

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 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…

Caraval by Stephanie Garber
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 15/03/2017

Stephanie Garber’s debut novel is a finely wrought Young Adult Italianate fantasy. It has elements of gameplay, cautious romance and danger but is always keen to assure characters and readers that it is ‘only a game’. The book opens with seven years of letters from Scarlett Dragna to the mysterious ‘Legend’. Legend runs an annual event called Caraval. Not much is known about Caraval except that it involves players and magic and possibly a little adventure. But all Scarlett can do is dream, stuck on an island with an abusive father, engaged to marry a nobleman who she has never met and sworn to protect her impetuous younger sister. When tickets arrive for Caraval a week before her wedding, Scarlett baulks at the chance but her sister has other ideas. Caraval, it turns out is a giant game. For five days, competitors try to solve a mystery in a magic city that is a little reminiscent of Venice. Gameplay can only take place at night and it turns out very quickly that the object of this year’s quest is Scarlett’s missing sister Tella. Scarlett is helped by the mysterious, good looking sailor who helped them travel to the island and…

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 Windy Season by Sam Carmody
Crime , Literature , Review / 28/09/2016

Sam Carmody’s debut novel, The Windy Season, runner up for last year’s Vogel award, takes readers deep into what has become Tim Winton territory. A dangerous coming of age story set on the wild Western Australian coast, The Windy Season plumbs the depths (literally at times) of the regional Australian experience. Seventeen year-old Paul’s brother Eliot has gone missing. Paul, is unsure how to react but wants to find Eliot and, not knowing what else to do, packs up and follows in his brother’s footsteps. Eliot had been working on his uncle’s crayfish trawler operating out the West Australian coastal town of Stark so Paul follows. At the same time as following Paul’s life, Carmody charts the journey of a group of bikies across the country. Led by The President and narrated by a character called Swiss (after the army knife), the group flee from a bust in Sydney, heading west across the desert to exact some form of unspecified revenge. Besides Paul, Carmody gives some insight into the lives of the people who drift in and out of towns like Stark. The people who work on the trawlers, those running from some aspect of their lives, and the tourists…

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…

Vigil by Angela Slatter
Crime , Fantasy , Review / 19/07/2016

Angela Slatter, who has won a number of international awards for her short fiction, goes to Brisbane, or Brisneyland as she prefers to style it, for her first full length novel. Vigil is an urban fantasy which sees the streets of Australia’s third largest city shared between the Normals and the supernatural Weyrd. As is often the case, only a select few Normals are aware of this sharing arrangement. The Weyrd community keeps very much to itself and has put limits on the excesses of its members, which previously included preying on the Normal population. Enter Verity Fassbinder, half-human, half Weyrd able to walk in both worlds, with super-strength from her Weyrd side. Verity works as a freelance investigator, partly in penance for the sins of her Weyrd father Grigor, a kinderfresser, who killed normal children for the highborn Weyrd. Verity is tasked by the Weyrd Council to investigate when children once again start going missing. Soon her troubles mount, with dying sirens (the avian kind), a monster roaming the streets, rampant angels and the search for the missing son of a millionaire. While in genre terms this is strictly fantasy, Vigil plays out strongly along crime fiction lines with…

Ruins by Rajith Savanadasa
Literature , Review / 06/07/2016

As the war in Sri Lanka ended and a kind of normality slowly returns to the country, a number of novels have emerged exploring the war and its effects. Last year saw The Island of A Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera (reviewed here). That book followed a family touched by the violence who choose to leave their country behind. In his debut novel, Australian author Rajith Savanadasa takes readers past that time, to the middle classes of the “new” Sri Lanka. But the war is never very far from the surface. Savanadasa’s novel focusses on a middle class Sri Lankan family in Colombo. He starts from the point of view of their servant Latha and subsequent chapters are from the points of view of the younger teenage daughter Anoushka, newspaper editor father Mano, his wife Lakshmi and their elder son, and prospective venture capitalist, Niranjan. Each of these characters give a different perspective on the “new” Sri Lanka in which they live. Issues of class, government control, racism, the influence of the West against ancient traditions are aired from different generational and cultural perspectives. Each of the characters has their own arc and trajectory. Each is well drawn and while…

Sunset City by Melissa Ginsburg
Crime , Review / 28/06/2016

Sunset City opens like a classic noir thriller with a gender twist. A dark, rainy night in Houston, a world weary first person narration, a mysterious stranger at the door, a murder. The narrator is Charlotte Ford and her attractive visitor is Detective Ash, who has come to tell her that her old friend Danielle has been found beaten to death in a hotel. If Sunset City was the noir thriller that the opening seems to suggest then Charlotte would go out to investigate, trawling the mean streets of Houston in a quest to find her friend’s killer. But this is not that book. Charlotte goes into a spin on learning of the death her friend. She had seen her for the first time in two years only a few days before and Charlotte wonders what she could have done to prevent the killing. At the funeral and later the wake, Charlotte falls in with Danielle’s new friends, workers and producers in the internet porn industry. No stranger to drugs and alcohol, and seeking to reconnect with Danielle, Charlotte spirals down into a world of constant highs, casual sex and not a little bit of violence. Somewhere at its heart…

The Dry by Jane Harper
Crime , Recommended , Review / 24/06/2016

The Dry, the debut novel by journalist Jane Harper won the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Award for best unpublished manuscript. But it is a wonder that it had to go this route to get published. The opening of The Dry is a sadly familiar story. In a small town in drought affected country Victoria a struggling farmer, Luke Halpern, kills his wife and ten year old son and then turns the gun on himself. Only his baby daughter survives. Aaron Falk, driven out of town as a teenager and now a federal policeman specialising in fraud, returns for the funeral and is asked by Luke’s parents to look into the deaths. It soon appears that that all is not what it seems. But Aaron, still held under the suspicion by the town for the death of his friend Ellie Deacon twenty years before, does not want to stay. The Dry does what all good crime novels do – it uses Aaron’s investigation of both the current and historical crimes to shine a light on the town, its inhabitants and their often unforgiving environment. In doing so, Harper is able to explore broader social themes and issues affecting rural Australia. There are…

The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis
Historical , Literature , Review / 23/05/2016

Georgian London, Summer 1763, a year in which, to quote Janet Ellis’s note, “nothing much happened”. This means there is nothing to distract the protagonist of The Butcher’s Hook or her family from their seemingly ordinary, upper middle class lives. The Butcher’s Hook is a fairly macabre character study. Anne Jaccob, eldest daughter of the Jaccob family, bursts from the book from the first page. She appears contemporary but is also very much of her age. The way she and her family behave, though, is shaped by the mores and expectations of the time. Anne is a clever girl but is not sent to school, she has a tutor who leaves her father’s service under a cloud. Left to her own devices, Anne becomes a singular personality, finding it hard to make connections with other girls her age when the opportunity is presented and creating an intense inner life. Anne is a teenager and full of passion, unwilling to be shackled to the odious Onions, the man who her parents have chosen for her. Instead, she falls deeply for the butcher’s nephew and they begin a clandestine relationship. She then bucks against a system that forbids this relationship, going to extreme…

The Maker of Swans by Paraic O’Donnell
Fantasy , Review / 04/05/2016

The Maker of Swans, Paraic O’Donnell’s debut novel, takes readers deep into modern-gothic British fantasy territory. Its old-world tone is reminiscent of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and, more recently, Tim Clare’s The Honours, although it is set in more modern times than either of these (possibly the ‘60s, although it is hard to tell). The book opens with a murder. Witnessed by Eustace, the factotum to the mysterious Mr Crowe, whose job it is also to clean up after the act. Only the act itself has brought some unwanted attention to Crowe and his young ward Clara. Crowe has used his powers to kill and, as a result, has to pay a forfeit to the mysterious Dr Chastern. The forfeit involves the use of his powers and also revolves around Clara. But Clara has powers of her own. The narrative is in two very distinct parts. The first half slowly builds up to the visit of Dr Chastern and its aftermath. The second half puts the characters in very different places, explores Clara’s developing powers and dips into the lengthy history between Crowe and Eustace. The Maker of Swans maintains its deeply mysterious atmosphere throughout and this…

A Dying Breed by Peter Hanington
Review , Thriller / 29/04/2016

A Dying Breed is an intelligent thriller set in present day Afghanistan. By focussing on journalists and their work it avoids a lot of the guns and gunplay aspects of many thrillers set in this part of the world. And informed by Peter Hanington’s many years as a foreign correspondent, there is an air of veracity around the characters and their interactions. The plot of A Dying Breed runs along some fairly well-worn lines. The killing of an Afghan politician is picked up as a story by William Carver, an on-the-skids journalist. While it appears the killing was the work of the Taliban, some irregularities and the appearance of some shady military characters point to what could be a much bigger and more complex story. But when Carver starts to dig, the British apparatus of State turns its attention to preventing his further investigation. There are a number of aspects of this novel that sets it above the fray. The first is the characters. William Carver is irascible, heavy drinking and unlikeable, still carrying some guilt about his role in boosting the Iraq war and impossible to deal with. But while it first appears that he will be the centre…

Day Boy by Trent Jamieson
Fantasy , Recommended , Review , Young Adult / 08/04/2016

With so much second-rate material around, the vampire genre has become a little anaemic. Trent Jamieson’s Day Boy provides a welcome and much needed infusion of new blood into the genre. The focus of Day Boy is not the Masters (the word vampire is never used), who rule a post-apocalyptic Earth, but their Day Boys. Each Master has a Day Boy to do their work during daylight hours. Part servant, part protégé, part surrogate child, part confidante, the Day Boys epitomise the Masters rule and wield some power over other humans as a result. Mark, the narrator, is Day Boy to Dain, exiled with four other Masters to the regional town of Midfield. The world that Mark inhabits has a wild-west steampunk feel. Midfield is a farming community, connected to the Master’s more advanced capital city by steam train. However, this is a world that is also recognisably Australian, complete with heat, dust, flies and deadly creatures lurking in the bush. Day Boy is a twisted coming of age story. Mark experiences all of the usual tropes – fights with his peers, a girl he is keen on but not supposed to spend time with, and important decisions to be…

The Trap by Melanie Raabe
Crime , Review , Thriller / 30/03/2016

Good thrillers often stand or fall by their initial concept. Think the missing wife and the diary of Gone Girl. Or the woman with amnesia and a journal in Before I Go To Sleep. A simple, possibly plausible, plot driver that is able to twist and flex as the circumstances change. In The Trap, that concept is the reclusive novelist, seeking revenge for the murder of her sister eleven years before.Because she cannot bring herself to leave her house, Linda addresses the issue of drawing out the man she believes responsible for her sister’s murder in the only way she knows how – she writes a book about it. To say too much about the plot of this short, muscular thriller would be to step well into spoiler territory. But the setup has Linda believing that it is a television journalist she saw on the night of her sister’s death and uses the offer of an interview to lure him into a situation in which she can question him. Sections from Linda’s novel pepper the narrative, giving a fictionalised version of the events surrounding her sister’s murder. Raabe uses two layers of unreliable narration to keep everything out of kilter….