XX by Angela Chadwick
Uncategorized / 12/12/2018

Angela Chadwick’s debut novel XX starts with a day-after-tomorrow (or possibly even day-after-today) premise: a group of scientists in the UK has found a way to create viable embryos from two female donors. Following successful animal trials, ovum-to-ovum (or ‘o-o’) fertilisation is now going to be offered to humans in a limited trial. Because of the way this technique works, the children of any such process will always have two X genes (one from each parent) and hence can only be female. This sets the scene for a book that is both speculative but also intensely topical, exploring gender, politics, science and the media through what becomes an intensely personal journey. Juliet, the narrator and protagonist, is in a long-term relationship with Rosie. After many years of talking about it she has tamped down her doubts and agreed that they should have a baby. Before they can decide on a sperm donor, the o-o trial is announced and the pair apply, excited to be part of this breakthrough and assuming that the achievement will be celebrated: We’re here to make babies without men. This is Dolly the sheep territory – a whole new frontier – and Rosie and I are…

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…

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,…

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…

Time Was by Ian McDonald
Review , Science Fiction / 19/10/2018

British author Ian McDonald is best known for his futuristic novels set in India (River of Gods) or South America (Brasyl) or Turkey (Dervish House) or his more recent kick-arse Game of Thrones on the Moon series Luna. In Time Was he shifts a gear. This novella is an intimate time travel tale. Emmett, an antiquarian bookseller in London, comes across a letter tucked into an old book of poetry. The letter, written in World War II, sends Emmett on a quest to find out more about its author. Emmett’s research takes him to a woman named Thorn who lives in an old house in the Fen country where he learns the name of the author of the letter (Tom Shadwell) and its recipient (Ben Seligman). But when he takes a photo of the two that Thorn has given him to a contact at the British War Museum and it exactly matches a picture of two young men from the early years of World War I, things start to get weird. Emmett becomes obsessive about solving the mystery of the two men and following their path as it seems to take them in and out of different parts of the…

Snap by Belinda Bauer
Crime , Recommended , Review / 15/10/2018

The members of the Booker Prize Committee were very proud of themselves when they longlisted a crime novel for the 2018 Booker. With Peter Temple having won a Miles Franklin a few years back it feels like Australia might be a little ahead of the game in recognising that crime genre fiction can be (and often is) “literary” enough to be considered for these awards. Unfortunately Belinda Bauer’s Snap did not make the Booker shortlist, but hopefully this represents a chink in the armour. The book opens with a tragedy. It is 1998 and eleven year-old Jack and his two younger sisters have been left in a broken-down car by the side of the M5 while their mother goes to find a phone. Their mother never returns. Three years later the children are living on their own, their father having left them, all still traumatised in some way by the events of that day. Jack has become a thief to support his siblings and he always holds on to the idea that he can find his mother’s killer. At the same time, heavily pregnant Catherine scares off a burglar but returns to her bed to find a wicked looking knife…

Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Rosewater is a first contact story, an alien encounter story, but it takes a while to get there, a story about humans with mutant-style powers, at times a zombie story. Tade Thompson takes his time, delivering a multi-dimensional mosaic that reveals as much as it hides. But he makes the journey worthwhile and the pay-off sticks hard. Kaaro lives in the town of Rosewater, a donut shaped metropolis, only a few years from being a shanty town, that has grown up surrounding a giant alien dome.  Rosewater sits in the middle of Nigeria, a few hours drive from the capital Lagos. The dome was not the first arrival of aliens, but appears to be the most permanent. The first contact occurred back in 2012 in London and brought with it a seeding of the atmosphere with a fungus that has led to a range of powers in certain individuals. Since that time America has “gone dark” – nothing and nobody comes in or out and no one knows is this is because aliens have taken over or whether America has quarantined itself against invasion or infection. No one goes in or out of the dome but once a year the…

A Double Life by Flynn Berry
Crime , Review / 06/09/2018

Flynn Berry burst on the crime thriller scene with her page-turning debut Under the Harrow, a book with a female narrator who may have been a little unhinged but was not unreliable. And so to A Double Life which boasts a similar, reliable, if not particularly stable main character. Only Claire has reason to be as she is – a trauma early in her life which she and her brother are still trying, in their own ways and unsuccessfully, to outrun. A Double Life is loosely based on the very famous Lord Lucan affair, although transposed to a more modern frame. In 1974, Lord Lucan, killed his childrens’ nanny, Sandra Rivett, and then attacked his wife. His wife identified him as the assailant but he was never found. All that was found was his car, abandoned, covered in blood stains. On the way to that point he had stopped at a friend’s house. But he was defended by his friends and no one admitted to helping him. While an inquest and later the coroner brought down a finding that Lucan had killed Rivett, he was never found and has since been declared dead. In A Double Life, Berry uses these…

Early Riser by Jasper Fforde
Review , Science Fiction / 29/08/2018

Jasper Fforde has had a bit of a break from writing, but his first book for a few years shows that he has lost none of his quintessential weirdness. Early Riser is set in an alternative version of the world where the vast majority humans hibernate for eight weeks in the depths of winter with only a few staying awake to keep the peace. But attempts to manage this process have consequences. A new drug that helps people survive the hibernation is having the effect of turning some essentially into zombies. When the book opens, newly minted Winter Consul Charlie Worthing is transporting one of these zombies through Wales to a facility where she can be cared for. This mission spins completely out of control and leaves him exploring a much deeper mystery involving shared dreams and a new version of the hibernation drug. Long time readers of Fforde should not be surprised by the whacky but well thought out premise of Early Riser. Fforde, after all, is responsible for the Thursday Next series in which his hero can jump in and out of the “book world”, the Nursery Crimes series which mixes children’s stories and noir detective style and…