Wisecracking social worker Stella Hardy returns, and this time she’s battling outlaw bikie gangs, corrupt cops, and a powerful hunger for pani puri.
On a stormy Halloween night, Stella gets a call from her best friend, Detective Phuong Nguyen. Phuong has a problem. Or rather her lover, Bruce Copeland, does.
Too Easy continues an absolutely terrific series that falls on the noirish side of comic farce. Full Review at: Newtown Review of Books
The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts
An impossible murder. A ticking deadline. A political coup. A Hitchcockian thriller set in a chilling near future.
Alma is a private detective in a near-future England, a country desperately trying to tempt people away from the delights of Shine, the immersive successor to the internet. But most people are happy to spend their lives plugged in, and the country is decaying.
Adam Roberts never does the same thing twice. While he has written novels with a crime element it is safe to say that The Real-Town Murders is something completely different again. It is a locked-room mystery but in the nature of all good crime novels, the murder is about something much deeper. But that something is connected to a heightened version of our current connection to technology, the freedoms that we give up to interact with that technology and the influence that that might bring to various players.
The Real-Town Murders opens with an impossible murder. A body has been found in the boot of a car that was built by robots. Private detective Alma is brought in by the company that runs the factory to investigate. The process of the car’s construction was fully captured by camera and shows that there is no way for the body to have been placed in the boot before it was discovered. But in the way of all good noir detective novels, Alma is then bought-off and removed from the case by the authorities before she can investigate too deeply. When she finds there are deeper forces at play, she gets drawn back in.
A couple of aspects of this tale make it stand out. The first is the milieu – the future Britain portrayed is one that is mainly silent. The majority of people live in a virtual reality world known as the Shine. Alma occasionally runs into bodies being “walked” by mesh suits to keep them exercised while their owners consciousness is elsewhere. The second is Alma herself who is locked into a regime where every four hours she must treat her partner Marguritte for a man-made disease that will kill her if Alma herself does not understand and apply the correct treatment. This timeline puts an edge on every situation that Alma finds herself in over and above the usual strain of shadowy government agents trying to kill her.
But above all else is the fun that Roberts has with the genre and the language. The text is littered with references, quotes and call backs to famous crime and science fiction film and novels from North-By-North-West to The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. This from an informant who, in a nod to All the President’s Men, Alma dubs “Derp Throat”:
“Are you a common-or-garden paranoid, or one of the more refined sort?” [Alma asks]
“I’m the paranoid who knows. I’m the individual people should be paranoid about. I spend my days surveilling people and keeping the state happy. I’m not the paranoid. I am the one who paranoies.”
And it turns out there is plenty to be paranoid about. Alma never really knows who to trust or why as the plot branches out into deeper conspiracies and a behind-the-scenes war. But Roberts even manages to flip this, with a satisfying resolution of his locked car mystery and an even deeper conspiracy hanging in the background.
The Real-Town Murders is packed to the brim with crime and thriller tropes, science fiction concepts, word play and philosophical discussion. If nothing else it demonstrates Roberts’ range and depth and his ability to cherry pick from across the genre spectrum to deliver something original, engaging and thought-provoking.
Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre
Million-copy-selling Chris Brookmyre takes his fiction further than ever before in this wildly inventive and sharply-plotted novel set in the unforgiving emptiness of space.
"This is as close to a city without crime as mankind has ever seen."
Ciudad de Cielo is the 'city in the sky', a space station where hundreds of scientists and engineers work in earth's orbit, building the colony ship that will one day take humanity to the stars.
Space is the final frontier. So it is no surprise that fictional towns in space – on the moon, on space stations on generation ships – are portrayed as frontier towns. And usually not in a positive way. Recently Ian McDonald’s Luna series portrayed a fairly lawless lunar colony run by dynastic families and Andy Weir’s protagonist in his recent Artemis, also on the Moon, makes a living running contraband. So when Places in the Darkness begins and new security chief Alice Blake is told that mankind’s first space station is totally crime free, the reader knows there is more to it. That and the fact that the book has opened with parts of a dismembered body floating in zero gravity.
Nicky “Fixx” Freeman is part of the local Seguridad but she moonlights as a fixer. Collecting protection money and helping a local alcohol smuggler and enforcer as part of a local gang war. Because mankind’s first space station, Cuidad de Cielo (“City in the Sky” or CdC) is riddled with corruption. A state of affairs to which the four ruling corporations (known as the Quadriga) turns a blind eye. But the locals know that the global government might be interested, given that the CdC is also where the first generational star ships, the hope for humanity, are being constructed. A blatant murder, followed by the opening shots of gang warfare puts Nikky in the frame and Alice, a representative of the global government, on the case.
Scottish author Chris Brookmyre is much better known for his gritty, often tongue in cheek crime fiction novels many featuring investigative journalist Jack Parlabane. He brings much of that sensibility to Places in the Darkness. Brookmyre understands that crime fiction is a great way to dig under the surface of a society. The only issue here is that he needs to do a fair amount of setting up and exposition (including a full on lecture early on) to get to the point where he can start digging. So much so that early on this feels like two different novels shoehorned together. But this feeling quickly subsides. And much of this is due to the characters – Nikky Fixx, an ex-LA cop who is carrying around an ancient pain and has become part of a completely corrupt system and Alice Blake, the straight-laced investigator having her eyes opened to how the world really works.
There is plenty going on here and it takes a while for Brookmyre to put all of the pieces into place. But once he does this becomes a classic buddy cop adventure (in space) as the situation spins dangerously out of control and repercussions of failure become more serious. Plenty of cliffhangers, clues and action. And along the way, also a fair amount of contemplation of issues like the nature of consciousness, how societies operate and what constitutes free will.
In the end it does not matter whether this can be considered science fiction with crime genre stylings or crime fiction set in a science fiction universe. In fact what it displays is the limitations of bothering at all with genre. Places in the Darkness is a great read, period and recommended for crime readers, scifi aficionados or just anyone who likes a good book.
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
Newly married, newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband's crumbling country estate, The Bridge.
With her new servants resentful and the local villagers actively hostile, Elsie only has her husband's awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks. For inside her new home lies a locked room, and beyond that door lies a two-hundred-year-old diary and a deeply unsettling painted wooden figure – a Silent Companion – that bears a striking resemblance to Elsie herself...
Gothic horror is back in vogue and it does not get much more gothic than Laura Purcell’s debut The Silent Companions. Purcell has thrown everything at her scenario – an opening scene in an asylum, a pregnant widow still in mourning, a creepy village outside of an even creepier manor house, whispers of witchcraft, surly servants, disappearing curio shops, mysteriously locked doors, black cats and strange noises. And the icing on this decidedly black cake are the unnerving, lifelike wooden figures, the silent companions of the title, that seem to move on their own and leave wood shavings and splinters in their wake.
It is 1865 and Elise Bainbridge is in mourning for the loss of her husband Rupert. She is retreating to the family estate known as The Bridge with Rupert’s young cousin Sarah and from the start things go wrong. There is only a skeleton staff in the house and locals from the village will not work there due to historical rumours of witchcraft. Almost immediately strange things start to happen – including odd noises in the night – and they become stranger when a previously locked door to the attic comes open revealing the lifelike wooden figure of a girl and the diary of one of Rupert’s ancestors. As the companions start to multiply around the house and the creepiness factor increases, the potential metaphysical source of the trouble is revealed through diary entries from 1635.
As already mentioned, Purcell throws every Gothic horror trope in the book at this tale and yet somehow she makes it work. Her descriptions of the house and the landscape are evocative, the narrative builds a sense of cloying unease and the creepy companions are… well, creepy. And just to keep readers on their toes, Purcell introduces a strain of ambiguity to the whole thing, heightened by the sections in the asylum.
So if 1980s horror homages are starting to wear a little and you feel like dipping back a little further into the more classical roots of the current jump-scare fad, The Silent Companions may be the way to go.
Review - RAMSES THE DAMNED - THE PASSION OF CLEOPATRA - Anne Rice and Christopher Rice
Planning a wedding to his newly immortal partner Julie, Ramses the Great has much to regret and much to look forward to. Now living life as Reginald Ramsay, Egyptologist, Ramses has kept his secrets to a chosen few and has found fresh hope in the modern age of the early 19th century. Always the diplomatic negotiator, Ramses intends never to waste his immortality again on steering the outcomes of those in power. It is enough to have his beloved Julie as his immortal companion, and the company of those intelligent and talented enough to amuse.
If like this reviewer you haven't read an Anne Rice novel for some years, what you might also be anticipating is some lovely floral prose that waxes lyrical about everything from flowers to landscapes. The glorious wallowing can be a bit of an acquired taste and all that navel gazing can come at the expense of plot.
As lovingly gothic and melodramatic the characters may still be, it was an absolute treat to experience Rice's creation King Ramses once again. It's been a long time since we saw his blue eyes on lurid paperback covers way back in 1989. THE MUMMY was gleefully passed around many an office worker back in the day, with all Anne Rice fans anticipating another lust worthy brat in the vein (pardon the pun) of Lestat from the Vampire Chronicles. (Can you believe that we first encountered Lestat in 1976?). Ramses too has had hundreds of years of past plots and relationships to mull over in his noble head, whilst playing God with the ability to keep others young forever, in the same manner as his hedonistic and pompous self.
In the winning fashion of why having one rockstar deity in your novel when you can have two, Rice and Rice have put two giants of history, King Ramses and Queen Cleopatra in the same work. Check your reality at the door of course, as despite having a wig out at the museum and dousing Queen Cleopatra with the immortal elixir, Ramses then sails forth into the world and creates a modern day identity and promptly exposes his baby blues to the social circuit. As one does, when you want to stay safe from scrutiny.
So we're not big on plot planning here but there are many gloriously overblown conversations, angsty experiences and swoon worthy immortals swanning about thinking furiously about what is to come next. Ramses is curiously toothless in this outing, compared to how fierce he was in the first book. More a brooder here than a doer.
The passion of Cleopatra isn't of the between-the-sheets kind as it turns out, but more that she has rediscovered her desire to live.
It was lovely to visit with Ramses once again, and as a co-authored book, you do wonder whose input we will see more of in future works of the (now continuing) series. One for the fans, but not a book you'd recommend for a reader who has never experienced the richness of the works of Anne Rice before. Once you have immersed yourself in the unrestrained narcissism of the immortals, it's an easy and pleasant reading experience just to ride along with their greatness just once again.
Review - Artemis, Andy Weir
Living on the moon in Artemis, the first lunar city built not only for exploration but also for the tourists, Jazz Bashara knows everything there is to know about the city and its people. Born on Artemis, Jazz is living life as best she can in a hostile climate and from her side hustle of smuggling in the odd piece of contraband, the lunar coinage rolls in. Infrequently. Not enough to keep her from dreaming of the next big haul.
Dang. We all really wanted to love this book after the monster science hug that THE MARTIAN unexpectedly gave us a few years back. The geek science is still there to be enjoyed - detailed and highly credible, and you never have cause to doubt the intelligence and passion of author Andy Weir here in his field of interest.
We see again some toasty dry humour, but without that sense of impeding peril ARTEMIS struggles to engage us in the fate of its lead, petty criminal Jazz Bashara.
Jazz isn't hideously unlikeable, but other than being rather admirably tenacious, she's not that likeable either. She's sketched a little too thin and the reader really needed for her to have a better sense of purpose in order to have a vested interest in her fate. Jazz's intentions didn't have be that noble, but considering the out-of-world setting, they could have been a lot more perilous and suspenseful. There are parts where Jazz is required to look outside of the personal ramifications to herself and think instead of the safety of others living at Artemis, but these scenarios just seem just inclusions to move the technical narrative along. Also, the danger to others is a consequence of Jazz's own actions on the whole anyway.
In the keen hands of Andy Weir, ARTEMIS gives us great insights to what practical challenges there might be to our future living outside of our own planet. It will happen some day on a larger scale of course, and Artemis is a living breathing city with all the usual challenges and petty concerns that would be scaled up to large potential disasters in a hostile 'off earth' environment.
As with THE MARTIAN, the strength of the writing lies in the imagining of the environment and the ever present threat to human life via any one of many small mistakes that could be made. The people depicted as living here in Artemis are mostly self serving, and there isn't the 'brave new world' community identity. It is on the whole every woman for herself. (Or man, etc).
ARTEMIS satisfies the space/science fan in all of us but needed better characterization and an a keener editorial eye cast over where all of the 'wacky races' shenanigans were going to end up. Too many broad brush strokes are made at the novel's conclusion to tidy it all up when it would have been just as okay to go a little dark, rather than feature film fodder light.
Looking forward to anything more that Weir can bring by way of a space action novel with less goof and more attention paid to what possible uniquely frightening space catastrophes could await us out there as we further explore and populate planets and moons other than our own.
Review - Clear to the Horizon, Dave Warner
In 1999, a number of young women go missing in the Perth suburb of Claremont. One body is discovered. Others are never seen again. Snowy Lane (City of Light) is hired as a private investigator but neither he nor the cops can find the serial killer. Sixteen years later, another case brings Snowy to Broome, where he teams up with Dan Clement (Before It Breaks) and an incidental crime puts them back on the Claremont case.
Back in the late 1970's Dave Warner released music that became part of the soundtrack of my life. When I discovered CITY OF LIGHT, MURDER IN THE FRAME, EXXXPRESSO and other books by him in the late 1990's / early 2000's I was more than a bit chuffed to think a musical hero was also a lover of crime fiction. And I bloody loved all of those books.
CITY OF LIGHT was Dave Warner's first book (from memory), it won the 1996 West Australian Premier's Award for best fiction, and it introduced a young police constable, and aspiring footballer Snowy Lane. In this book Lane is investigating the murder of a number of young women by the serial killer dubbed 'Mr Gruesome'. If, however, you've not read any of Dave Warner's work then CLEAR TO THE HORIZON is a great place to start, as would be BEFORE IT BREAKS which was a very worthy Ned Kelly winner indeed.
CLEAR TO THE HORIZON is told in two later periods of time, basing itself around the true story of a number of young women who were killed by an undiscovered serial killer in Claremont, Perth. When the novel starts out in 1999, a number of young women have gone missing, with one body discovered, and the others never seen again. Snowy Lane is hired by the parents of one of the missing girls, but he, and the police, are never able to find the girls or the killer. Moving forward 16 years, Lane finds himself on an unconnected case in Broome (this time teaming up with Dan Clement from BEFORE IT BREAKS), and an incidental event takes him straight back to the Claremont investigation.
All of which probably sounds a little complicated, but if you've not read either of the earlier books it won't matter a bit. Nor will it matter if you're not across the details of the true cases on which a lot of the narrative is based. If there's one thing that Dave Warner excels at it's weaving yarns, and CLEAR TO THE HORIZON is a great yarn, with fully fleshed out characters, and plenty of action and pace.
Snowy Lane is an easy bloke to like. Dedicated to his job, he's also a loving family man with a very normal sort of a life. The Claremont case haunts him, but it hasn't twisted him. He's not one to forget, but he's also not one for dwelling. Having said that, give this man a hint of a possible solution and he's not easily distracted. He's very real, and there's more than enough back story dotted throughout this novel to give you an idea for where he's coming from.
There's also a terrific sense of place in Warner's novels. In this case the heat and light of beach-side Fremantle and Broome are clear and bright, contrasting well with the night-time pubs, clubs, alleyways, taxi ranks and parking lots where the young women disappeared. It's worth remembering that apart from the general details of the true crime around which the novel is based, everything here is fictional - much of it is so real, and so feasible in terms of possible suspects, and the final resolution.
I confess to having been a mad fan of Dave Warner's music. It makes me very happy that the stories he tells in his books are longer in form, but still so clearly about life as it happens in Australia. It's particularly fortunate that there's no need to a lot of dancing when a new book comes out - my knees aren't what they used to be back in my punk days. But happy dancing of a slightly more sedate version still goes on.
Review - All the Wicked Girls, Chris Whitaker
Everyone loves Summer Ryan. A model student and musical prodigy, she's a ray of light in the struggling small town of Grace, Alabama - especially compared to her troubled sister, Raine.
Then Summer goes missing. Grace is already simmering, and with this new tragedy the police have their hands full keeping the peace. Only Raine throws herself into the search, supported by a most unlikely ally.
But perhaps there was always more to Summer than met the eye . . .
Chris Whitaker's debut novel TALL OAKS garnered a lot of positive publicity and a CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger award. Haven't had a chance to read the first novel yet, but when ALL THE WICKED GIRLS arrived it bounced to the top of the pile based on reputation and expectation alone.
Whitaker is an Englishman, but ALL THE WICKED GIRLS is set in the Alabama of many movies and American mythology. A depressed place, populated by struggling families, dirt poor but tight, close, loving and caring. Deeply religious, these are the sorts of people you feel would be wheeled out when you want to explain "salt of the earth".
When fifteen-year-old Summer Ryan packs a bag, leaves a note saying "I'm sorry", and disappears, the biggest surprise seems to be that it's the "good girl" who has gone. Her twin Raine is the one most likely to get into trouble. Not Summer, the music prodigy, the model student, the golden girl (obviously there's deliberation in the choice of names for these characters). Raine, fortunately, is exactly the sort of person that isn't going to let something like Summer's disappearance roll into yet another mystery. She's the one who is prepared to ask the question their parents, the town and the local Police Chief are trying to avoid - is "the Bird" back? This unknown perpetrator was assumed responsible for the abduction of five young girls in a neighbouring county, but everybody had hoped he was dead or gone. Everybody also assumes the girls are dead - although no sign of them has ever been found.
Symbolism is writ large in ALL THE WICKED GIRLS. From the Summer and Raine names of the twins, through to a town called Grace, which is anything but, and the massive storm that is brewing - meteorological and psychological. Combined with references to good and evil, and the twins aligned with the different sides, God, the Devil and the Church, and the darkness of the atmospherics matches the overwhelming message being delivered. The narrative is supported by the sense of a very odd place, populated by some very odd people, including the morally ambiguous, looming presence of the local Pastor. The idea that Raine's obsession with her sister's disappearance, supported by some of the classic outsiders in the community like this, eventually putting pressure on a dispirited, almost lackadaisical Police Chief does make sense, as does the stirring of the twin's father and his redneck mates.
The narrative switches viewpoint between Summer's voice in the lead up to her disappearance, and the third person telling of the story of Raine and her fellow seekers - Noah (hero cop's son), Purv (son of a local construction worker, victim of shocking violence from his father) and Police Chief Black as he finds his cop's instinct and drive again. Grace, is, it turns out, a town steeped in religious fervour, and not short of possible suspects in Summer's disappearance, and that of the five earlier possible victims.
The sense of this place, the culture and the society in which the action takes place is palpable, uncomfortable and overwhelming. The characters all turn out to have hidden depths and secrets, and it often feels like the whole place is operating on lies. It's deep, dark and beautifully written, with not a hint of an outsider author. The message is, like the atmospherics, on the heavy side - part noir / part morality play, and because of that there's no way you could call this entertaining reading. ALL THE WICKED GIRLS is, however, extremely involving reading, requiring commitment on the part of the reader to empathise and eventually understand that not everything here is what it seems.
Review - The Lone Child, Anna George
Neve Ayres has always been so careful. Since her mother’s death when Neve was seven, she’s learned to look after herself and to keep her cards close. But now her deliberately constructed world has collapsed: her partner’s left her when she was eight months pregnant. And so, alone with her newborn son, she’s retreated to her cliff-top holiday house in coastal Flinders.
There, another child comes into her life.
The Lone Child focuses on character development, imbued with sadness, longing, regret and loss. Reviewed at Newtown Review of Books
Review - Sold, Blair Denholm
The Gold Coast swelters in record temperatures, and car salesman Gary Braswell’s feeling hot under the collar. His sales are at rock bottom, and he’s up to his neck in debt to loan shark Jocko Mackenzie. Gary’s sweating on a fat commission from a mysterious Russian couple. If the loan’s not repaid, there’s more than Gary’s kneecaps at stake – his long-suffering wife’s also in peril. But Jocko wants more than repayment and has sinister plans for the hapless salesman.
You have to admire any author who doesn't just create a profoundly unlikeable protagonist but then grants them full permission to be as ordinary a human being as they can possibly be. In SOLD, Blair Denholm's creation, Gary Braswell is the sort of bloke that you'd be forgiven for belting over the head with a shovel, after watching him dig his own grave any day.
Comic in styling, SOLD is set on the Gold Coast in the sweltering heat of summer, where Braswell takes the not-so-big step from used car salesman to real estate, at about the same time that his gambling debts are threatening to bury him. Because of his drinking, gambling and behaving like a prize dick, his wife's starting to get heartily sick of him into the bargain. (If there is a character in this novel that you dearly wish had been equipped with a shovel very early on, it's Braswell's wife Maddie.)
Steeped in black, dark humour, reader's reactions to Braswell, Maddie, and their shared fates are likely to affect their like or dislike of this novel immensely. There's not a lot of light, hope or love for Gary Braswell. He's a died in the wool self-centred, obnoxious bloke, who really deserves that aforementioned shovel about the head and shoulders. Maddie is either a saint to tolerate him for as long as she does, or an idiot - your choice. Because the humour is very dark, very black and very low key, there are passages when you might need to remind yourself that this is a comic novel because all too often Braswell is simply too realistically narcissistic.
All of this behaviour is woven into a plot involving sales commissions, selling activity, Russians, loan sharks, their minders, and a lot of rushing about trying to avoid the seemingly inevitable. Perhaps some trimming down of the repetition of Braswell behaving badly might be beneficial as it gets a bit "samey" in places.
The ending's another brave undertaking, clearly telegraphing a follow-up, leaving Braswell with another woman in toe (did I mention he's a revolting human being...). All in all SOLD is the sort of novel that will appeal to readers who don't want everything nice, neat and tidy, with the action driven by a self-centred pain in the rear, the humour dark, dry and pointed, the language particularly Australian, frequently gross (exploding birds and itchy rears) and very "adults only" in places, and the action fast and furious.