Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad gives a striking take on history’s brutal past

ColsonAmerican author Colton Whitehead has already garnered a swag of accolades for his work – a Guggenheim and Whiting “genius” awards plus being short-listed for the Pulitzer – making his new novel, The Underground Railroad, highly anticipated. An excerpt was published in a special lift-out in The New York Times. But it was the book’s selection as the subject of Oprah’s Book Club that lit the “destination stratosphere” fuse.

His subject isn’t new. The underground railroad was the metaphorical name for the loose network of people and secret routes that helped slaves escape the antebellum south to the more benign northern states. First operational in the early 19th Century it was most active in the 1850s and early 1860s, and has been the subject of countless fiction (perhaps most notably Toni Morrison’s Beloved) and non-fiction, films, documentaries and scholarly research. What Whitehead does is give the railway an architectural structure,

Ian McGuire’s The North Water: a vivid, compelling journey into the darkest of places

an90737989the-north-waterRug up when you settle down to read The North Water, or strongly defend your spot in front of a blazing fire. Author Ian McGuire has created a world so physically, emotionally and psychologically bleak that, from the first few pages, you know you’re going to be in for a chilling time.

It is the 1850s and former army surgeon Patrick Sumner has signed up for a six-month voyage on a whaler, The Volunteer, out of Hull, a town on England’s north east coast that was once the heart of a booming whaling industry. But Volunteer is putting to see, heading into the treacherous Arctic waters in the twilight of an industry overtaken by new fuels like coal oil and paraffin.

A clever and sinister twist to Scandi-Noir queen Anne Holt’s The Final Murder

The Final Murder is the second in Anne Holt’s crime series starring senior Norwegianmurder police Superintendent Adam Stubo and psychologist Johanne Vik. The two met in the series debut, Punishment which was released in translation earlier this year, and quite apart from working well together they obviously hit it off socially in a big way.

When The Final Murder opens they are now married and Stubo is on paternity leave after the birth of their daughter, Ragnhild. It’s a sad commentary on the marital skills of many factional cops, that he flatly refused, even when ordered, to return to the back in the office due to a particularly high-profile killing of an attractive TV presenter. Stubo is a refreshingly normal character. Humane and caring. Apart from the occasional forbidden cigar and glass of wine to assist contemplation, he’s devoid of the traits that tend to single out the modern crime buster. He’s a good father both to Ragnhild and to the strangely quirky Kristiane, Vik’s daughter by an

The Windy Season by Sam Carmody: A disturbing sense of menace with a unique Aussieness

CarmodyStark, the small west Australian coastal town which is the setting for Sam Carmody’s debut novel, The Windy Season, is fictitious. But as anyone who has travelled off the tourist track to the more remote parts of Australia can attest, it exists under a number of aliases. It’s just the kind of town which might, to the outsider, at first seem attractively unusual. But it doesn’t take long to reveal its real character, an undercurrent of menace that makes you look over your shoulder when walking down the road, even on a sunny day.

Stark is the kind of town where society’s flotsam and jetsam turn up. A human gyre. The wounded and the wounders. This is a place where people really do just disappear. Because they want to. Or sometimes because someone else wants them to.

Review: Sarah Maine’s The House Between Tides

AMilneI read Sarah Maine’s debut novel The House Between Tides over a couple of days while enjoying Fiji’s balmy climate. It’s a credit to her ability to create a deep sense of place that the winds whistling through the Outer Hebrides island lost none of their chilly bite, nor the wild seas their temper. It’s 2010 and when the last of her relatives dies and bequeaths her the ancestral home, Hetty Deveraux leaves her troubled relationship and travels to Scotland. She has dreams of restoring the house and potentially opening a hotel on the magnificent rocky outcrop where it is perched.

But when she arrives she find it is less a house than a tumbling down neglected memorial to the brilliant but troubled artist Theo Blake who had lived there until his lonely death. Then a skeleton is unearthed beneath what’s left of the floorboards and Hetty finds herself drawn into a century-old mystery surrounding Theo, his young wife Beatrice and Cameron, the charismatic son of Theo’s estate manager.

Review: The Memory Artist by Katherine Brabon

MemoryKatherine Brabon’s The Memory Artist, which won The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for debut novelist for 2016, is the story of Pasha Ivanov who grew up in the 1960s in the small Moscow apartment where his dissident parents and their friends gathered. They were determined to find out and circulate information about the Stalin government’s ruthless repression, perpetuated by subsequent regimes, long after his death. Tens of millions had been murdered, exiled to brutal remote gulags, placed in mental institutions or, simply disappeared. Control over information, even thought, brutally enforced. Fear as powerful a censor as a prison cell or a man with a gun.

In the 1980s, following Brezhnev’s death, new leader Mikhail Gorbachev has ushered in fledgling glasnost, an increased openess about the activities of

Review: Understated menace magnifies the tension in Alan Furst’s A Hero in France

FurstAlan Furst has carved out a substantial niche for himself with his meticulously researched thrillers set in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. His latest, A Hero in France, opens in March 1941, ten months after the French premier Marshal Petain’s infamous capitulation and the arrival of the German occupying force.

The hero of the title, code-named Mathieu, lives a double-life, his identity never revealed, even to his lover, Joëlle. He heads a cell of the French Resistance tasked with getting downed RAF airmen out of France and back to England, not just for the propaganda value but also because of the appallingly high attrition rate of pilots. The book spans five critical months in the work of the cell and its web of supporters, supporting network, operating under an increasingly suffocating blanket of fear, suspicion and distrust as the German grip on Paris, and France, tightens.

Review: Punishment by Anne Holt introduces a new team tackling a frighteningly realistic crime

Punishment, the latest offering from Anne Holt, dubbed the “godmother of modern ApunishmentNorwegian crime fiction” by international Scandi Noir author Jo Nesbo, introduces a new fiction team to her readers. Holt has achieved great acclaim with her Hanne Wilhelmsen series, including the recent Dead Joker and Punishment is the first of the series featuring Superintendent Adam Stubo and psychologist Johanne Vik to be translated into English.

Holt draws on her experience working for the Oslo Police, as a lawyer and during a period as Norway’s Minister for Justice, to provide a compelling authenticity to her books, not just of the police and judiciary but also their often fraught intersection with the political system. Couple that with intriguing often (as in this case) fairly complex plotting, you can understand why she’s so popular.

Review Granta New Irish Writing: a vibrant swirling trip through a rich literary landscape

G135 - New Irish WritingI can never quite make up my mind about how best to go about reading a collection of work by different authors: sequentially or randomly? Individually, with a gap between each, or as one continuous experience? If editor Sigrid Rausing had a particular leitmotif in mind when compiling Granta 135 New Irish Writing (in her introduction she writes of identified themes such as the relationship between place and self, and a sense of displacement) it didn’t seem critical. So I played lucky dip, moving backwards and forwards as the fancy took me.

The book gathers together 14 writers ranging from established authors like Colm Tóibín, Roddy Doyle and Emma Donoghue to “emerging writers” although even these seem to have already garnered an impressive list of official accolades. It just shows the weight of Irish writing talent in that the collection is notable for who isn’t included: Anne Enright whose The Green Road was Ireland’s

Review: Donna Leon’s The Waters of Eternal Youth sees Brunetti at his best

LeonCoverOne of the reasons I so enjoy Donna Leon‘s books is that the beautifully crafted and enduring character Commissario Guido Brunetti is so refreshingly normal. Not wounded – emotionally or physically – in the way that seems to have become almost de rigueur in police drama. He’s principled and compassionate. Utterly faithful to his wife, Paola. Loves his children. True, no meal however humble can pass without a glass or two or suitably matching wine, and he particularly enjoys a glass of grappa with his dessert. But he doesn’t wake up barely able to crawl to work or unable to remember the events of the previous evening.

Whilst criminals do abound, his lingering adversary is the divisive snobbery and rampant corruption that cripples every level of life in his beloved Venice. Ironically it is the elite social standing of Paola, that allows him to maneuver through the political web that is the city’s Polizia. The opening scene of The Waters of Eternal Youth provides even the newest reader with a colourful snapshot of the power elite that is the real Venice.


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