Taken at the Flood
A torrent of murders on earth and much derring-do in outer space.
Issue #18, Sunday 20 March 2022
New and Upcoming Releases
Another couple of new books which look good to me.
The Mother by Jane Caro
I’ve always been impressed by Jane Caro as an Australian social commenter (like most people, I imagine, I first encountered her on the TV show The Gruen Transfer), and I was vaguely aware that she’d also written a couple of novels about Elizabeth I as well as several non-fiction books. This new one, though, is a crime novel, which I must get hold of.
Just like the garden, the fuse box, the bills, bin night and blown light bulbs, this was just something else she’d now have to take care of herself. Recently widowed, Miriam Duffy is a respectable North Shore real estate agent and devoted mother and grandmother. She was thrilled when her younger daughter Ally married her true love, but as time goes by Miriam wonders whether all is well with Ally, as she moves to the country and gradually withdraws, finding excuses every time Miriam offers to visit. A stunning, gripping novel that goes to the heart of a mother’s love and asks what any of us might do when faced with a threat to the people we hold most dear.
The First Astronomers: How Indigenous Elders Read the Stars by Duane Hamacher
The indigenous people of Australia knew the night sky intimately, and had many revealing insights. This book looks to bring together that knowledge together with that of other First Nations peoples.
Our eyes have been drawn away from the skies to our screens. We no longer look to the stars to forecast the weather, predict the seasons or plant our gardens. Most of us cannot even see the Milky Way. But First Nations Elders around the world still maintain this knowledge, and there is much we can learn from them. (Readings)
‘This book marks a profound paradigm shift in our understanding of Indigenous scientific traditions, how they are transmitted, and their relevance to life today.’ - Professor Marcia Langton, University of Melbourne
Not Previously Reviewed
The Torrent by Dinuka McKenzie
This is the debut novel by this writer. It won the HarperCollins Australia 2020 Banjo Prize.
It’s a strong police procedural novel, if a little low key for my tastes. There’s not a lot of dramatic action, just steady, determined investigative work by the book’s protagonist, Detective Sergeant Kate Miles. Given its setting of a rural NSW town after a devastating flood, it could hardly be more relevant to today’s circumstances.
Kate Miles is an interesting character. She’s of mixed race, being the daughter of a Sri Lankan mother and her white father, who before his retirement was the well-regarded local Chief Inspector of police. As the book opens, she’s heavily pregnant with her second child, with only a week to go before she goes on maternity leave. We see throughout the book how Kate has to deal with several forms of discrimination: about her skin colour; about the perceived nepotism of her position; about being a woman; about being a pregnant woman.
Though she’s counting down the days to her leave, she’s in charge of a team investigating a series of violent robberies of local fast-food outlets. In the latest incident, one of the counter staff at a McDonalds outlet was badly assaulted and hospitalised, so the police are taking the case very seriously. At first, though, they make little progress, as the offenders, likely teenagers, wore rubber masks depicting various Marvel super-heroes. Some clever investigations and a bit of luck start to crack the case open.
While this investigation is going on, however, Kate is given a semi-secret task by her boss: to look into the death of a man during the floods. He and his wife were in a ute swept away while trying to cross a flooded section of road. His battered body was found hours later, but his wife managed to pull herself out some distance upstream. The coroner declared it an accidental death, but the man’s mother is obsessed with the idea that somehow the wife, who she hates, somehow used the flood to cover up his murder. Kate is asked to simply review the investigation to make sure all the ‘i’s were dotted and all the ‘t’s crossed. On the surface, it all seems straightforward. But then, of course, Kate begins to have doubts…
As I say, all very competently done, well written, interesting enough story if not one full of thrills other than close to the end in what I thought was a bit of a confused scene.
The author’s second novel, Taken, has already been accepted for publication, so I’ll definitely be following that up.
Completed Since Last Issue
The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield
Despite the title of this book, this is more of a Cold War thriller than a crime novel. But it’s a pretty good thriller and there is at least one murder in it, plus quite a bit of violent death.
The Apollo Murders is written by real-life astronaut Chris Hadfield (who famously performed David Bowie’s Space Oddity while floating inside the International Space Station). I had thought that this must be the first novel written by an astronaut, and said so last issue, but Mark Plummer wrote in to tell me that I was wrong, quote:
Buzz Aldrin has co-written two sf novels with John Barnes, and Michael Collins has written a novella called Mission to Mars. Mercury 7 astronaut Scott Carpenter has written at least a couple of novels and William Pogue (Skylab 3) has written a novel with Ben Bova. There may be a few others.
I stand corrected. Anyway, one thing which of course Hadfield brings to a novel like this is a great deal of credibility about the actual details and experience of space flight, and the book is really solid in this regard. It would be worth reading for this alone.
So, what’s it about? It’s an alternate history set in the era of the Apollo landings on the Moon, rather similar to the TV series For All Mankind, and it similarly uses the international rivalries of the Cold War which were running at the time: an era of high tensions but not actual warfare between the United States and the then Soviet Union.
The Apollo Murders tells a story about a fictious Apollo 18 expedition (real history ends with Apollo 17 being the last landing on the moon). This Apollo 18 expedition is, however, to be a military mission. The Russians have just launched an orbiting spy platform called Almaz, intended to be manned, which will allow them to take high resolution photographs of American installations and military activity. In the story, the Americans want to take a good look at this before the Soviets put people on board, as well as trying to disable it. Apollo 18 is tasked to do this before heading off for the Moon, where it will land near to where a robotic Russian rover has been exploring, again to examine it, see why the Soviets are interested in the area, and maybe disable the rover too.
The protagonist of the novel is Kazimieras Zemeckis, called Kaz for short. In a prologue we find that he was a test pilot who, while flying low, has a disastrous high-speed encounter with a seagull which smashes through his windscreen. He loses his left eye in the accident, and so is no longer able to pursue his goal of becoming an astronaut, for which he had been training. He is, however, appointed to be the crew liaison for the upcoming Apollo 18 mission.
Obviously, the planned attempt to investigate and disable the Russian’s Almaz space station goes badly wrong, otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. Suffice it to say that the astronauts and Mission Control have to start worrying about how to deal with a corpse in space.
I won’t go into any more detail about the plot except to say that I thought the book was well written and engaging, with plenty of thrills and action, and as I’ve already said, a good deal of interest in the descriptions of the actual experience of space flight. We do discover, not too far into the book, who committed the one actual murder, but I felt that the motivation of the murderer wasn’t fully resolved by the time the book ended: Hadfield seemed to be foreshadowing a secret to do with this character which wasn’t actually revealed, or not that I could see.
In an Author’s Note, Hadfield outlines the facts behind a number of real-life things he includes in the book, including the Almaz space station, which until then I was certain he had just made up. Not so, it was a real thing, and included one extraordinary bit of equipment which he tells us was indeed real.
There’s just one passage in the book which I deducted a lot of points for, and that’s early on when Kaz is talking to some scientists and he asks them a series of absurdly naive questions about the Moon, things which any school child would surely know, even back then, and certainly any adult who took any interest in space, let alone someone who had trained as an astronaut. I get that the author was trying to educate his audience, but it just wasn’t credible from that character’s point of view. I came very close to giving up on the book at that point, but I’m glad I was able to ignore that and keep going.
Discounting that flaw, this was a very good read.
The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope
A project I completed for Standard Ebooks.
The Small House at Allington was originally serialized in Cornhill Magazine between July and December 1862. It is the fifth book in Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire series, being largely set in that fictious county of England. It includes a few of the characters from the earlier books, though largely in very minor roles. It could also be said to be the first of Trollope’s Palliser series, as it introduces Plantagenet Palliser as the heir to the Duke of Omnium.
The major story, however, relates to the inhabitants of the Small House at the manor of Allington. The Small House was once the Dower House of the estate (a household where the widowed mother of the squire might live, away from the Great House). Now living there, however, is Mary Dale, the widow of the squire’s brother, and her two daughters, Isabella (Bell) and Lilian (Lily). The main focus of the novel is on Lily Dale, who is courted by Adolphus Crosbie, a friend of the squire’s nephew. In a matter of a few weeks, Lily falls deeply in love with Crosbie, who quickly proposes to her and is accepted. A few weeks later, however, Crosbie is visiting Courcy Castle and decides an alliance with the Earl’s daughter Alexandrina would be far preferable from a social and monetary point of view. Without speaking to Lily, he abruptly changes his plans and asks Alexandrina to marry him instead. This act of betrayal is devastating to Lily and her family.
Another young man, John Eames, has long been in love with Lily and after a few months asks for her hand. Eames is devastated to be rejected when Lily tells him she is still in love with Crosbie despite his shameless abandonment f her.
Trollope could easily have gone for a “happily ever after” ending here but he resists that temptation, which is a strength of the book.
I liked this a good deal more than the preceding book in the series, Framley Parsonage. The plot was more straightforward and the characters were more interesting and their loves and losses were deeply engaging.
Perseoplis Rising by James S. A. Corey
I’m continuing to work my way through all of the preceding books of The Expanse series before I let myself read the final volume, number 9. Perseoplis Rising is number 7.
Rather surprisingly, the series here jumps forward about 30 years from the close of action of the previous book. All the characters are now in late middle-age. We see the return of a breakaway faction of the Martian military who have been secretly building a new civilisation on Laconia, one of the stellar systems to which a portal was opened in earlier books. Now they intend to be at the head of a galaxy-spanning empire imposing their own view of humanity’s future on all of the other planets and systems. The crew of the Rocinante attempt to resist (of course!).
Very well done hard science fiction.
And this time I did thoroughly remember all of the story from my previous read of this book, unlike when I re-read the sixth volume. I really don’t know what happened there.
Books Read for the Podcast
These two books, published in 1967, were read for the purposes of an upcoming episode of our podcast, in which we have a segment called “The Hugo Time Machine” in which we visit a past year and look at the winners and nominees for the fiction categories of the Hugo Award. This time we’re looking at the 1968 Hugos, which were awarded for books published the previous year.
So I’ll just mention them here and say a few words about them, but I’ll hold proper reviews for the next issue, which will be after the podcast is aired.
Thorns by Robert Silverberg
I wasn’t much impressed of this tale of a billionaire media owner who psychically feeds off the distress of others. He brings together two damaged people to feature on his television show just in order to see their relationship falter and break apart. Not sure what point the author was trying to make.
The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany
Lyrical tale set in a future when Earth is populated by people suffering multiple mutations, both advantageous and deleterious. Lobey, the protagonist, loses the love of his life when she dies suddenly. He sets out on a myth-haunted journey to try to try to defeat death and get her back. I liked this one a lot.
Deeplight by Frances Hardinge
I’m about half-way through this. Though I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far, for some reason I’m finding it a bit slow, and so put it aside for a little while to prioritise the books for the podcast. I renewed my library loan and hope to be able to finish it before that renewal runs out.
Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
This is another of the 1967 novels I’m reading for the Hugo Time Machine episode of our podcast. It’s a re-read. I remember enjoying it greatly when I first read it, decades ago, looking forward to finishing this again.
Waiting on the Shelf
Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson: It’s starting to look as though I won’t get to this before it’s due back at the library, but I’ll try.
Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey: book 8 of The Expanse series.
And that’s your lot. Please feel free to comment and share with your friends.
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