The Janus Run by Douglas Skelton [6/10]

Author Skelton knows how to plot a book, especially one in which the hero, in this case an ex-member of an elite shadow operation, wakes up next to his dead girlfriend and finds himself on the run, pursued by the police and homicidal maniacs. The combination of breakneck action and espionage/mob strategies reminded me of Robert Ludlum, and The Janus Run almost breaks out into that elite category. Almost but not quite, for the writing style is choppy and the blur of action numbs one after a while, something that definitely shouldn’t happen with such a thriller. Not everyone in the extensive cast of characters work as well as protagonist Coleman Lang but I was swept up within the New York City hunt and chase scenes, and enjoyed much of the darkly flavored dialogue. An enjoyable race to the end but oh, how good it could have been!

One Way by S. J. Morden [7/10]

Of all the sci-fi sub-genres, that of space travel, the nitty gritty of it, had almost faded away until it was resurrected seven years ago by Andy Weir’s The Martian. What distinguished that enjoyable novel (remember Matt Damon in the movie?) was a geeky delight in the engineering intricacies of life in space, allied to a fast plot and serviceable writing. Ex-geologist Simon Morden and prolific science fiction novelist, in various sub-genres, has now reprised the original conceit of The Martian – humanity goes there! – with a few twists and just as particular a technical focus. In One Way, the first of a double-volume series, convicted murderer Frank Kittridge joins six other criminals to train up as an astronaut, land on Mars, and bang together housing for humans. Then the deaths occur . . . The murder mystery is no brain twister but does satisfy, Morden brings Kittridge to mordant life, space is exotically evoked, and the techo aspects are delicious. A glorious astronaut-in-jeopardy romp that begs for filmic extension.

Maniac directed by Cary Fukunaga – Episode 1 [9/10]

From its opening frame featuring  a down-and-out Emma Stone (a mesmerising performance) in a half-retro, half-futuristic New York, Fukunaga stuns with sumptuous scenes and wonderful cinematography. Jonah Hill is perfect as the hallucinating depressive son of a scion. In the second half the two volunteer into a pharma’s clearly dodgy group trial, and the signals are clear that this is going to be one trippy experience, perhaps a la Legion (one of my faves from 2017), and that the clashing duo will team up. All the bit players are superb. Not a moment of Maniac is wasted, not a moment is predictable. What a stunner of an opening episode!

The Nowhere Child by Christian White [6/10]

Family secrets make for marvellous mysteries. When a Melbourne photographer is confronted by an American man claiming she is the grown-up version of a child missing for nearly three decades, her increasingly baffled investigations take her to Kentucky and a backwater cult. The Nowhere Child’s plot combusts capably, if a trifle slowly, and the plucky protagonist works well. White’s style is sure and smooth, the locales evocative. I enjoyed this quick classic-hued tale. A solid Australian crime debut.

Songs You Make at Night by Tunng [8/10]

British folktronica group Tunng has been making gorgeous mixed-fi music for over a decade, one of those influential but ignored bands that it’s a treat to discover. Songs You Make at Night is one of their best, a sumptuous amalgam of acoustic guitar and electric piano, heavy bass beats, and found sounds sprinkled with clicks and the like, all hushed over by Sam Gender’s feather-light weary falsetto (I swear he channels Robert Wyatt unerringly at the start of amazing “Dream In”) and Becky Jacobs’s ethereal voice. The lyrics pinch and pull with poetry. Standout tracks include nigh-poppy “Dark Heart” and pastoral “Like Water.” A must buy for 2018, songs you hear at night and in the quiet of the day.