Review: WHAT CAME BEFORE by Anna George

thS2QUVYS0Even if you’re only vaguely aware of the Australian literary scene you’d be hard pressed not to have seen or heard something about WHAT CAME BEFORE over the past few months. A debut novel by Melbourne writer Anna George it has a dramatic opening in which a man starts making a statement into his dictaphone where he admits that he’s just killed his wife. The novel proceeds (or precedes mostly) from there to pick apart the two-year relationship between David and Elle and explain – as much as such things can ever be truly understood – how it came to such an end.

Where the book excels for me is in its depiction of its two central characters. Elle is a smart, capable woman yet she slides into a dysfunctional relationship with David and stays there even as her doubts increase. David is neither knuckle-dragging nor monster and is self-aware enough, at least at times, to know the difference between the man he wants to be and the one he seems to be. In short, they are not the “other” people that bad things happen to. They are just like you and me.

Even if you haven’t yourself been involved in an abusive relationship I’d be prepared to wager there isn’t a reader alive who wouldn’t recognise the realism in it. Surely we have all lied to ourselves and our loved ones about some aspect of our life that isn’t as it should be; isn’t as we display it to the world. And many will have watched someone they know be swallowed up in the kind of self-delusions that Elle, and David too, succumb to. The depiction of Elle is particularly perfect. Her excitement at the intensity of her love for David. Her willingness to throw her natural caution to the wind due to the unexpected strength of her feelings. Her dawning recognition that not everything about David is good; that sometimes he scares her. The internal arguments she has with herself about whether or not to stay and how much of his behaviour is her fault. Her determination to believe she is in control. That she can change him through sheer force of her will. Even when her strangled body is lying on the laundry floor of her home and she’s floating ethereally above it Elle is very, very believable. As is David. Even when he’s managing to blame Elle for being strangled by him.

As a story the book didn’t work quite as well for me. The opening – though dramatic – made it impossible for me to be caught up in the early, heady days of Elle and David’s relationship. In telling me that the relationship was doomed from the outset I felt…cheated…I suppose in not being able to experience the roller coaster effect of a good thing gone horribly wrong. Instead from page one I was just waiting for David to falter, as I had been told he would. Perhaps that was the author’s intent, perhaps she wanted to show that it was never a good thing to start with, but I couldn’t help thinking that in this instance I’d have preferred a more traditional placement of beginning, middle and end.

There are also some really clunky parts of the novel. Elle is a film writer and director and is in the throws of making a romantic comedy during her relationship with David. I thought the author tried way too hard to draw parallels between the film and Elle’s life, to the point I wanted to shout “OK I get it, can we move on please“. And there’s the ending which I thought gimmicky and was, perhaps perversely, disappointed by. But for me the most significant flaw is the entire thread which deals with what comes after David’s strangling of his wife. It isn’t a huge component of the novel but it doesn’t feel nearly as well put together to me as the flashbacks which make up the bulk of the narrative. And at some points it is decidedly awkward. For example at one point David has gone to visit his godfather, who is a lawyer like David. He wants a sense from Reg about his chances, legally, and is dismayed when Reg reports on recent changes to the law. For me Reg’s dialogue is too…perfect…as if it had been crafted by a speechwriter in advance of a politician’s make-or-break speech on the subject of domestic violence

‘We live to higher standards today’. Reg focuses in tight on David. ‘You cannot kill your wife because you have lost control of her.’ …
‘And we,’ says Reg, ‘cannot continue to blame women for their deaths.’ (pg85)

Don’t get me wrong, I agree completely with the sentiments expressed I just didn’t feel they were natural. If it had been a movie Reg would have turned to the camera, Frank Underwood style, and broken the fourth wall to spout these lines rather than use them as dialogue uttered in what should have been a scene of panic and confusion on Reg’s part. This, and a few other sections like it, jarred and took me out of the otherwise consuming and enveloping sense of realism the novel had.

The subject of domestic violence needs to be raised, discussed, brought out into the light. Anna George has done so thoughtfully and with rare accessibility. It is difficult, if you are fortunate enough to have never been involved in such circumstances, to understand how and why people – victims and perpetrators – end up at the point of no return. WHAT CAME BEFORE offers real insight into this complex subject by depicting both Elle and David credibly and offering a plausible explanation without ever confusing that for justification. For me the pursuit of this admittedly admirable achievement seems to have overshadowed consideration of narrative structure and style at some points but overall it’s a book I’d find hard not to recommend, even with the odd caveat.

aww-badge-2015This is the first of what I hope to be 25 reviews I will write as part of my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015. Why don’t you join the fun?

Publisher: Penguin [2014]
ISBN: 9780670077731
Length: 254 pages
Format: paperback
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Review: TELL ME WHY by Sandi Wallace

TellMeWhyWallaceSandi22585_fGeorgie Harvey is a Melbourne-based writer who starts looking for a possibly missing elderly woman from the nearby country town of Daylesford as a favour to a friend. In that town John Franklin, one of the local policemen, is investigating a series of threatening letters being sent to new mothers in the area and he’s not too interested when Georgie tries to involve police in her hunt for the missing Susan Pentecoste. But Georgie becomes convinced Susan’s sudden disappearance is more sinister than it appears on the surface as she starts to uncover links to major incident five years earlier.

Rural settings have had something of a resurgence in local publishing in recent years so it doesn’t surprise me to see a crime novel labelled as the first in a series of rural crime files. Happily though this is more than just bandwagon-jumping as Wallace clearly knows the locations in which the events she depicts take place, making the setting of this novel is one of its strengths and giving the reader a sense of the realities of small town life.

The story too is well constructed with both plot lines developing nicely over the course of the novel. Although there are the requisite red herrings I liked the fact that the resolution to both major plot elements were grounded in reality and didn’t get lost down rabbit holes involving the kind of lunatics you only find in fiction as I feared might happen towards the beginning of the novel.

I also enjoyed the way the main characters were developed. Both are strong characters with lots of good qualities and some annoying ones, like most people, and are very believable. John Franklin’s troubles as a single parent, including the impact this has on his career aspirations, is well drawn as is Georgie’s desire to hang on to the few family-like connections she has in her life. For me the romantic tension between these two characters felt forced and unnecessary but I’ll admit to being almost completely fed up with the “will they, won’t they” kind of plot line.

Overall though TELL ME WHY is an above average debut novel with lots of promise for future instalments. It feels very Australian without relying on out-dated clichés and has a good story with engaging characters. I’ll be keeping an eye out for rural crime files number two.

Publisher: Clan Destine Press [2014]
ISBN: 9780992329662
Length: 330 pages
Format: paperback
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Review: A MURDER UNMENTIONED by Sulari Gentill

AMurderUnmentionedGentillThe problem with having read, loved and reviewed the five previous instalments of Sulari Gentill’s wonderful series of crime novels set in 1930’s Australia (and beyond) is that I am running out of superlatives with which to gush like a schoolgirl intelligently describe this enchanting series. Happily for us all Ms Gentill does not share my lack of creativity.

Most of the action in this sixth novel takes place at the Sinclair family’s rural estate Oaklea where ambitious landscaping plans lead to the discovery of the gun used in the killing of Rowland and Wilfred Sinclair’s father over a decade earlier. At the time the death was assumed by the authorities to have occurred during the commission of a burglary but when they receive some insider information on top of the gun’s discovery, police start looking closer to home for possible culprits of the unsolved crime.

Fans of the series will be pleased that all their favourite characters are back and in top form. Rowly’s three friends, who have been with him through all his adventures once again combine their talents to help Rowly and his family in a myriad of ways, though I think it’s Milt the plagiarising poet who goes above and beyond the call of duty on this occasion. One of the particular strengths of this novel is its depiction of the complex relationship between Rowly and Wil. The brothers have struggled to see eye to eye due to their different approaches to life, but when both come under suspicion at different points each does his utmost to protect the other. This unwavering loyalty and they way they learn to see how the other has experienced life differently even though they are part of the same family strikes a very realistic chord. It is rare that adult sibling relationships are depicted so completely.

Although A MURDER UNMENTIONED is, overall,  a light-hearted novel it is not without troubling themes. We learn a sad secret from the Sinclair family’s closet in a demonstration that even families which appear to ‘have it all’ often hide terrible traumas. And Rowly is still struggling to get people in authority to accept how dangerous the Nazis in Germany are; something he knows first hand due to the experiences depicted in PAVING THE NEW ROAD (the fourth book of this series).

In short then there is nothing not to like about A MURDER UNMENTIONED. There’s family drama, unrequited love, a suspenseful mystery, a blazing fire which must be escaped and the ever-popular cameo appearances from some of our history’s famous faces (including a yet-to-be prime minister and one of our pioneering landscape gardeners). This is all wrapped up in a thoughtful, intelligent and amusing story that rips along at a cracking pace. Released here this month A MURDER UNMENTIONED is highly recommended reading.


Publisher: Pantera Press [2014]
ISBN/ASIN: 9781921997433
Length: 375 pages
Format: paperback
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Review: IN THE MORNING I’LL BE GONE by Adrian McKinty

InTheMorningIllBeGoneMcKintyIN THE MORNING I’LL BE GONE completes what is surely one of crime fiction’s best trilogies*. Collectively the set has used an assortment of routine crimes and their investigation as an avenue into the crazy, mixed-up world that was Northern Ireland’s Troubles; offering the kind of insider perspective on everyday life that non-fiction can never quite manage. And while the first two books were both outstanding, IN THE MORNING I’LL BE GONE is…perfect.

As the book opens series hero, Sean Duffy, has been expelled from the police, ostensibly for running someone over with his police vehicle but really because of the many feathers he has ruffled and lines he has crossed in the events depicted in earlier instalments. Just as he is contemplating a move to Spain, where his police pension might stretch a little further and the weather will definitely be sunnier, he gets an offer he can’t refuse. His old school mate and IRA leader Dermot McCann is one of the prisoners who escaped from the Maze prison on one horrendous night and Special Branch wonder if Duffy’s personal connection might enable him to uncover information about McCann’s whereabouts and current plans.

I think my favourite of the many lovable things about this novel is its intricately clever plot that includes a romping, old-fashioned locked-room mystery. I’ll admit to being wary at the first sign of this classic trope because many modern attempts go horribly awry through thinking this an easy plot element to achieve. But McKinty has not succumbed to the lure of the paranormal nor unfairly hidden some snippet of information from the reader and the fact his characters are aware of the infamy of the type of puzzle they’re trying to solve somehow makes it seem all the more legitimate. Being a huge fan of the locked-room story I’d have been happy enough with this alone, but the plot holds much more including an ending that inserts Duffy very credibly into one of the period’s most dramatic real events. Said ending is wickedly unforgettable but not over-the-top and this is such a rare thing in crime novels these days it must be applauded.

Escaped violent prisoners, girls dead too young, injustice in myriad forms and the ever-present worry there might be a bomb under one’s car shouldn’t make ripe ground for laughter but there is a wry humour pervading this novel; lifting the depressing sensibility it might (surely would?) otherwise have. But despite this, or perhaps because of it, the reader is rarely in any doubt that serious business is at hand. This perfect balance between seriousness and humour is evidenced by the novel’s opening sentences

“The beeper began to whine at 4.27pm on Wednesday, 25 September 1983. It was repeating a shrill C sharp at four-second intervals which meant – for those of us who had bothered to read the manual – that it was a Class 1 emergency. This was a general alert being sent to every off-duty policeman, police reservist and soldier in Northern Ireland. There were only five Class 1 emergencies and three of them were a Soviet nuclear strike, a Soviet invasion and what the civil servants who’d written the manual had nonchalantly called ‘an extra-terrestrial trespass’.”

InTheMorningIllBeGoneAudioPossibly even more important than offering a ripper yarn with an undercurrent of humour is the undoubted insight the novel offers into this turbulent time and place. There are banalities and absurdities; terror and dullness; the personal and the political are irretrievably and dangerously intertwined; right and wrong are everywhere: jumbled, often indistinguishable. The problem with most of the non-fiction I’ve read on this topic is that it tries to make sense of it all whereas McKinty seems to have realised the futility of that and just depicted what was: a surreal and often nonsensical morass of humanity at its worst. And best.

I could go on some more but if I haven’t already convinced you to give this one a go then there’s no hope for you. From its Tom Waits’ borrowed title to the very last word of chapter 32 IN THE MORNING I’LL BE GONE is a treat. It offers everything I look for in a novel: lovably imperfect characters, an enveloping sense of its time and place, emotional highs and lows and some of the best laughs you’ll find between two covers. I recommend it to everyone: crime fan or not. And if you happen to be a lover of audio books do yourself a favour and grab the Gerard Doyle narration.

*there are rumours of a fourth Sean Duffy book in the works but, for now at least, this is a complete set.

My review of this book’s predecessors IN THE COLD COLD GROUND and I HEAR THE SIRENS IN THE STREET

Publisher: Print – Serpent’s Tail [2014]; Audio – Blackstone Audio [2014]
ISBN Print version: 9781846688201 ASIN Audio version: B00HWH90XM
Length: 326 pages / 9 hrs 51 minutes
Format: paperback / mp3
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A pair of thrillers: Greg Barron’s SAVAGE TIDE and Steve Worland’s COMBUSTION

It’s probably not fair of me to lump books together like this purely because they share a genre but I’m afraid my reading has outpaced my reviewing by a country mile over the past month or so and I’m a little desperate to catch up

TheSavageTideGregBarron21017_fGreg Barron’s SAVAGE TIDE is the follow up to ROTTEN GODS and once again pits intelligence officer Marika Hartmann and friends against a particularly nasty breed of evil-doers bent on causing the collapse of civilisation. It opens with a confrontingly realistic massacre of a group of school children and their teachers in eastern Africa. The people responsible for this atrocity are led by one of the world’s most wanted terrorists. And this incident is only the beginning of what he has planned.

Marika works for the squirreliest arm of Britain’s Secret Service and along with ex-Special Forces operative PJ Johnson and a small team they cross some of the hottest spots in the world today a they try to get ahead of the terrorists. Who make the job even harder by having a well-placed operatives in unexpected quarters including near the centre of operations at Marika’s home base.

Barron make this more than the standard thriller on two levels. He offers intelligent insights into the mass of complexity that is modern international relations and includes some fantastically memorable characters. Like Kifimbo, a soldier and Marika’s local guide in Somalia, who is haunted by the things he has seen and becomes attached to the infant survivor of the massacre he witnesses. And Ayanna, the Somali village girl who dreams of a different life than the one she is destined for. Even the bad guys are fleshed out so that readers understand what motivates their actions even when we find them abhorrent.

As with the first book I did find SAVAGE TIDE a bit long, too densely detailed at some points, but it seemed to move at a quicker pace and I was compelled to keep reading. The short chapters, each showing action from London to Iran to Somalia and a half-dozen other places besides, help provide the sense of speed the novel offers. It’s always a good sign that a book will leave a lasting impression when, days later, I am still wondering how a character is coping with the injuries they incurred. I hope there’ll be a third novel in the series so I can find out.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

CombustionSteveWorland22197_fCOMBUSTION is also a second novel in a series and though in this instance I haven’t read the first Worland provided enough information about events that unfurled there for me not to feel left out (yet not too much that I feel I couldn’t go back and read the first). An alleged environmentalist with more money than sense unleashes his horrific plan to ensure people finally stop relying on fossil fuel-burning engines on the freeways of Los Angeles and it falls to NASA astronaut Judd Bell and his Australian, helicopter-pilot friend Corey Purchase to stop the mayhem.

Worland makes no secret of the fact his background is in movies, in fact his website’s claim is that his books offer the best action movie you’ll ever read. There are some up-sides to this background – the action is full on and there isn’t a lot of unnecessary filler – though overall this style of book is not really my cup of tea. I have been known to skim-read the action passages in thrillers (fight sequences and descriptions of equipment and weaponry being among my least favourite subjects to read) but in this instance doing so wouldn’t leave a lot else behind. We do get a bit of a back story to Judd and Corey but there’s really sod all to explain how the madman at the centre of the evil plot got to the point where he could internalise the hypocrisy of claiming to be an environmentalist while plotting to kill millions and ruin the west coast of America for a decade or so. But the action is made enjoyable by the vein of humour, depicted most notably in the easy banter between Judd and Corey and the unique relationship between Corey and his faithful dog Spike.

I do have to have a tiny whine about two elements of the writing though. By the end of the novel I was gritting my teeth at the constant brand name dropping as characters glanced at their Tag Heuers, reached for their iPhones (no Android devices in the whole of LA apparently), leapt into their Priuses (Priusi?) and otherwise acted like shills for the hippest of (presumably deep-pocketed) companies. And while I know this is going to highlight my status as a grumpy old woman (as if I’ve been keeping that a secret) I’d also had enough of gratuitous italicisation. As in “…the rubble is right at his heels…” and “…seems to gather speed…”.  Why?

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Of course discussing books together like this almost demands comparison, however unreasonable that may be, and as I did read the books in close succession I did compare them naturally anyway. For my taste SAVAGE TIDE is the preferable novel because I like subtext and learning what makes people tick more than I like the adrenalin-rush action of things blowing up and in-the-nick-of-time escapes (though SAVAGE TIDE has those elements too). But COMBUSTION is a lot of fun and, if they get the casting right keep their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks, will make a romp of an action movie.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Harper Collins [2013]
ISBN 9780733294366
Length 482 pages
Format paperback

Publisher Penguin [2013]
ISBN 9781921901119
Length 323 pages
Format paperback

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Review: MURDER AND MENDELSSOHN by Kerry Greenwood

MurderAndMendelssohnKerry22100_fI have dipped in and out of Kerry Greenwood’s historical crime series set, mostly, in 1920’s Melbourne (with occasional forays further afield) which is an indication that it is a series I like but do not love. This instalment is probably a good example of why the series has never been one of my firm favourites. For, despite the prominence of the word in the title, there’s not actually a lot of murder or anything else vaguely criminal.

It’s the 20th novel to feature independently wealthy, private detective Phryne Fisher and sees her and her unique family ostensibly embroiled in the hunt for the killer of a choir conductor (and then another). I say ostensibly because there is a lot else going on here that seems to be more important to just about everyone in the book than finding out who killed the disagreeable conductor. Firstly there are the goings on of the choir which Greenwood depicts using her own extensive knowledge of choral singing to good effect. The problem for me is that what I know about choral music could fit easily on the back of a small postage stamp and I felt lost more than once when the book dived into specialist details such as a discussion of this composer over that one or the merits of a particular interpretation of a piece of music. I’ve read plenty of books in which topics I know little about have come alive but that didn’t happen for me on this occasion.

The other main thread of the novel revolves around Phryne’s obsession with the love-life of an old war time friend. He is a doctor whom she knew when she was driving ambulances in the war and the pair share turbulent memories. But now John Wilson is in the throes of unrequited love for a Holmes-like mathematician who gives lectures about the science of deduction. A good deal of the story is taken up with Phryne’s efforts to make the aforementioned expert see what’s right under his nose and I was a bit bored by it all. There was, after all, never any doubt Phryne would get her way (she always does) and while it’s always nice to get a happy ending to a love story I wasn’t terribly interested in the nuances of how they got there. I also found the universal acceptance of the openly homosexual couple to be a bit unrealistic for the time period. Some conflict or lack of acceptance of this paring from some corner of their world would have added a bit more credibility and the dramatic element I was looking for.

Despite these misgivings there are still things to enjoy about the novel. As ever, Greenwood’s writing is top-notch and peppered with humour and Phryne’s mixture of wit, intelligence, courage and love of all life’s pleasures are as endearing always. The depiction of her highly functional ‘family of choice’, consisting of a selection of adopted children and good friends, is another pleasing element. The idea that families can be made and connected by things other than blood is something Greenwood explores in both her long-running series and it adds an interesting element to her writing. The book also offers a realistic depiction of the various long-term effects of the Great War on those who served in it.

I’m sure Phryne’s fans will enjoy this story but if you’re new to the series I wouldn’t recommend this particular instalment as the place to start. Happily this is one of those series you can read enjoyably out of order or without having read each instalment so I’d opt for MURDER IN MONTPARNASSE, in which Phryne and her two wharfie friends investigate a cold case from the war years, or MURDER IN THE DARK which offers a Christmas-time house party and multiple kidnappings for the readers’ entertainment.

awwbadge_2014This is the 11th book I’ve read and 10th I’ve reviewed for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge. Check out my challenge progress and/or sign up yourself

Kerrie reviewed the same book last year.

Publisher: Allen & Unwin [2013]
ISBN: 9781742379562
Length: 376 pages
Format: paperback
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Review: THE VANISHING MOMENT by Margaret Wild

TheVanishingMomentWildM22110_fI only discovered after I’d finished reading THE VANISHING MOMENT that two of Margaret Wild’s earlier novels were written in verse but I’m not surprised. The book – a novella really at a deliciously short 184 pages – has the kind of economy with words that I would expect of a poet and its use of language seems very deliberate. As though each word has been the subject of thoughtful consideration before being included which doesn’t seem to be the case with every book I read these days.

It is the tale of three young people whose lives appear to have nothing to do with each other. Though there couldn’t be too many readers who don’t anticipate some kind of coming together it’s not clear what form this intertwining will take and Wild does a good job of building this suspenseful part of the story. Arrow, still troubled by a tragedy which occurred in her childhood, has finished high school but doesn’t know what to do with herself and is being increasingly pressured by her parents to do something other than laze about. Marika is of a similar age but is more ‘together’ in that she knows she wants to be (or already is?) an artist – a sculptor in fact – and is taking steps to get there. The tragedy in her life is yet to come when the book opens. Bob is a young man with a troublingly good memory whom both young women will eventually meet.

Given the novel is marketed as YA and includes a paranormal theme it would have been easy for me to dismiss it but I quickly found myself engrossed. Although in the end it is very important to the story as a whole, the supernatural element doesn’t really occupy an enormous amount of the book (which is as I like it) and I enjoyed reading about these two young women and how they coped (or didn’t) with the traumas they both experienced. Their characters are nicely fleshed out and their tribulations are realistic and genuine (as in they’re not taking to their beds because of a bad haircut or something equally inane).

The book does rip along (as it would with that length) and Wild does keep readers intelligently in suspense for most of the tale. I do have to admit though that I found the final act a little disappointing. It seemed a bit too…convenient…I suppose is the best word. The rest of the book showed a lot of maturity but the last quarter or so reminded me it was targeted at a much younger audience than I’ll ever be part of again and felt a little unsophisticated relative to the earlier part of the novel.

Overall though I liked the book and the way it played with the boundaries of genre. It’s not a traditional crime novel in that there are no procedural elements and whodunit is never the central question but there are crimes and these events, and how people react to them, are pivotal to the story. So I would thoroughly recommend THE VANISHING MOMENT, especially to younger readers though it isn’t one of those YA novels that offers an alien world to people over 30. If you are going to read it I’d avoid the blurb and a lot of reviews which give away far more than they should. I went into this one knowing absolutely nothing about the story and am sure that had a lot to do with my enjoyment.

awwbadge_2014This is the 10th book I’ve read and 9th I’ve reviewed for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge. Check out my challenge progress and/or sign up yourself

Publisher: Allen & Unwin [2013]
ISBN: 9781743315903
Length: 184 pages
Format: paperback
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Review: FATAL IMPACT by Kathryn Fox

dc7f2-fatalimpact1I’ve been known to lament the degradation in quality of long running series as authors (and editors and publishers and all the rest) become complacent in the knowledge that people will buy a book with a well-known name on the cover regardless of the quality of the content. So it is only fair I am equally vocal when a series gets better as it goes along as is the case with Kathryn Fox’s series featuring forensic pathologist Anya Crichton. FATAL IMPACT is the seventh book of the series and any kinks from the earlier books are well and truly ironed out, while all the elements I’ve liked before have been kicked up a notch.

Fox deliberately uses the tropes of the genre to explore different topical socio-political issues in her novels having previously dealt with such thorny topics as the culture and attitude towards sexual assault and violence in sporting teams and the difficulties the legal system has in achieving anything like justice for some victims of crime (or victims of particular crimes). Here she takes Anya to Tasmania (where we learn Anya grew up) which is the perfect setting to take a look at the issue of food. Can we grow enough to feed us all? Is genetic modification the answer? What restrictions should we place on foreign countries owning our arable land and exporting any produce?

But I don’t for a moment mean to suggest the book reads like an environmentalist’s lecture. It is from the outset a romp of a tale that fits somewhere between procedural and thriller on the genre scale and it would only be the most jaded of readers who would remain un-hooked. As the book opens Anya is asked by a concerned woman to investigate a troubling situation. One of the woman’s grandchildren has died previously and her daughter and remaining grandchildren are now living ‘off the grid’ in some kind of community with which communication is difficult. When Anya visits the home with other authorities she finds one child dead and her mother and other daughter missing. It is soon determined that the child died from food poisoning and there are other cases breaking out elsewhere in the state. As Anya waits to find out the source of the contamination she visits her mother whom she finds in an unnaturally, though possibly warranted, paranoid state. After all she’s surrounded by corrupt politicians, organic farmers fighting Monsanto-like corporations and local communities so desperate for jobs and economic prosperity they turn a blind eye to things that might otherwise alarm them.

It takes real skill to produce a ripper of a yarn that is at the same time thought-provoking. To additionally depict more than one view of a complex issue is even more rare and I applaud Fox for pulling it off. She does so mainly through depicting her central protagonist as not being completely informed about food politics at the outset of the book and allowing her to meet various experts and opinion-holders on both sides of the fence. As the novel progresses she draws her own conclusions based on the facts and information she collects (a radical concept in this age of shock-jock spouted mumbo-jumbo masquerading as knowledge).

To round out this highly satisfying reading experience there are an interesting cast of characters including Anya’s eccentric mother, with whom she has obviously had a strained relationship that gets tested almost to breaking point here, and an intelligent internal affairs policeman who is called upon to investigate the local coppers.

As should be obvious at this point I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and recommend it highly. It is full of surprises, never lets up its frenetic pace, provides much food for thought (pun intended) and is entirely able to be read without any prior knowledge of the series. What are you waiting for?

awwbadge_2014This is the 9th book I’ve read and the 8th I’ve reviewed for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge. Check out my challenge progress and/or sign up yourself

I’ve read four of Kathryn Fox’s earlier novels since I started blogging: SKIN AND BONEBLOOD BORNDEATH MASKCOLD GRAVE

Publisher: Pan Macmillan [2014]
ISBN/ASIN: 9781742612324
Length: 389 pages
Format: paperback
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Review: THROUGH THE CRACKS by Honey Brown

ThroughTheCracksBrownHo22131_fAs if authors don’t have it tough enough these days with slim to non-existent advances and a staggering amount of competition, they can even be poorly served by those who are supposedly on their side. In the case of Honey Brown’s THROUGH THE CRACKS the publishers have, by including significant information not revealed until the last third of the novel, drained much of the suspense for any reader foolish enough to take even a peak at the book’s blurb. So, my first piece of advice is that if you have even a vague notion that you might read this book do not, under any circumstances, look at the back cover.

My next piece of advice is to pick yourself up a copy of the book and dive in immediately (perhaps covering it in brown paper lest you accidentally spot the giant spoiler so prominently featured in the blurb).

THROUGH THE CRACKS opens with a teenage boy locking his father in one of the rooms of the house in which he has been kept a prisoner for as long as he can remember. After suffering many years of abuse at his father’s hands Adam is finally big enough, strong enough, brave enough to turn the tables. But doing more…leaving the house for example…proves even more difficult than standing up to his father. Help arrives in an unlikely form.

Although the subject matter of this novel is about as dark as it gets Brown does not concern herself with the kind of grubby details a sensationalist media outlet, or a lesser book, might do. Some details of what Adam has experienced are provided but not in a prurient or voyeuristic way, and the shocks, inevitable as they are in such a story, come more from the perspective events are seen from. This is not the story of someone who has any knowledge of social norms, right and wrong, normality. It is the story of a teenager learning about a world he’s had precious little experience of

Adam dulled his hearing and he backed up, inside himself. He stopped looking through his eyes and looked out from them instead. It wasn’t the same way he’d retreated when being beaten or hurt. He was withdrawing for the opposite reason. He needed to see and feel everything, but without distance it was too much. Standing back, inside himself, he was able to get a better view of things…Money mattered…Meanness didn’t only take place indoors and behind high fences.

As fictional characters Adam and the homeless boy who takes him under his wing are unforgettable.

I assume it was Brown’s deliberate choice to be vague about concrete aspects of the novel’s setting. To place it in time for example you have to be reasonably conversant with Australia’s TV programming and other minor cultural references over the past 20 years or so and I really only noticed one element which told me the state in which the story is set. But specific locations – the house where Adam lived, the room into which he was fearfully locked, the temporary safe-havens he and his new friend find – are all vividly, and terrifyingly where applicable, brought to life.

I had no intention of reading this entire book yesterday evening but after the first chapter or two I was…unwilling if not unable…to put it down. In this era of giant tomes needing a jolly good edit THROUGH THE CRACKS is as long as it needs to be to tell its compelling, confronting and worryingly credible story. Without dwelling on sensationalist details the book conveys some of the myriad ways in which abuse and neglect can manifest themselves and depicts the surprising array of responses human beings can have to such circumstances. And, if you don’t read the blurb, the ending is as satisfying as they come.

awwbadge_2014This is the 7th book I’ve read and reviewed for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge. Check out my challenge progress and/or sign up yourself

Publisher: Penguin [2014]
ISBN/ASIN: 9781921901546
Length: 298 pages
Format: paperback
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Review: THE LOST GIRLS by Wendy James

TheLostGirlsJamesWendy21952_fThe first book of Wendy James’ I’d heard of was 2012’s THE MISTAKE and the fact it came with a Women’s Weekly Great Read sticker on its cover guaranteed I would never read it. Whatever their intent, to me those stickers say “here’s a book you know is inferior because we do not anticipate any man ever reading it“. But I was participating in the inaugural Australian Women Writers Challenge that year and promised myself I would read outside my comfort zone a little so picked up a copy and prepared to be underwhelmed. It’s a measure of James’ skill and creativity that the book ended up on my list of favourites for the year, prompted me to seek out her earlier publications and ensured I eagerly anticipated her next release. Which brings us to THE LOST GIRLS, James’ latest tale about the secrets people keep and the lies we tell ourselves just to get by. The latest of her books to get under my skin.

Set in the northern beachside suburbs of Sydney its central figure is Angie who in 1978 is 14 and staying with her cousins Mick and Jane during the summer holidays. Jane hero-worships her older cousin, Mick is besotted in a different way and everyone else seems to be at least a little awe of her. Angie is all too aware of the ripples she causes but her violent death has consequences for those left behind that last much longer than her short life.

In the present day Jane is a middle-aged mum on the verge of closing down the family business when their daughter meets a journalist interested in talking to the family members of murder victims. Via a series of interviews with the journalist and some flashbacks we learn about the events leading up to Angie’s death and its immediate aftermath from multiple perspectives including Jane’s, Mick’s and their mum’s. This gives the books one of its interesting slants by demonstrating how elastic the concept of truth can be when everyone has a different take on events and conversations.

This is not a novel of psychotic killers and genius detectives but one of average people going about their lives. We’ve all known an Angie (or perhaps you were one), or been desperate to be someone else, or reeled from the sudden collapse of a relationship or situation we’d thought impenetrable, The crimes (it is not a spoiler to let on there is more than one), the events surrounding them and their lingering aftermath are all easily imagined. These are people you’ve known, situations you’ve been in, decisions you could easily have been forced to make yourself and it is this ordinariness that got under my skin. Unlike most crime writers James doesn’t allow readers the luxury of believing that awful things happen elsewhere. Far away. She wants you to know they can just as easily rip your own world apart.

awwbadge_2014This is the sixth novel I’ve read and reviewed for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge. Check out my challenge progress and/or sign up yourself

Publisher: Penguin [2014]
ISBN: 9781921901058
Length: 270 pages
Format: paperback
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