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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Review: SILENT KILL by Peter Corris

SilentKillCorrisSILENT KILL is only the third of the 39 published Cliff Hardy novels I can recall reading so I’m by no means an expert on the series but after three books I can recognise some patterns.

Cliff Hardy, a Sydney-based private eye, will get involved in a case that appears simple but will turn out not to be. Check. Here Hardy is asked to play bodyguard to Rory O’Hara, a political celebrity about to start a tour that has an evangelical quality to its agenda. But the campaign comes to an end almost before it begins when one of the team is kidnapped then murdered. Later Hardy is hired by the victim’s family to investigate the murder and which ultimately leads him to the shadowy world of espionage.

Cliff will get beaten up or severely injured at least once, struggle not to drink too much and have what is probably an above average amount of sex for the average fifty-something single (ish) bloke. Check.  Cliff’s sort of girlfriend disappears to the US at the beginning of SILENT KILL but it’s not long before Cliff is smitten by Rory O’Hara’s assistant. The not drinking too much and the violence inflicted upon him are of the run-of-the mill variety here.

The story will be peppered with lots of wry, bitingly accurate observations. Check. My favourite one for this book occurs when two of O’Hara’s team are discussing the campaign’s media strategy

‘…[I’m] working on TV. We’re competing with a few local stories’

‘Like what?’ Pen said

‘Drive-by shooting and a footballer’s groin injury…’

If I’d been drinking coffee at the exact moment of reading that passage I’d probably have had to replace the library’s copy of the book after spurting my drink all over the pages. Footballers’ groins are indeed treated as serious news in this country.

I’m too late to the game to be a die-hard fan of the Cliff Hardy novels and the stories do all tend to blur into one fairly quickly after reading them. But I do enjoy the reading of each one. I like the humour and the fact the length of each release hasn’t grown exponentially. I particularly like that even though he’s clearly following a formula Corris doesn’t ‘phone it in’. The cleverness and social commentary that people have remarked on from the earliest days of the series are still there, and though he might be a bit older and slower Cliff does not behave in outlandishly unlikely ways.

Speaking from experience you can start the Cliff Hardy series pretty much anywhere so SILENT KILL is as good a place as any. It’s refreshingly brief, excitingly plotted and has many moments of enjoyable humour.

Publisher: Allen & Unwin [2014]
ISBN: 9781743316375
Length: 254 pages
Format: paperback
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Review: DESERVING DEATH by Katherine Howell

Dear judgemental waitress who served me a few days ago,

I suppose you thought the fact that I sat at one of your café’s tables to read a good portion of this book gave you the right to criticise my choice of reading material. But I did buy two large coffees and a sandwich, and for all but a few minutes I was your only customer. So I’m not sure you earned the right to offer that snarky “Why waste your time with that junk when there are so many proper books to read?” as you cleared my table. On top of which, you’ve no bloody clue what you’re talking about.

DeservingDeathHowellKatherine Howell’s latest novel, DESERVING DEATH, is as proper a novel as you could hope to read. In unravelling the story behind the murder of two Sydney paramedics it explores a myriad of social issues with a sensitivity that most authors could only dream of. Added to that it’s a ripper yarn. And the whole package is delivered in a delightfully concise 300 pages.

It is a pair of female paramedics, Carly Martens and Tessa Kimball, who are called to an address they know in the first few pages of DESERVING DEATH. Sadly they discover the body of a colleague and friend who has been brutally murdered in a similar fashion to another paramedic killed a month earlier. Detective Ella Marconi and her partner Murray Shakespeare, familiar to series regulars, are assigned to the case. Carly, deeply troubled by her friend’s death, seems determined to play a role in the investigation too. In classic whodunit style there are several false leads followed before the culprit is revealed.

While the plot is probably enough to keep most readers well and truly gripped DESERVING DEATH does offer a lot more. I was particularly struck by variety of topical human relationship issues the book explored. We see, for example, the complex mix of emotions experienced by Carly and her girlfriend, one of whom is fearful of her family’s reaction to the news she is gay while the other tries to cope with the fact that her part in her girlfriend’s life is a secret. Tessa’s life meanwhile offers an unexpectedly tear-inducing heartache as she struggles to deal with her alcoholic mother – so mentally and physically broken that even as she’s lying in a pool of her own urine she alternates between beseeching and castigating her daughter in her desperate attempts to gain access to more alcohol. Tessa’s behaviour in response to this onslaught might not always be admirable but it is completely realistic and very engaging (in a ‘good grief my problems aren’t that bad after all’ kind of way). And most series fans will, I’m sure, be as thrilled as I was I’m sure to learn that Ella’s love life has taken a turn for the better here but the couple struggle to maintain a healthy relationship when family baggage threatens to drive a wedge between them.

And so, judgemental waitress, while I don’t think I should have to justify my reading choices to you or anyone else, I think you should know that your mother was right – you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (I’ve no clue how else you could have developed your ill-informed opinion). DESERVING DEATH is a book anyone would be lucky to read. At least one of its myriad relationship issues would be relevant to most readers, its depiction of the life and work of paramedics and police officers is insightful and it is a bloody good yarn.

That passes all my benchmarks for a proper book and you should keep your ill-informed opinions to yourself.

Kind regards,

A happy reader and former customer

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

awwbadge_2014This is the third book I’ve read as part of my participation in this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge. It’s not too late for you to join us.

I’ve reviewed all but the first published of Katherine Howell’s previous novels

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Pan Macmillan Australia [2014]
ISBN 9781742613666
Length 303 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #7 in the Ella Marconi series

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Review: GHOSTLINES by Nick Gadd

Ghostlines - Nick, Gadd16342fI somehow missed this Victorian Premier’s Award winning novel when it was released a few years ago but am very glad to have happened upon a copy now.

At its core is Philip Trudeau, once a high-flying financial journalist and hero to impressionable students who has fallen on hard times. He lost his job at a prestigious newspaper and even did some time in prison and is now working – barely – at a suburban rag that does little more than have a few articles around all the real estate advertisements. When a young boy is hit by a train and killed Trudeau at first only feigns interest in telling his story. But the boy’s death and its apparent links to other people and events seem to follow Trudeau and compel him to investigate, no matter how much cheap grog he drinks to forget.

At first I thought I knew exactly where this book was going to go with its alcoholic loner central figure but Gadd was soon surprising. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that there are actual ghosts in GHOSTLINES and I didn’t mind at all though I normally eschew all things mystical. This paranormal element is not overwhelming though and it does add suspense in terms of forcing the reader to consider what is real and what isn’t.

Trudeau is in some ways the typical protagonist of a crime novel but he is also a lot more believable than man of his brethren. When we learn why his career, and his personal life, have crumbled, turning to the bottle seems like a sensible, if unhealthy, choice. I suppose I felt a mixture of pity for and annoyance with him for much of the book but I could completely understand why he was behaving the way he did. And we do get to see that the path of self-destruction can be…at least temporarily interrupted if not entirely abandoned…in Gadd’s deft depiction of Trudeau’s eventual commitment to investigating the story that is demanding to be told.

GHOSTLINES ends up offering a complex and compelling tale depicting an anti hero’s version of redemption set against a backdrop which involves art, fraud and financial shenanigans in a very recognisable and quite evocative Melbourne. An absolute treat to read.

Publisher: Scribe [2008]
ISBN: 9781921372049
Length: 283 pages
Format: paperback
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Review: MY ISLAND HOMICIDE by Catherine Titasey

MyIslandHomicideWhen choosing a first book to read for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge I couldn’t go past the cheerily coloured, summer-y feeling cover of Catherine Titasay’s MY ISLAND HOMICIDE. The idea of travelling virtually to somewhere I’ve never been and having an excuse to dig out my old Christine Anu CD* were bonuses.

It is the tale of Thea Dari-Jones, a 40 year-old policewoman who, as the book opens, is experiencing her first day as Officer In Charge of the small police station on Thursday Island (forever referred to as TI), one of the 300 or so islands scattered through the Torres Strait off the far northern coast of Queensland. Thea has chosen the island job because she’s a little burned out by years of big-city policing, is keen to get far away from her cheating ex-boyfriend and is more than a little curious about the place her mother was born but has never talked much about. On first impressions it looks like she’ll get the relatively peaceful life she was after but then a local woman is reported missing. Unless they’re lost at sea people don’t go missing for long on TI (the population is under 3000) and, though it takes a while to get there, the book’s title does give the game away regarding the ultimate fate of the young mother.

Titasey goes way beyond the standard picture postcard imagery to show the many layers that a novel can employ to provide a sense of place. There are descriptions of sparkling beaches and gorgeous sunsets (it is a tropical island after all) but she shows us every aspect of life including the different kinds of jobs people have, using one of the languages the locals speak to good effect (Broken English), sumptuously describing the food they eat (often after catching it themselves) and the way they spend their leisure time. The book even delves into some of the darker aspects of TI life including the prevalence of domestic violence and the corruption that can eventuate when a local economy is very heavily dependent on government services and the associated jobs.

Another element the novel gets right is using the character of Thea as a protagonist. Not only does her mixed heritage offer the potential (ultimately well-realised) for genuine insight into the multicultural mix that exists on TI but as a newcomer to the place and the job it is natural for Thea to be learning things in a way that allows the reader a believable introduction those same things. And we do go through a lot with Thea as she meets and falls in love with a local fisherman and eventually starts to learn more about her mother’s history on the island. Jonah, Thea’s romantic interest, is nicely drawn too as are Thea’s colleagues and the island people she meets through work. There is a real sense of the positive and negative aspects of life in a small community.

The element of the novel that didn’t work as well for me was that it really is stretching things to call it a crime novel (which Titasey does). After a strong start – where I thought the mix of procedural and personal just about right – the latter two thirds of the book really becomes more of romance with occasional references to police work thrown in for contrast. Thea spends a lot more time than I cared to read about staring at nothing while thinking dreamily of Jonah, worrying about having the right underwear and a whole lot of other girly stuff that, frankly, bored me witless. I know it’s probably unfair of me to say that but I think the book would be much more comfortable in the romance section of the book shop and, had it been there, at least I would have had more of an idea what to expect and made my choice whether to read it or not accordingly.

That said if you love a good romance with an astonishingly enveloping sense of place, some great characters, a healthy dose of light humour and the occasional reference to a dead body or island-style crime spree this is the book for you. Although in the end it proved too mushy for my personal taste that doesn’t take away from the fact that if I close my eyes I can just about imagine I’ve been to TI on holidays and I learned a heck of a lot of interesting things about Islander history and culture and the range of work that police in a place like TI would encounter. MY ISLAND HOMICIDE is a perfect summer read for the romantically inclined. Bet you can’t read it without wanting to cook yourself a curry.

*for the non-Australians (or those too young to remember…gulp) Christine Anu had a huge hit nearly 20 years ago with a song called My Island Home (though the song itself was originally written about a place in Arnhem Land, Anu changed some of the lyrics to fit with her Torres Strait Islander heritage when she started to sing it). Have a listen. 

MY ISLAND HOMICIDE started life as a manuscript called Island of the Unexpected which won the Queensland Literary Award for best emerging author in 2012. You can hear Catherine talk about the book and her own life as a ‘blow-in’ who arrived on TI 20 years ago on Radio National’s daily Arts show last November (which is what prompted me to buy my copy).

awwbadge_2014This is the first of what I hope will be 24 novels read and reviewed for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge. There’s still plenty of time for you to sign up yourselves and you can aim for as few as 4 books.

Publisher: University of Queensland Press [2013]
ISBN: 9780702249716
Length: 321 pages
Format: Paperback
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Review: SINISTER INTENT by Karen M. Davis

SinisterIntentKarenMDavisEven if I hadn’t known from her bio that Karen Davis is an ex-cop I think I’d have guessed fairly soon after I started reading SINISTER INTENT. It’s not so much that the set pieces and procedural elements ring true (though they do) but that the ‘in-between moments’ have the air of authenticity that only first-hand knowledge can provide. She has captured the ever-changing atmosphere of this specialised working environment with skill; showing the adrenalin that accompanies the start of a major investigation, the doldrums that can follow when there is little progress despite everyone’s efforts and the tensions that can build up between colleagues working so closely together.

This depiction underpins the topical tale of a potential bikie war breaking out in the suburbs of Sydney as drugs a found in a gang headquarters then a gang member is shot and killed, possibly by someone from a rival gang. When trying to investigate the death of Bluey the cops from Bondi Junction are up against the famed bikie’s code of silence and must struggle for every snippet of intelligence and scrap of evidence while they try to ensure that there are no retaliatory violent outbreaks.

For me the book’s strength lies in the characters on both sides of the criminal divide. Lexie Rogers is the newly promoted Detective Constable who teams up with the more seasoned DS Josh Harrison to take charge of the case and they are both interesting. Lexie has a pretty traumatic past for someone not yet 30 which offers lots of scope for insight and further development) and Josh has a demon or two of his own though neither are irretrievably damaged. Rex Donaldson is effectively in charge of the gang at the centre of the troubles but thankfully does not display most of the stereotypical traits that our politicians would have us believe all bikies possess, though he’s no fan of the police.

I’m afraid I didn’t actually find the story itself particularly suspenseful but that’s at least partially due to my personal tastes. It has a much higher quotient of romantic entanglement and sexual tension (resolved and otherwise) than I normally like, to the point I felt it strayed a little too far into ‘chick lit’ territory (a term I don’t really like but what I mean is that I cannot imagine recommending this book to male crime fiction readers I know). The fact I thought the book too long is mainly connected to my boredom with this element of the novel. The other factor in me finding this book less than suspense-filled is that I thought the culprit(s) blindingly obvious from almost the very beginning. Normally I am fairly forgiving of this because I read more crime novels than the average reader and there are usually other suspects and sidetracks to keep me guessing but I truly find it difficult to believe anyone could read this book and imagine for a moment there was ever a chance of a different person being the main guilty party.

That said I did enjoy Davis’ depiction of the investigative process and her creation of a very believable environment and backdrop against which to set her story and I enjoyed meeting all the characters, even the unlikable but very credible ones like Rex’s insecure girlfriend Kate. The book definitely holds its own in the increasingly crowded romantic suspense genre and is a solid debut novel that demonstrates the author’s potential to build a real following.

Publisher: Simon & Schuster [2013]
ISBN: 9781922052520
Length: 431 pages
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Review: BITTER WASH ROAD by Garry Disher

BitterWashRoadGarryDish21151_fI suppose the noticeable lack of crime fiction set in my home state has the advantage of not making me peer worryingly around every corner lest the figments of imagination come to life but it can make a local fan feel like a poor relation with nothing to bring to the feast that is Australian crime fiction. So I was particularly thrilled to learn that one of the country’s best crime writers, South Australia’s own Garry Disher, was publishing a new crime novel set right here. The wait, as is so often the case, was worth it: BITTER WASH ROAD is about as good as it gets.

It is the story of Tiverton, a tiny scrap of a town several hours’ drive north of Adelaide, and the policeman posted to its one-man station as his punishment for being mixed up in a corruption scandal at a suburban station. Paul Hirschhausen, inevitably known as Hirsch, displays a complex mixture of bitterness, pragmatism, paranoia and determination as he settles uneasily into the role of general fixer, father figure and upholder of those laws it suits the locals to uphold that is the lot of a country cop. Those locals are wary of Hirsch unless they want something of him; the cops from the nearest town are overtly antagonistic to someone they view as a traitor and Hirsch is looking for a place he can call home without having to sleep with one eye open.

He does so against the backdrop of a deceptively simple case in which a teenage girl’s half-naked body is found by the side of the road. Hirsch is the only person willing to treat it as anything other than the hit and run first appearances suggest, and he fights an uphill battle to gain access to forensics and interview subjects. But fight he does…slowly building up a picture of who has power in the area and what sinister uses some of that power is put to. It is a worryingly plausible depiction of the narrowness of the margin that separates good people from bad ones; and even more disturbing is the sense that the bad guys look just like everyone else.

Hirsch’s first encounter with the book’s eponymous road is just the first of many examples of Disher’s skill at drawing the reader in, making it impossible not to imagine the places and people he has created

Five kilometres south of Tiverton he turned left at the Bitter Wash turnoff, heading east into the hills, and here there was some movement in the world. Stones smacked the chassis. Skinny sheep fled, a dog snarled across a fence line, crows rose untidily from a flattened lizard. The road turned and rose and fell, taking him deeper into hardscrabble country, just inside the rain shadow. He passed a tumbled stone wall dating from the 1880’s and a wind farm turbine.

When her turns his keen observation skills to people it is, on more than one occasion, enough to make me squirm. There is, for example a passage of no more than 10 or so lines about half-way through the story that made me put the book down in something akin to horror. As Hirsch dozes in the back seat of a car the two constables up front chat breezily about their new female colleague and what they’d do to her in a heartbeat that is repugnant in its contempt for her particularly and women in general. So much so that I can’t even bring myself to quote it here to illustrate my point. But for days afterwards I couldn’t stop thinking about these lines and their realism; wondering how many men there are in the world who think like constables Nicholson and Revell.

For all its darkness BITTER WASH ROAD does not leave its readers in complete despair and some moments of redemption come from pleasantly surprising quarters. Even so it is the harsh landscape and tough people that linger in my mind. That and the fact this is probably the best book I’ve read all year.

Publisher: Text [2013]
ISBN/ASIN: 9781922079244
Length: 325 pages
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GentlemenFormerlyDressedGentillI read for lots of reasons. For fun. To learn. To pass the time. To avoid chores. Because it makes me feel…however intangibly and inexplicably…better. Few books manage to let me tick all those boxes at once but Sulari Gentill’s gently humorous historical adventures featuring Rowly Sinclair and his pals have, for me, come to epitomize what makes reading the very best pastime a girl can have.

The fifth installment of the series, GENTLEMEN FORMERLY DRESSED follows on immediately from the events depicted in PAVING THE NEW ROAD. Our heroes have escaped early 1930’s Germany with bodies and souls (mostly) intact and are in London. Rowland Sinclair, youngest son of a wealthy Australian family, is keen to ensure that what he and his friends learned about the activities of the Nazis in Germany is relayed to people in power but, even with the connections offered by his politically active older brother, struggles to find anyone who will listen to his dire warnings. Before he can make much headway with his mission Rowly and his staunch friends, Edna, Clyde and Milton, are soon embroiled in investigating a bizarre murder that has even the English aristocracy, no strangers to bizarre goings-on, raising a collective eyebrow.

I’m not sure I can explain exactly what it is that sets this series apart for me but I’ll make an attempt.

I adore the almost immediate sense of being transported to the time and place of Gentill’s creation where her historical research is skilfully entwined with elements from her imagination. Was Evelyn Waugh really the pompous pratt portrayed here? Was there such a blatant attempt to make it seem as though Wallis Simpson’s affair with English nobility wasn’t with a Royal? Was the 1933 London Economic Conference really such a balls-up? Was there ever a point at which Hitler might have been stopped before he wrought his tragedy upon the world? Without ever straying into a lecturing tone the book guarantees the reader will feel smarter by the end, even if you don’t have a list of topics to google research as I did.

I suppose it doesn’t hurt that I am more than a little in love with Rowly and his three friends (in a purely platonic way of course). Yes they are extraordinarily lucky in a way that only people in fiction can truly be. But they do all know it and they share their good fortune willingly and with joy. They love life, and each other and they never miss an opportunity to help someone less fortunate than themselves, regardless of any risk to their personal safety and without passing judgement of any kind on their fellow humans. I know that grit and gangsters are all the rage in crime fiction these days, but I cannot help but long for a bit more good, old-fashioned courage and decency in both my real and fictional worlds.

There is also a romping story, fantastic dialogue, a tantalizing dose of unresolved sexual tension and a mildly absurd humour to this book. How can one not delight in the imagery of four well-dressed young people carrying around and talking to the wax head of an English Lord for half a book? Or attacking fascists being beaten away with the limbs from tailors’ mannequins?

Google research attributes to Aristotle the quote that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. GENTLEMEN FORMERLY DRESSED is just a little bit more wonderful than all its excellent elements would lead you to believe it might be. Like its central hero it is audaciously optimistic, unashamedly well-intentioned and superb fun. Read it. You’ll feel better.

GENTLEMEN FORMERLY DRESSED is officially released in Australia on Friday (1 November) so if your local bookstore doesn’t have a copy you should demand they order it. Immediately.

I’ve reviewed all four of this novel’s predecessors here at Fair Dinkum Crime

awwbadge_2013This is the 18th book I’ve read by an Australian woman writer this year (It’s still not too late to join the Australian Women Writers Challenge)

Publisher: Pantera Press [2013]
ISBN: 9781921997303
Length: 361 pages
Format: paperback
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This work by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.