Review: BAY OF FIRES by Poppy Gee

BayOfFiresGeePoppy18543_fThis novel takes its name from its setting: a beautiful stretch of Tasmania’s east coast which does exist in the real world, though here it is given a village, a shop and a camp ground which do not. The spot forms the backdrop for a group of holiday shacks which have been used by the same families for years. Last summer a local teenage girl went missing and hasn’t been seen since, now the body of a young European tourist has been found. And the question on everyone’s mind…is one of them responsible?

My family used to holiday in the same beachside location every summer so I immediately felt a connection to BAY OF FIRES. I even recognised a lot of the just-beneath-the-surface discords on display amongst the regular visitors. Gee does a good job of showing both the monotony and the comfort offered by this sort of set-up and provides two key characters to show the reader what’s really going on in this community.

Sarah Avery offers the insider’s perspective. She is the eldest daughter of one of the regular families and is a somewhat reluctant participant in this year’s holiday, partly because she is coming to grips with some troubles in her personal life. She’s staying with her parents and younger sister. Hall Flynn, a journalist for a Launceston newspaper who has been assigned to cover the story, provides the outsider’s point of view. He takes a room at the guest house at which the girl whose body has been found was staying. Between them, these two piece together the story of what has happened to the two girls, Sarah using her knowledge of the regulars and Hall using his observational skills and ability to ease himself into local events without causing too many ripples.

BAY OF FIRES succeeds as a work of observation about a small community that appears to be close-knit on the surface. The death and disappearance – and the almost total lack of formal progress on either case – highlight all the personality clashes and not-so-petty differences of opinion that have been lying dormant for years. People’s fears lead to finger pointing, attempts at vigilante justice and plain meanness and I found this element of the book – a kind of character study en masse – quite enthralling.

As a work of crime fiction I thought it a little less successful, with the resolution being somewhat obvious and the lack of police presence and progress not being explained terribly satisfactorily. That said, I did appreciate the crime’s unconventional resolution as it seemed to be in keeping with the world Gee had depicted.

Overall this début novel has much to commend it and I will certainly be on the lookout for more of Gee’s writing. In BAY OF FIRES she has demonstrated a flair for depicting evocative settings and the personality shifts that happen to average people when unexpectedly terrible things happen around them.

awwbadge_2013BAY OF FIRES is the 14th book I’ve read as part of this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Kerrie’s review of BAY OF FIRES from earlier this year.

Publisher: Headline [2013]
ISBN: 9780755387847
Length: 309 pages
Format: trade paperback
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Review: NO SAFE PLACE by Jenny Spence

NoSafePlaceSpenceJenny20333_fNO SAFE PLACE begins with middle-aged technical writer Elly Cartwright arriving at her Melbourne home one night to be greeted by an elderly neighbour with some message or other but before Mabel can get a full sentence out she collapses. Mabel, it seems has been shot and Elly is injured too. The next day she discovers that one of the software programmers she has worked closely with has also been killed and she starts to believe the deaths have something to do with her. With the help of her colleagues and some friends Elly quickly adapts to a life of ever-changing disguises while she tries to work out who’s got it in for her.

Thrillers in which an average Joe (or in this case Josephine) becomes embroiled in criminal intrigue are difficult to pull of with any sense of credibility (I’ve lost count of the number I’ve thrown at the wall) but in her début offering Jenny Spence does a decent job of it, mainly through using a nicely grounded character to propel the novel forward. While she does seem a remarkably quick thinker, in most respects Elly is perfectly normal. Being a mum she is worried that her troubles will impact on her adult daughter and she has the same gripes about work and daydreams of escape as most of us. The investigation she does, with the help of her technically minded colleagues, is within the bounds of possibility and the gang do at least involve police when they learn something serious which is a rare thing in these sorts of thrillers.

I rather liked the setting of this book too. There’s the geography: we spend time in both Sydney and Melbourne and both are recognisable, as is the friendly rivalry between the two places. But there is also the environment of Elly’s work, a small company doing one of those unseen jobs that most people don’t know exist but which many of us benefit from every day. People in fiction often seem to have much more windswept and interesting jobs than exist in real life and it’s nice to see some version of normality being displayed quite deftly.

NO SAFE PLACE is an easy but not simplistic read and is a really solid first outing from an author I’ll have on my radar from now on. The suspense was well maintained and the plot hangs together pretty well, with only a couple of minor points warranting a half-raised eyebrow. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

awwbadge_2013No Safe Place is the 12th book I’ve read and 10th I’ve reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

Publisher: Allen & Unwin [2013]
ISBN/ASIN: 9781743313329
Length: 320 pages
Format: paperback
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Review: DEAD CAT BOUNCE by Peter Cotton

DeadCatBouncePeterCotto20469_fFor something a little different today we’re offering you two perspectives for the price of one on DEAD CAT BOUNCE, a debut crime novel by Peter Cotton who is an Australian journalist and former media adviser to several government ministers. The book is set during the last weeks of a divisive Australian election campaign (though in yet more evidence that truth is stranger than fiction Cotton’s imagination didn’t run to a second dumped PM in a three year period) and opens with the discovery of the body of the Environment Minister dumped near a Canberra landmark.

Bernadette’s thoughts are in green. I’m a politics junkie from way back and don’t consider my weekend complete without Sunday morning Insiders viewing. My crime fiction tastes lean towards procedurals and whydunnits.

Josh’s thoughts are in red. As my twitter handle suggests (@OzNoir) my genre of choice is noir which tends to lead me down the dark and shadowy back alleys of crime fiction. DEAD CAT BOUNCE was something a little different, something outside my comfort zone which still alluded to that slithering underside of crime enough to satisfy my curiosity. Not a consummate reader of police procedurals, I saw enough in the premise to warrant a look-in, and I’m glad I did.

What was your immediate reaction to the premise of the novel?
I salivated at the prospect of a book which combines two of my favourite things: crime fiction and dead politicians.

I saw satire, murder, and an Aussie setting – enough to interest me. I like books that don’t take themselves too seriously and the premise of DEAD CAT BOUNCE certainly leaned towards it being more tongue-in-cheek than hardnosed police procedural.

The central character in Dead Cat Bounce is young-ish Detective Darren Glass. Did you like him? Hate him? Find him compelling?

I liked the fact that Darren is not in the ‘so psychologically damaged it’s hard to get out of bed’ mould of crime fiction investigator and is basically a well-adjusted, fully functional human being with awesome MacGyver-like skills. The blunders he makes during the case (e.g. letting something important slip to a political blogger during an interview) give him credibility. Perversely though I did not find him terribly compelling…I never felt any lingering worry about what was happening to him when I had to put the book down as I do sometimes with characters who get under my skin. This makes me wonder if I actually do prefer the psychologically damaged characters after all.

I liked Glass more than I thought I would. His stumbling, blundering detective style, while not endearing, was a quality that made him more human than a traditional Detective (a generalisation I know). He came across as someone who lets his emotions lead him – thankfully this premise serves a purpose throughout the course of the novel and doesn’t become all-consuming in dictating his every action. I found his personal and professional life blurred the lines to the extent I had trouble distinguishing the two – not a bad thing, I wouldn’t say I found him compelling but was a little something there that other procedurals I’ve read didn’t have.

Did the story maintain your interest? Keep you guessing? Keep you awake at night? What bits did you like most?
Even for me there was a lot of procedural minutiae in the first third of this book. The Minister who was killed had been at a public function prior to her kidnapping and so police have to establish who was there, what everyone did and who they spoke to, who left early and so on. This seemed to drag on a little for me but I suspect people who don’t read as many police procedurals as I do wouldn’t notice or be bothered by this. The pace improved after this though as the action level ramped up. I did think one part of the resolution was telegraphed a little early on but there were enough more well hidden elements to keep me satisfied.

I thought it took a while to get to the good stuff. When thrust into action, Glass and the accompanying characters really took on a life of their own. The murder mystery didn’t keep me awake at night but I did spend the odd minute here and there pondering the person behind it. One thing that stuck out was how well rounded the plot was, I thought Peter Cotton came full circle with his plot devices and characterisation to perfection.

Was the Australian political setting well done?
Absolutely. Everything from the investigative problems caused by one of the key players being the country’s Prime Minister – a legitimately hard to access person – to the sometimes dangerously symbiotic relationship between the Canberra press gallery and their subjects seemed to be spot on. For the politics junkie there is much frivolity to be had in trying to work out which real-world people Cotton’s fictional politicians, journalists and bloggers represent.

A little hard for me to comment on this one as I don’t tend to get involved in politics – I’ll default to Bernadette’s take on this one.

Was there something you particularly liked about DEAD CAT BOUNCE?
The main narrative is broken up with extracts from a blog and TV newsbreaks. These were well done and really added to the authentic sensibility.

I didn’t pick a definitive suspect until relatively late in proceedings – in a murder mystery setting that always scores points. I also liked the blog/newsbreaks to keep the narrative fresh.

Was there anything you really didn’t take to about the book?
I shouldn’t criticise someone for not delivering something they never promised but, for me, the book would have been better with a dash of humour. I often struggle to take politics – and politicians – as seriously as they take themselves and I have an idea that most Australians feel the same way. But this could be me projecting my personal view of the world outwards in a way that is totally wrong.

More satire. I think Peter Cotton touched upon it; more so in a subtle manner than by using blatant overtones.

Who would you recommend the book to?
I suspect the book’s ideal reader is someone who doesn’t read a lot of police procedurals but is reasonably interested in Australian politics. But even if that doesn’t quite describe you I’d think most readers would enjoy this tale.

People who enjoy crime fiction within the Australian setting. While a police procedural it doesn’t feel as typecast as the genre suggests by virtue of its subject matter and lead character in Detective Glass. I think readers who come into this looking for a good time will feel satisfied.

In a nutshell that’s two lots of thumbs up from two readers whose tastes are not generally all that similar, proving the book offers something for everyone. Enjoy.

Review: CYANIDE AND POPPIES by Carolyn Morwood

CyanideAndPoppiesMorwoodTaking place about four years after the action depicted in DEATH AND THE SPANISH LADY, Carolyn Morwood’s second Eleanor Jones novel is set in Melbourne during the rather intense late spring of 1923. The police have gone on strike over their poor pay and conditions and while authorities struggle to co-opt enough ‘special constables’ from the ranks of returned soldiers there is an unusual amount of violence in the city’s streets. Against this backdrop Edward Bain, reporter for The Argus newspaper, is found dead in his office. Eleanor Jones has returned to her pre-war job and also works at the paper now but retains enough knowledge from her time as a nurse during and immediately after the war to know that Edward’s death is unnatural; she suspects cyanide poisoning.

At first Eleanor is more mildly curious than intensely interested in the investigation into Bain’s death. She is more troubled by personal matters, particularly the state of her brother Andrew’s health. They are both living in their parent’s Melbourne house while their parents are travelling abroad and Andrew is still suffering the effects of the shell shock he returned from the battlefield with. However when the police start to suspect a woman Andrew has become friendly with Eleanor is prompted to become more closely involved with the investigation. She’s not sure her brother can cope with another tragedy in his life.

The characters here are all well drawn; they’ve some foibles and some secrets they want to keep and there’s silly behaviour they continue to engage in even when it doesn’t really make sense. Just like real people right? Eleanor is happy enough with her work as a film reviewer for the paper but her personal life remains problematic: the man she is interested in (despite her best efforts to ignore the attraction) is married to someone else. However she doesn’t mope or dwell on this unfortunate circumstance, and is far more worried for her surviving brother (the other died during the war). The depiction of her not knowing how to help him is very realistic, as is his portrayal as a man struggling to deal with all he saw and experienced during the war.

The story is a  first-rate, traditional whodunnit. There are plenty of plausible suspects whose elimination follows a suitably twisted path, with the involvement of Eleanor (and friends) feeling as credible as it’s possible for amateur sleuths to do. And there are some really interesting background elements here including a glimpse into the running of a newspaper and the inclusion of a psychic character with a difference. This is all topped off with an excellent sense of time and place: even though it’s 90 years ago the depiction of a city which wouldn’t dream of letting a little thing like mass rioting get in the way of running the Melbourne Cup is spot-on.

I’m really glad I was able to get my hands on a copy of CYANIDE AND POPPIES (which was no mean feat) and can recommend it to fans of historical crime fiction. It really does have everything you could look for from this genre.

I don’t normally add ‘buy here’ links but as I found it nearly impossible to find a copy of this book only a couple of months after its publication late last year (the library and two local bookstores all told me it was out of print and unavailable) I figure it’s worth letting you know you can buy it in physical format from Booktopia and it’s now available from you-know-where in eBook format

awwbadge_2013This is the 11th book I’ve read for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge

Publisher: Pulp Fiction Press [2012]
ISBN: 9780987155139
Length: 305 pages
Format: paperback

Review: PINK TIDE by Jarad Henry

Pink Tide - Henry, Jarad19881fThe third novel to feature Victorian detective Ruebens McCauley PINK TIDE follows on from 2008′s BLOOD SUNSET but takes the protagonist from inner-city Melbourne to the small, Great Ocean Road town of Jutt Rock. McCauley has become what is known in the police force as a shipwreck – a cop burned out by their experiences and left to fend for themselves in some out of the way place until they leave the force all together – and needs a stash of prescription medication to get him through the relatively tame policing needs of a small resort town. It’s not unreasonable to wonder then how he will cope when local surfing champion Teddy Banks and his friend Kurt Welsh, who is also McCauley’s nephew, are brutally beaten after leaving a nightclub. With Banks dead and Welsh not expected to survive his injuries locals are angry, assuming the culprit is one of the many tourists visiting the town, and McCauley’s tenuous hold on his new, relatively stress-free life looks to be in serious danger of slipping away.

PINK TIDE’s plot is a ripper; full of the requisite number of twists and turns but offering a lot more besides as it explores several topical social themes. The issues surrounding small town residents who rely economically on the tourist groups they can attract but who resent the influx of people flashing money around and engaging in lurid, ‘big city’ behaviours are well teased out. As is the way that people’s prejudices are impossible to hide for long and take little encouragement to rise to the surface in all their hate-filled fury.

As he still works in the Victorian criminal justice system there is a real sense that Henry’s use of the story to depict some of the problems deeply rooted in the justice system and operation of a modern police force is accurate and, accordingly, somewhat sad. There is the very real issue of the health problems faced by many police, evidenced here by McCauley’s post traumatic stress disorder, and the fairly woeful way such problems are dealt with by their employers. Other bureaucratic inanities taking an immeasurable toll on the people we expect to protect us from all manner of dangers are also depicted credibly and would give pause for thought if only the right people could be forced to read books such as this. But perhaps the saddest indictment of all is McCauley’s observation when the police are interviewing their prime suspect

Like any criminal investigation, it wasn’t a question of truth. In the absence of any physical evidence or witnesses, the question was whether it was a plausible enough story (p164).

The only slightly disappointing note of the novel for me is the continued deterioration of poor Ruebens McCauley who seems, after only three books, to have experienced every one of the personal foibles and tragedies afflicting crime fiction’s most tortured cops. At some point during this book he moved, on the virtual list I keep in my head, from ‘basically functional, if occasionally troubled’ to ‘impossibly burdened, wouldn’t want him to be my local copper’. Of course it’s not Henry’s fault that I’ve become a bit weary of jaded, dysfunctional policemen (only one of them is his after all) but I do think it was a bit mean to inflict another major personal problem on the poor man towards the end of this novel as it didn’t really add all that much to the larger plot.

Overall though PINK TIDE is a great read: offering a thought-provoking exploration of the social underbelly of polite society and a credible, if maddening, depiction of the more ludicrous aspects of modern bureaucracies. The fact that the revelation at about the half-way point of the central crime’s culprit in no way lessens the tension of the book, which turns then from a whodunnit into a ‘willhegetawaywithit’, is evidence of real skill.

Publisher: Arcadia [2012]
ISBN/ASIN: 9781921875489
Length: 329 pages
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Review: BLACKWATER MOON by B. Michael Radburn

Blackwater Moon - Michael Radb19894fAlmost more a coming of age tale than a piece of crime fiction BLACKWATER MOON is Andy Walker’s story. He is a child of the 60′s in the small town of Blackwater in rural New South Wales and his life is not an easy one. His small family lives in a constant state of worry about what mood Andy’s father will be in at any time: the man is a violent drunk and Andy’s mother is no help to her children. Andy’s older sister collects things for her glory box knowing it will be her means of escape, while Andy takes on a job at the local supermarket to earn some pocket money and gain essential time away from the house. Things turn even darker for Andy when a person struggling with their own demons enters his young life and involves him in something that has a ripple effect for years to come.

BLACKWATER MOON is Radburn’s second book after 2011′s THE CROSSING which I’ve not read. It reads like the work of a well-established author though, taking some risks with literary conventions and managing to pull them off successfully. The first person narrative works well for the kind of deeply personal story being told here and Radburn does manage to maintain Andy’s voice credibly even though it has to span the period from when he is about 10 or so to when he’s a middle-aged man. All the way along Andy’s story is a compelling one, all the more so for the understated quietness with which he travels through life.

The setting – both time and place – is a strong element of the novel, though for me there’s nothing particularly Australian about any of it. I’m prepared to admit though that this might just be because I was reminded of American stories such as Stephen King’s THE BODY and Betty Smith’s A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN as I read. Nevertheless I do have very clear images of the town and its surrounds in my head and the portion of the book set during the time of the Vietnam war is particularly strong. By this stage Andy is married with a young baby and his wife is vehemently opposed to the war, to the point she’d rather Andy went to prison for conscientious objection than to Vietnam to fight. The suspense that builds as the couple wait to hear if Andy’s will be drafted is intense and a really superb depiction of this under-explored theme.

Although many of the events depicted in BLACKWATER MOON are horrific the book doesn’t dwell on the showy, overt consequences of those horrors. Instead it shows the daily grind of living through such traumas. Andy’s story is juxtaposed with that of his tormentor at key points, someone unable to rise above the traumas of their own childhood. I’ve seen this kind of counterbalance before and it’s often awkward or incredible but Radburn didn’t overplay things and so this element did add something worthwhile to the novel.

It’s quite hard to talk about this book because there is so much I would consider a spoiler. I was lucky enough to come to BLACKWATER MOON with absolutely no preconceived ideas about it and I think you should get to do the same should you care to. I found it a gently compelling novel, with a terrific central character and several genuine surprises.

Publisher: Pantera Press [2012]
ISBN: 9781921997099
Length: 383 pages
Format paperback
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Review: THE HOLIDAY MURDERS by Robert Gott

TheHolidayMurdersRobert Gott is a writer of educational texts and a series of comic farce historical mysteries featuring an actor-turned-detective Will Power. With THE HOLIDAY MURDERS he reveals a darker vein to his personality, offering a not all together flattering picture of war-time Melbourne and an intriguing cast of characters, several of whom I am very glad to have only met virtually

Set over the Christmas to New Year holiday period at the end of 1943 the book opens with police being called to a crime scene. Xavier Quinn has been brutally tortured and murdered by, on first appearances, his father John who subsequently committed suicide. However it is soon clear that both men were murdered though a motive for the gruesome crime is not immediately obvious. Mary Quinn, Xavier’s sister, is an actress in radio dramas and has discovered the bodies on coming home from work with her friend Sheila. She can’t seem to provide the police with any leads as to who might have committed the awful crime though she does admit that the family was not close. She describes Xavier as a religious zealot of unsound mind who didn’t really communicate with anyone while she and her father were at odds over her choice to work as an actress. The police wonder if there might be some religious motive to the crimes but then discover some reading material that suggests a political motive. This in turn leads to the involvement of the military’s Intelligence boffins and leads the investigation into the path of Australia’s very own (and very real) Nazi-sympathising fascists.

It’s difficult to know where to start with the list of things I loved about this book but I think the characters (just) edge out everything else as my favourite element of the novel. Titus Lambert is the Inspector in charge of Victoria’s newly established Homicide squad though with manpower shortages the squad is not teeming with numbers. He is an unorthodox fictional detective in several ways, most notably due to his very happy marriage. Indeed his wife, Maude, is really an extra member of his squad as he discusses all his cases with her and, on occasion, even shows her evidence. This could have come across as hokey but Gott does a great job of making the relationship seem very realistic, to the point that I did wonder if it isn’t a jolly good idea to have married police detectives. Rather than having a host of awful memories and images turning him into the usual angst-ridden, alcoholic mess Lambert is able to share his burden and also gain a fresh, intelligent perspective on the cases he confronts. It seems eminently sensible.

The Homicide squad is rounded out by freshly trained Sergeant Joe Sable who is keen but lacks confidence and some of the skills he needs and Constable Helen Lord who seems more suited to the role but as a woman is ineligible to rise any further in the ranks. She is, not unreasonably, a little bitter about this and sometimes her frustration affects her work. Joe is Jewish, though without a very religious upbringing, and is struggling to come to terms with the news that has started to come out of Europe regarding the Nazis’ treatment of the Jewish people. His feelings of guilt and impotence over this lead him to jump at the chance to assist the Intelligence people with the infiltration of a local group suspected of having National Socialist sympathisers and this work, in turn, tests his loyalties to Lambert and the Homicide team.

Early on we meet the menacing brute responsible for the murders but, rarely, this doesn’t lessen the tension and suspense of the novel for readers. Partly this is because we’re worrying who will be the next victim and partly because this isn’t one of those books in which you know the police will triumph over the bad guys. The depiction of the band of hate-filled bigots for whom violence comes as naturally as breathing is all the more chilling because Gott not only makes you believe in these particular fictional people but also that they have real life counterparts, even today. But not all the bigots are Romper Stomper style thugs; the book forces readers to reflect more generally on the many insidious small ways that bigotry was, and is still, allowed to flourish in the wider community.

In addition to all of this the novel has an authentic historical feel, with loads of references to real world people and events and a million little details that make you feel as if you’ve been transported back in time, and a thoroughly gripping plot. Every time I thought I had worked out how things would resolve another element or twist came to light and the resolution, which I stayed up long past my bed time to get to, was a stunner. I’m hopeful this is the first of a series of novels featuring these characters and I highly recommend it.

Here’s a link to a fascinating interview Robert Gott and his publisher did with Michael Cathcart on Radio National last year which discusses the process by which this novel, which started out as the fourth Will Power book, came to life. At the time of this interview the novel wasn’t finished, it even had a different title.

Publisher: Scribe [2013]
ISBN/ASIN: 9781922070258
Length: 309 pages
Format: paperback
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Review: DEAD GIRL SING by Tony Cavanaugh

DeadGirlSingDEAD GIRL SING is the second instalment of Tony Cavanaugh’s Queensland based series starring ex-cop-turned-vigilante Darian Richards. He is once again dragged reluctantly from his self-imposed retirement; this time because a young woman whose life he saved in the last book rings him out of the blue and says something along the lines of “only you can help..there are so many bodies” and then promptly vanishes into thin air. Darian contacts local a policewoman he knows in Noosa and asks her to follow it up, which she does by asking a Gold Coast based colleague to check out the location Darian has given. When this policeman also disappears Darian decides he must get more actively involved, whereupon he discovers the bodies of two dead girls in a shallow pool of water in the Gold Coast hinterland, bests the local plods with his super-human intelligence and starts his hunt for the missing girl.

I felt this novel wasn’t so much asking me to suspend my disbelief as demanding I buy it a one-way ticket to Bhutan. There just didn’t seem to be a single realistic element to the novel and that’s a hard sell, especially when a book takes itself as seriously as this one appears to. Darian Richards pontificates lengthily about his superior intellect, detecting skills and ability to apply justice which is topped off with a whole load of self-aggrandizing claptrap from the killer’s point of view and there’s no hint of the tongue in cheek humour I need to make the ‘impossibly brilliant hero’ trope even vaguely interesting to me.

It’s not spoiling anything to reveal that the plot of this novel revolves around human trafficking. Cavanaugh’s ‘take’ on the subject is to make the villain a woman which could have been an interesting twist but the character is completely over the top and I did not find her voice very credible. Eventually we learn the reasons behind Starlight’s behaviour but I didn’t really buy into all that either; it felt more like an awful series of violent vignettes strung together for shock value than an actual person’s story.

I think DEAD GIRL SING belongs more in the old-fashioned Western category – a good (if not always legally sound) guy doing battle with a bad guy (or girl) – than it does in crime fiction. There’s precious little mystery to be had as we learn who the killer is and why the crimes are being committed long before the end and the book focuses instead on the interplay between anti hero and villain. Any vestiges of suspense that might have remained are wiped away by the presence of Isosceles. He’s the mega genius geek that Darian has on permanent speed dial who can hack into anything he pleases at the touch of a button. There really is no tension to be had when the protagonist of a crime story can get out of any jam or find out whatever he needs to know so effortlessly.

Ultimately I suppose this is just not my kind of thing. I found Darian and Starlight to have equally inflated egos and neither they nor their battle of wits engaged me at all. The book doesn’t spend any serious time letting us get to know the victims – apart from via the gruesome violence they suffer – which further disconnected me from goings on. My overriding response to it was boredom.

As always, other opinions are available and here are a couple you might like to check out for balance Bite the Book and Aust Crime Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia [2013]
ISBN/ASIN: 9780733627880
Length: 325 pages
Format: paperback
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Review: DEAD HEAT by Bronwyn Parry

DeadHeatBronwynParry20015_fI am not a fan of the relatively modern trend towards narrower and narrower ‘genrefication’ of fiction because I believe it repels more readers than it attracts (though I’ll admit this is based on anecdotal and experiential evidence rather than the scientific kind). For example, my expectations that something with the ‘romantic suspense’ label would be too mushy for my tastes has put me off reading anything by Australian author Bronwyn Parry until, fuelled by a personal goal to read at least a smattering of books I wouldn’t otherwise read as part of my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I plunged into Parry’s third novel, DEAD HEAT. Happily for me it’s an absolute ripper of a yarn and its quota of mushy stuff is well within my personal tolerance levels. But I still think the book will miss a lot of readers (including, I’d wager, the entire male population) based on both its explicit and implicit marketing.

The novel takes place in rural New South Wales where Jo Lockwood is a National Parks Ranger. One morning while going about her normal duties she notices a kangaroo carrying the unlikely breakfast of a human arm and when she backtracks to where the roo came from she finds the body of a man who has been brutally murdered. Soon police, including Detective Nick Matheson, are on the scene. Matheson has only been in his job a few days, having recently transferred to ‘normal duties’ after ten years of undercover work. Unfortunately for everyone involved this murder is just one event in a series that will spell danger for the entire community. Be in no doubt, this is no cosy ‘all the violence takes place off-stage’ kind of novel!

It’s clear Bronwyn Parry knows and loves the Australian landscape: through Jo’s eyes in particular the book shows both its beauties and dangers in stark reality. In fact it was more than a little eerie to read such well-described fire fighting scenes on the very day an unseasonally late fire was ripping through bushland a mere 20 kilometres from my safe city cottage this past weekend. The depiction of modern rural life was completed by the inclusion of the kind of community spirit that does engender small town life in Australia, in particular the human powered magic that is Rotary and its equivalent organisations.

The authentic and quite enveloping setting provides an excellent backdrop for the cracking yarn which belied my ‘life’s slower in the country’ belief by not letting me stop for breath even once. There’s a rogue cop, international drug cartel links and a quite alarming number of dead bodies for something partially labelled romance but it all hangs together very nicely and made me eager to turn each page. You won’t be surprised to learn that Jo and Nick do form a romantic attachment but it’s not even remotely mushy and although the path to their love does not run smoothly the obstacles are not the cliché’s I worried about. Their respective back stories are drama-laden but believable and I found myself keen to know how their personal demons would work their way into unfolding events.

DEAD HEAT reminded me a little of Nevada Barr’s terrific series of novels set in American national parks which also feature a female ranger of independent spirit. The combination of evocative setting, suspense-filled plot and solidly built characters was very engaging and I will definitely be reading more of Parry’s work. She has won extra points on my personal scale because her books all seem to be standalones which, in this era of the never ending series, I find refreshing.

awwbadge_2013This is the 9th book I’ve read for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge

Publisher: Hachette [2012]
ISBN/ASIN: 9780733625497
Length: 360 pages
Format: paperback
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This work by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Review: THE DARKEST LITTLE ROOM by Patrick Holland

The Darkest Little Room - Patr20007fAs THE DARKEST LITTLE ROOM opens we meet Joseph, a 33 year-old expat Australian journalist who has been working in Indochina for some years and is now based in Saigon. As a freelancer he works on whatever stories he can find, using an ex policeman called Minh Quy as his investigator and, to supplement their income, as a fellow conspirator in some low-level blackmail. Joseph also pays a young street kid who calls himself Peter Pan to look for a girl that Joseph has lost touch with but is desperate to find. A German tourists seeks out Joseph and tells him about a club which is more sordid and depraved than all the other brothels in Saigon where, in a place called the darkest little room, a woman has been particularly brutally tortured. The tourist claims he is too scared to go to the police but thinks a journalist may be able to do something about the situation. Despite being warned off by Minh Quy and his rich business man friend Zhuan, Joseph does look into the situation which is about the point his life spirals into a version of madness as he finds (or does he?) the woman he has been looking for and goes on the hunt for her human traffickers.

The thing that struck me first about the novel is that this is not the Vietnam readers may have visited on a two-week package holiday or viewed through the prism of a Sunday afternoon travel show. It is a country in which human life is valued in a way completely foreign to my Australian middle-class existence and in which many people struggle with the grimmest of survivals due to a level of poverty I feel deeply fortunate never to have known. A poverty that those locals who do escape it never wish to think of again as Joseph explains early on

“People in Indochina are not sentimental about poverty. They do not read about it in books written by middle-class men and women who make safe dreams about poverty from a far far distance. So the romantic light in which we cast the condition does not shine, say, on the man at the top of the alley whose legs were blown of in the American War, now sleeping in the shopping trolley that his relatives push him about in; nor on the old woman with cancer, wet and filthy in a steaming house where her sons will not pay for the doctor and the doctor will not work without money and the morphine sits unused in a cupboard at the clinic a street away. All traces of poverty must be banished in Vietnam.” (p23).

This is how Holland lets us know that although he’s not a native he’s intimately familiar with the country. It’s also how he shows us we’re not in for an easy ride with THE DARKEST LITTLE ROOM. Not only will we be troubled by some fairly horrific imagery but we will, in all likelihood, have to confront our own beliefs about how we view and act towards people whose lives are vastly different from our own.

That breathtaking sense of place – the way it is so image-rich and enveloping that it makes you believe you are right there to the point that when the going gets tough (a frequent occurrence)  I wanted to look out my window just to make sure I wasn’t in some seedy Saigon brothel or being chased through a northern Vietnamese jungle – is the only element of this novel about which I am not ambivalent.

About the rest I am not so sure. I’ve been mulling it over for a few days now and doubt I’ll quickly come to any definitive answers so have decided to share my undoubtedly muddled thinking. Apologies in advance.

Most of my ambivalence surrounds the fact that so many elements of the book are familiar…wearily familiar.

I wonder if I have reached my fill, for example, of books in which women are not people. I do understand that a book dealing with a subject like human trafficking must, of necessity, depict many people with the view that women are mere objects but here there is not a solitary individual – not a sidekick (quirky or otherwise), not the protagonist and not the women themselves – who think or behave as if women are anything but things. Things to look at. Things to own and trade. Things to use and discard when the attributes that give them value – youth and beauty – have disappeared. I was hopeful that when Zhuan pointedly asked Joseph why he doesn’t crusade on the part of old whores and junkies (p124) that I might have found a lone voice with at least a slightly different view of women but, as things turn out,…no.

I am bloody tired of this world view, no matter how realistic it might be. There are indicators both inane (a popular Australian panel news show last night had its first all-female panel in 4+ years of being on air and seemed pretty proud to be so ground-breaking in having an all-mum panel to precede this weekend’s Mothers Day) and disturbing (official statistics confirm that over three quarters of Australia’s intimate partner homicides involve a male offender and a female victim) that women still have a long way to go before anything like equality is ours and I am, I think, just heartily fed up with being constantly reminded of my inferior status as a human being in the way that this book does. I read one commentary which I annoyingly can’t find now in which the reader sees the woman at the centre of Joseph’s search as a strong character who fights back against her oppression and objectification using her street smarts but even on a second reflection of proceedings I cannot see this character in this way. I don’t want to spoil things for those of you who read the book so will simply say that the way things finish up for Joseph’s ‘love interest’ is not the way I would want things to finish up for any woman I know.

In a way I suppose my second major area of ambivalence mixed with tiredness at the familiarity of the theme is tied up with the first but it is specifically the elements of Joseph’s character which the author appeared to be putting under a microscope and, by omission, those he left unexplored. In the end this is basically a book about a bloke who believes himself in love with a prostitute, who happens to be extraordinarily beautiful, who he then attempts to rescue. Holland does expose Joseph’s self-righteousness and hypocrisy in an unflattering way but I found it troublesome that other issues were ignored, particularly the fact that the girl was 15 and Joseph 31 when they first met (they are 17 and 33 respectively when the action of the novel takes place). Again it is a case of me being weary of seeing such relationships depicted as normal by virtue of them not being remarked upon.

My final gripe is really only minor in comparison but I’m not convinced the novel is of the crime genre despite its heavy marketing that way. If it is it’s only in the broadest possible sense, in the way say that Ian McEwan’s ATONEMENT might be considered of the genre because there is a crime at the start of it. There are crimes in it but they do not really drive the story and, frankly, only those who’ve read precious little of the genre would be confounded by the mysterious element of the novel. I’m prepared to admit though that my acceptance of what is and isn’t crime fiction tends to be quite fluid and it’s not as if there’s an official standard which the book has failed to meet.

In the end then I found THE DARKEST LITTLE ROOM a troubling book on many levels, only some of which I imagine the author intended and I struggle to recommend it, despite the presence of excellent attributes. I want, absurdly I know, to prevent men from reading one more book in which they see it is basically OK to objectify women and to prevent women from reading one more book in which they are reminded that their second class status as human beings has not, where it counts, been wiped away by a few pieces of legislation. But of course whether you read the book or not those things will still be true.

Publisher: Transit Lounge [2012]
ISBN/ASIN: 9781921924248
Length: 267 pages
Format: paperback
Creative Commons Licence
This work by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.