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: THE RAVEN’S EYE, Barry Maitland

  • published 2013
  • ISBN 978-1-74331-350-3
  • 377 pages
  • #12 in the Bork & Kolla series
  • borrowed from local library

Synopsis (author site)

First published : 2013 Allen & Unwin, Australia; 2013 St Martin’s Press / Minotaur

A woman dies in her sleep in a houseboat on the Thames; the apparent cause of death, an unflued gas heater. It all seems straightforward, but DI Kathy Kolla isn’t convinced.

Unfortunately both Kathy and DCI Brock are up against an aggressive
new Commander who seems to have a different agenda, opposing their
investigation in favour of emerging technologies over the traditional
policing methods. Coppers like Brock and Kolla who have reservations are
being squeezed out.

To make matters worse, there’s a new Task Force moving in on their
patch, and a brutal killer, Butcher Jack Bragg, to be tracked down and
caught. It’s one of Brock and Kolla’s bloodiest investigations yet.

In this heart-thumping new novel Brock and Kolla are under pressure;
it’s a clash between the menacing ever-present eye of computer
surveillance versus the explosive threat of a man with a meat cleaver
and a grudge.

The Raven’s Eye is published in Australia by Allen and Unwin,, and in the USA by St Martin’s Press / Minotaur,

My Take

If I wasn’t convinced of it before, this title firmly sets Barry Maitland in my mind as an Australian crime fiction author up there with the best. His writing is quietly assured, and although there are elements of the plot that strain the bounds of credibility, Maitland is very persuasive. Poor Kathy Kolla seems to be in the firing line in more ways than one in THE RAVEN’S EYE, and both she and David Brock are very plausible and likeable characters.

If you share my tastes, then you’ll enjoy this thriller written by an Australian author but set mainly in London.If you haven’t yet met this pair of sleuths then you have a manageable series of 12 titles to tackle. And you know what I will say: read them in order! Although to be honest there is not much overlap from title to title so you can read them as stand alones.

My rating: 4.7

Check out my other reviews:

The series list from Fantastic Fiction
Brock And Kolla
1. The Marx Sisters (1994)
2. The Malcontenta (1995)
3. All My Enemies (1996)
4. The Chalon Heads (1999)
5. Silvermeadow (2000)
6. Babel (2002)
7. The Verge Practice (2003)
8. No Trace (2006)
9. Spider Trap (2006)
10. Dark Mirror (2009)
11. Chelsea Mansions (2011)
12. Raven’s Eye (2013)

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: NO PLACE LIKE HOME, Caroline Overington

  • format: Amazon (Kindle)
  • File Size: 434 KB
  • Print Length: 203 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Australia (September 25, 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English

Synopsis (Amazon)

From bestselling author and award-winning journalist Caroline Overington
comes another thought-provoking and heart-rending story, that reaches
from the heart of Bondi to a small village in Tanzania.

Shortly after 9.30 in the morning, a young man walks into Surf City, Bondi’s
newest shopping complex. He’s wearing a dark grey hoodie – and a bomb
around his neck.

Just a few minutes later he is locked in a shop on the upper floor. And trapped with him are four innocent bystanders.

For police chaplain Paul Doherty, called to the scene by Senior Sergeant
Boehm, it’s a story that will end as tragically as it began. For this is
clearly no ordinary siege. The boy, known as Ali Khan, seems as
frightened as his hostages and has yet to utter a single word.

The seconds tick by for the five in the shop: Mitchell, the talented
schoolboy; Mouse, the shop assistant; Kimmi, the nail-bar technician;
and Roger Callaghan, the real estate agent whose reason for being in
Bondi that day is far from innocent.

And of course there’s Ali Khan. Is he the embodiment of evil, as the villagers in his Tanzanian birthplace believe? Or just an innocent boy, betrayed at every turn, who
just wants a place to call home?

My Take

The story takes readers through the background of all the people who are locked in the shop with Tanzaniaan refugee Ali Khan. The narrator is former Catholic priest, police chaplain Paul Doherty, who contacts each of the people locked in the shop after the event for trauma counselling.We benefit from the research he has done about each of these people.

Part of what each reader must ask herself is how you would react in this situation. The shopping centre is in lock down with the voice of Senior Sergeant Boehm booming instructions over a loud speaker system. And yet Ali Khan is showing no sign of understanding.

The book also broaches issues with which Australians are familiar, or are we? Do we really know how refugees are treated under the Australian border protection systems? What are the detention centres housing refugees and asylum seekers really like? Why was Ali Khan, a genuine refugee who has an Australian passport, in Baxter and Villawood for four years?  This is a book that will make you think.

And Paul Doherty has his own problems too, his own crisis of faith, which perhaps does not make him the best narrator.

NO PLACE LIKE HOME is written as a thriller, and, true to form, we do not find out what happened in the last minutes of the siege until the very end.

A good read by an Australian author to look for.

My rating: 4.5

I have also read 4.4, SISTERS OF MERCY

Review: A WICKED DESIGN, Brian Kavanagh

  • Published by Vivid Publishing 2013
  • ISBN 978-1-925086-06-5
  • #5 in the Belinda Lawrence series
  • 190 pages
  • source: complementary copy from the author

Synopsis (Vivid Publishing)

Belinda Lawrence returns to her home town of Melbourne, to discover a murder that’s close to her heart.

A murder which leads to the seat of political power, Parliament House.

The various threads of deceit and intrigue are gradually
unravelled and, with Hazel Whitby at her side, Belinda is confronted by
warring political factions.

The mystery deepens with the discovery of a priceless
historical item, of value to both political powers, and which places
Belinda’s life in jeopardy.

The gregarious Major;
An enigmatic university Professor;
Two colourful antique sellers;
Eccentric retired music-hall entertainers;
And Belinda’s partner, Mark Sallinger…

…all immersed in the scheming and covert encounters besieging Belinda as she solves her most challenging mystery.

Book Five in the Belinda Lawrence mystery series.

My Take

I think the author’s decision to base this novel in his, and Belinda Lawrence’s, home town of Melbourne is a very successful one, as is his basing one of the plot lines on a piece of Melbourne’s colourful history. It also considers the ever present Republican debate, a very real Australian political divide.

A WICKED DESIGN is a well constructed cozy with a heroine who has grown in stature with every outing in this series. Belinda Lawrence and her antique dealer friend Hazel Whitby are very realistically drawn, as is Belinda’s fiance Mark Sallinger.

I have also reviewed


I think each one has seen Brian’s writing become more assured.

All the books are available in print and as e-books.

My rating: 4.3

About the author

Brian Kavanagh (b. 1935) is an accredited life member of the Australian Film Editors
Guild & a member of the Australian Society of Authors. He has many
years experience in the Australian Film Industry in areas of production,
direction, editing and writing.

His editing credits include THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH,
FOUR-LETTER WORD and the recent comedy, DAGS.

He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Australian
Screen Editors Guild and is an accredited member. An Australian Film
Institute award for Best Editing for FROG DREAMING (USA title THE

His website 

Review: THE MIDNIGHT DRESS by Karen Foxlee

My Take

Had this book not been chosen by my face-to-face reading group, I probably wouldn’t have come across it, but I’m glad I did. Karen Foxlee is a new-to-me Australian author.

Apart from anything else, the structure of the book is unusual and interesting. After the annual Harvest Parade in which they both participated, two girls are missing in a coastal sugar cane town in mid-northern Queensland.

Each of the chapters is headed with the name of a stitch used in tailoring or embroidery.
Anchor Stitch
Oyster Stitch
Catch Stitch
Straight Stitch
Binding Stitch
Spider Web Stitch etc. etc. (I didn’t know there were so many stitches)

And the reader’s attention is captured straight away in the opening of the first chapter, Anchor Stitch:

Will you forgive me if I tell you the ending? There’s a girl. She’s standing where the park outgrows itself and the manicured lawn gives way to longer grass and the stubble of rocks. She is standing in no-man’s-land, between the park and the place where the mill yards begin. It’s night and the cane trains are still. It is unbearably humid and she feels the sweat sliding down her back and she presses her hands there into the fabric to stop the sensation that is ticklishly unpleasant. She lifts up the midnight dress to fan her legs. It’s true, the dress is a magical thing, it makes her look so heavenly.

After a couple of pages from this narrator, the chapter continues with the story from the beginning. Rose Lovell arrives in town with her father at the Paradise caravan park where they will live for the next few months. She meets Pearl Kelly in the next day or so when she goes to school. They will be the central characters of the story, but there is also Edie Baker, an eccentric dressmaker with a history, Rose’s alcoholic father, and Paul Rendell who runs a Book Exchange in the back of his mother’s shop.

The first chapter sets the pattern for the rest. There is always a preface from the narrator, helpfully written in italics, and then the continuing story. There’s the feeling of two paths, with the main story slowly catching up to the point where the narrator’s brief snippets begin.

The two teenage girls are trying to establish their identities. Rose has been on the move with her father for a number of years after the apparent drowning suicide of her mother. She has had little chance to establish friends, and she connects surprisingly well with both Pearl and Edie, who agrees to help her make her dress for the Harvest Parade. Pearl is trying to work out who she is too, looking for her Russian father, by writing to men surnamed Orlov in Moscow. As Rose and Edie make the dress, so the tragedies of Edie’s life emerge.

After a stuttering start, the book gathers pace. The author drops information all over the place and there are many little stories for the reader to piece together. It is a very effective technique.

So for me, Karen Foxlee is a new author to watch out for. A great book, not just a coming of age novel, but a well constructed mystery on many levels.

My rating: 4.7

The author’s debut title, THE ANATOMY OF WINGS, published in 2009 looks interesting too. (My local library lists it as teen fiction).

    Ten-year-old Jennifer Day lives in a small mining town full of secrets. Trying to make sense of the sudden death of her teenage sister, Beth, she looks to the adult world around her for answers.

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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Review: BITTER WASH ROAD, Garry Disher

My Take

BITTER WASH ROAD is set smack bang in the present day; more than that, in a South Australia I recognise: fragile economic climate, police corruption and whistleblowing, small rural communities struggling to survive, reduced resources, drought – you name the issue, it’s there.

Until I did a bit of research I thought Tiverton, South Australia, the wheat belt town near the Barrier Highway where Paul Hirschhausen is posted, was fictitious. But it exists all right. Garry Disher seems to me to have played a little with the geography, but the flavour of the setting rings true.

This is Australian crime fiction at its best. A body is discovered but Hirsch is frustrated when his local boss Sergeant Kropp seems determined to keep him away from any real action. Hirsch faces real issues of getting himself established in the small town. The cops in nearby Redruth where Kropp is have a reputation for being bullies, mates with every one and turning a blind eye to what their mates get up to, perhaps even participating in crime themselves.

I absolutely loved this book.

Read an extract on Amazon.

My rating: 5.0

I’ve also reviewed
4.7, WYATT

Review: ZERO AT THE BONE by David Whish-Wilson

Zero at the BoneDavid Whish-Wilson’s ZERO AT THE BONE captures the Windy City gangster era feel and brings it to boom town Perth at the height of mining’s golden age. Police are mob, yet few dare tread where the hardest criminals fail – for PI Frank Swann, his footprint leaves traces of the dead and imprints of a failed justice as he chases down a sinister scheme which all started when geologist, Max Henderson, allegedly committed suicide prompting his wife, Jennifer Henderson, to enlist his services.

The former detective still feels the pain and loss stemming from the events in LINE OF SIGHT, the predecessor to this novel. The strong sense of continuity is apparent with the protagonist referring back to the past events, with the present day plot (circa 1979) very much attributed to the earlier novel. For Swann, this case unearths a deeper plot and exposes the criminal element attached to the Rosa Gold stake.

Drug dealers, bad cops, bent bookies, jewel thief’s, and a widow’s questionable motive ensure ZERO AT THE BONE keeps reader’s guessing while providing plenty of criminal and good old fashion detective action.

Blue blood still runs rife within the veins of Swann with him coming across more cop than PI during the course of his investigation. I liked the balance in maintaining this persona from LINE OF SIGHT as it further built upon the Swann’s already well articulated passion for truth and justice. Yet what most impressed me about ZERO AT THE BONE was the long game of revenge which played out in surprising and shocking fashion.

ZERO AT THE BONE is a distinctly Australian yet all consuming crime fiction novel that grips the reader from page one and demands attention through to its violent conclusion.

When the smoke clears and the smell of cordite resonates in the air, the sticky blood red writing on the wall reads that David Whish-Wilson is a force to be reckoned with in crime fiction.