Review: ON THE JAVA RIDGE by Jock Serong

This book almost doesn’t belong here on this blog devoted to Australian crime fiction but its author is Australian and the book is, in part, a thriller. And there are plenty of criminal acts depicted in it. Or things that would be criminal if that word’s definition didn’t change at the whim of the powerful. So here it is. 

Warning: I don’t normally curse in my reviews. But sometimes only a curse will suffice. If that upsets you, do not read on.

A disparate group of refugees from the Middle East pay for an Indonesian fishing boat to take them to Australia. There are rumours and half-truths about what might await them: detention camps perhaps. Worse? But they are fleeing persecution, torture and heaven only knows what else. It’s not really a choice in the commonly accepted meaning of the term.

Isi Natoli is skippering the Java Ridge for a group of seven of surfers looking for their slice of the surfing nirvana the waters around Indonesia are known for. Her partner Joel, the surfing legend who usually acts as skipper for these trips, has gone to Australia in a last-ditch attempt to wrangle some finances to keep their struggling business going.

In Australia there is a Federal election a week away. The party in government (Serong doesn’t identify which one but it is depressing as fuck to realise our major parties have converged so closely that it could be either of them) wants to win. At all costs. Cassius Calvert, former Olympic rower and current Minister for Border Integrity (a fictional but entirely plausible portfolio) announces new, tougher border controls which include the outsourcing of at-sea monitoring and a blanket refusal to allow Australian vessels to engage with foreign ones. Including for the purposes of rescue.

Somehow ON THE JAVA RIDGE managed to be so tense I had to stop reading to slow my breathing a couple of times, yet be so awfully, depressingly inevitable that I had to physically will myself to read through to the end. As if by not looking the outcome could be deferred or different. Alas that seems to have stopped working when I was about six. Of course some of the action is obvious: we know the two boats are going to intersect for example, but that doesn’t detract from the strong narrative pull of the book. Each of these stories, even the politician’s, is utterly compelling.

A lot of that is to do with the characters. The ‘stars’, including Isi, Calvert and also 9 year old Roya who has fled Afghanistan with her pregnant mother, each offer a unique and often unexpected window into their respective communities. Unlike almost everyone in Canberra these days Calvert is not a career politician, Isi is not the regular skipper of a surfing charter boat and not even Andrew Bolt could view Roya as the-potential-terrorist-in disguise that we’ve been led to believe all asylum seekers are. Given this book tackles the hottest of hot-button issues the choice to use these somewhat unorthodox characters as the primary way into the action is a master stroke. One of many. That doesn’t mean the more usual types of people who populate each world aren’t depicted, but for the most part Serong has chosen not to confront readers with them. Or at least not continuously. I think that’s the aspect of the book that might make it possible to get someone who isn’t already of the same political opinion as the author’s to read more than a few pages of this book.

Because there is absolutely no doubt where Serong sits on the issue of refugees and Australia’s current policies with respect to them. ON THE JAVA RIDGE is a polemic. Serong is, I think, genuinely outraged. That word has lost its meaning since outrage has become a weird kind of currency in modern culture but this is the real deal. The disbelief, fury and impotence at not being able to make people see is palpable. The story aims a giant, high wattage spotlight on the absurdity, banality and outright bullshit that falls from politician’s mouths on this subject. Presumably so that readers might all see. I have no clue if it will work on those who don’t already.

If it is possible to love and hate something at the same time then that’s how I feel about ON THE JAVA RIDGE. I love its heart and the way it let me see into new environments and its unrelenting tension. And the writing. Serong is a craftsman. But I hate that it had to be written. And that its vaguely futuristic sensibility isn’t nearly fictional enough to give me any comfort.


Publisher Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN 9781925498394
Length 312 pages
Format paperback
Source of review copy Borrowed from the library

Review: FORCE OF NATURE by Jane Harper

I’m sure all authors wish for the kind of success Jane Harper had (indeed is still having) with her debut novel THE DRY but I imagine most would, at least fleetingly, think twice about wishes coming true when presented with the need to produce the next novel. Happily for Harper, and her readers, she has soldiered through that intense pressure and delivered another cracking read. Among the many things I admire about FORCE OF NATURE is that it isn’t the same novel wrapped in a different skin and some risks have been taken with the narrative choices.

One of the things that does carry across though is Harper’s skill at creating a setting with an almost physical presence for the reader. Here we are in a fictional but recognisable bushland area called the Giralang Ranges east of Melbourne. It is isolated, cold and claustrophobic due to the dense foliage. Easy to become lost in. As if that isn’t troublesome enough it is the scene of an infamous series of killings two decades earlier. The perpetrator of those crimes was found but, local legend has it, the killer’s son still roams the area. Into this suitably nightmare inducing setting Harper drops a group of employees from a Melbourne company embarking on one of those corporate retreats designed solely to be such a horrendous experience that staff never complain about their normal office environment ever again. They are separated into two groups – men and women – who must trek through the Ranges for several days on separate, but close, tracks. In the women’s group things go awry and one of them – Alice Russell – goes missing.

Being lost in the bush is a well-mined plot line for Australian artists of all kinds but Harper easily holds her own in the space. The storyline is genuinely original, no mean feat in itself, and the way it unfolds adds a lot of tension. There are two strands: one moving forward from when retreat begins and one beginning when the search for Alice gets underway. This dual thread works really well. Adding to the suspense is that we are almost spoiled for choice as to what might have happened to Alice. Has she wandered off? Is she the victim of the serial killer’s son? Did one of the women do her in because she’s not very nice?

Or has she been killed because of what she knows? Aaron Falk, an Agent with the financial crimes unit of the Australian Federal Police and protagonist from THE DRY, has been working with Alice as a whistleblower at her company. Her involvement was meant to be a secret but Aaron and his partner, Carmen, worry that her actions may have resulted in Alice being placed in danger. Their superiors are worried that she hasn’t handed over all the documents she promised which endangers their case. So the pair become involved in the search and in trying to piece together what led up to her disappearance. I liked reading about Aaron again and seeing him in a work setting rather than dealing with something personal. Though one of the risks Harper has taken with this book is to make his role somewhat smaller than the traditional procedural might do with its hero. For me this worked well as it allowed us to really get to see the victim’s world and did not bog us down in procedural elements. If the series is to be a long one this is a sound strategy as it means we won’t become bored with the main character.

Jane Harper is proving to have a real skill at taking quintessentially Australian settings and making them truly frightening. Not through an overt violence or gruesomeness but by teasing out just enough information to make the reader’s imagination take flight. And telling a ripper yarn. FORCE OF NATURE is good from beginning right through to the end which is, these days, a rarity. If you are an audiobook fan I highly recommend Steve Shanahan’s narration which is outstanding and adds another layer to the storytelling here.


aww2017-badgeThis is the 14th book I’ve read and reviewed for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Wavesound Audio, 2017
Narrator: Steve Shanahan
ASIN: B075QM2Q8N
Length: 8 hours, 56 minutes
Format: Audio book
Source of review copy: I bought it

Review: A DANGEROUS LANGUAGE by Sulari Gentill

A blogger I visit regularly recently posted their musings on a particular aspect of the attraction of old-fashioned detective novels which they summed up as a sort of ‘agreed artificiality’. Or, in more depth defined as

“…that quality of creating a particular type of world in which both the reader and the author are in collusion on certain ground rules which make the reading experience more enjoyable by distancing them from the reality of what would otherwise be a harrowing read.”

Although I’m not a huge reader of the golden-age detective novels being discussed in that post, I was nodding my head in agreement with the sentiments expressed and could not help but think that is exactly how I feel about the Rowland Sinclair series even though it’s closer to an artificial adventure novel than a detective one. Written today, the books are set in the 1930’s and depict the experiences of an idealistic group of young Australians who embrace the fortunes life has dealt them and display lashings of honour and backbone whenever their luck turns sour. For me the series offers a safe, sometimes slightly surreal place from which to explore such dark subjects as murder, the rise of fascism and how much of a pain older brothers can be even when you love them to bits.

In the eighth instalment of the series it is 1934 and Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair, son of a wealthy pastoralist family whose fortunes have not been dented by the Great Depression, heads to the Melbourne International Motor Show with his friends Clyde and Milton to pick up a new car. All agree the Chrysler Airflow is a suitably beautiful replacement for the beloved Mercedes he lost in events depicted in this novel’s predecessor. While in Melbourne Rowly is approached to assist the local Movement Against War and Fascism; a cause he is very supportive of since he and his friends visited Germany and saw first-hand what the Nazis were up to (see 2012’s PAVING THE NEW ROAD). He agrees to assist the movement by trying to ensure that prominent European peace activist Egon Kisch makes it to Melbourne in time to speak at a planned peace rally. Before he can make that happen he heads to Canberra where his friend Milton is to be engaged in a bit of stealthy activism on behalf of the Communist Party. On the way there the lads encounter a dead body which they worry might be the fourth member of their group, the sculptress Rowly loves silently, and when they reach the nation’s new capital someone is murdered. Mayhem, of course, ensues.

Given that a good chunk of the action here takes place in Canberra, a city that only exists because of politics, A DANGEROUS LANGUAGE is a bit more political than some of the other books in the series. I really enjoyed the way this shines a light on some aspects of our history that are rarely the subject of popular culture (honestly you could be forgiven for thinking the only things of importance Australians have ever done is play sport and go to war) (and yes that order is deliberate). Gentill just gets better and better at weaving historical fact into her stories and the part of the book in which Rowly and Clyde meet up with Kisch is just one example of this. I won’t spoil the details for you but knowing the story of Kisch’s visit to Australia pretty well (thanks to a high school history teacher who nearly got herself fired for teaching Catholic kids about a Communist in a positive light) I can attest to the fabulous way solid facts have been strung together with imaginative but entirely plausible madcap fun.

As always though it is the characters that are the highlight of the book. In this outing Clyde Watson-Jones, the landscape painter in Rowly’s group of adventuring artists, takes more of a central role and I enjoyed getting to know him in more depth. He has always been the group member least comfortable with living off Rowly’s wealth so he takes any opportunity to offer something meaningful in return such as looking after Rowly’s various vehicles. But here he has matured to the point that he is able to poke gentle fun at his friend about the difference in their respective social status, such as when the pair are forced to take tourist class berths on a ship rather than the first class suites that Sinclairs are more used to. But at heart the book shows how these differences – of class or religion or politics – are not important when it comes to standing up for one’s friends and doing the right thing. It’s not unreasonable, especially with the lens of the current political climate, to think that might be the most artificial element of all the book’s fictions – the notion that our similarities are more important than our differences – but if so it’s an artifice I’m happy to buy into for a while.

Unlike his two friends Rowly is not a member of the Communist Party (despite what his older brother and others may believe when they call him Red Rowly) but he is sympathetic to some of the issues the Party supports, especially their opposition to the rise of fascism. His total belief in the worrying behaviour of the Nazis has come between Rowly and his older, far more conservative, brother Wilfred and the pair’s strained relationship is wonderfully drawn. Gentill teases out the nuances of what’s going on between the two so that the reader is able to really feel for both men who are, at heart, good people each believing he is in the right. The peaks and troughs of this relationship are depicted without the sibling bond being broken irretrievably.

Even though I have blathered on for far too long I’ve only scratched the surface of  A DANGEROUS LANGUAGE. There’s a marriage proposal, two broken leg accidents, an international air race and a potentially murderous politician amidst this tale of excitement, friendship, humour and being honourable even when you’re scared. Read it, you won’t regret it.


A DANGEROUS LANGUAGE is officially released in Australia on 1 October (though I spied copies in my local bookshop earlier this week)

I have reviewed this book’s predecessors:

If you prefer audio books instalments 1-4 and 7 of this series are available already, wonderfully narrated by Rupert Degas and books 5 and 8 are due for release early next month (at least they are on the listings Audible makes available to me in Australia).


aww2017-badgeThis is the 12th book I’ve read and reviewed for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Pantera Press
ISBN: 9781921997662
Length: 384 pages
Format: paperback
Source of review copy: provided by the publisher

The 2017 Ned Kelly Award Winners Are…

Judges on behalf of The Australian Crime Writers Association nominated shortlists in three categories for this year’s Ned Kelly Awards, winners of which were announced earlier tonight (1 September) in Melbourne. The shortlists and winners are provided below (as provided via the #neddies17 hashtag on twitter), with links to reviews here at Fair Dinkum Crime where available but do head over to the ACWA site to see the judge’s comments too.

We congratulate all the winners and thank all the authors for the great reading they’ve provided

Best Fiction

 

Best First Fiction

  • Ron Elliot – BURN PATTERNS
  • Jane HarperTHE DRY(** winner **)
  • Andy Muir – SOMETHING FOR NOTHING
  • Anna SnoekstraONLY DAUGHTER
  • Holly ThrosbyGOODWOOD
  • Laura Elizabeth Wollett – LOVE OF A BAD MAN

Best True Crime

  • Collin Dillon with Tom Gilling – CODE OF SILENCE
  • Duncan McNab – GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER (** joint winner **)
  • Duncan McNab – ROGER ROGERSON
  • Brendan James Murray – THE DROWNED MAN (** joint winner **)
  • Terry Smyth – DENNY DAY
  • Mark Tedeschi – MURDER AT MYALL CREEK

The 2017 Davitt Award Winners Are…

Judges in this year’s Davitt Awards for crime writing by Australian women had to read nearly 100 books offering diversity of style, theme, sub-genre and audience catered for.

Below are the shortlisted titles and winners of each category as relayed via Facebook. Congratulations to all the winners and thanks to all the authors for a great year of reading.

Here at Fair Dinkum Crime we’ve only reviewed all the titles in the Adult novel category but if your tastes are broader I recently did a post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge blog where I linked to reviews of all the books which had been reviewed at least once by challenge participants.

Adult novel

Young Adult novels

  • Megan Jacobson – YELLOW
  • Shivaun Plozza – FRANKIE (**winner **)
  • Nova Weetman – EVERYTHING IS CHANGED

Children’s novels

  • Catherine Jinks – THEOPHILUS GREY AND THE TRAITOR’S MASK
  • Jessica Miller – ELIZABETH AND ZENOBA
  • Judith Rossell – WORMWOOD MIRE (**winner **)
  • Jen Storer – TRULY TAN: HOODWINKED

Non-fiction books

  • Robin Bowles – INTO THE DARKNESS: THE MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF PHOEBE HANDSJUK
  • Rachel Landers – WHO BOMBED THE HILTON?
  • Megan Norris – LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO: FATHERS WHO KILL (**winner **)
  • Ruth Wykes and Kylie Fox – INVISIBLE WOMEN

Debut

  • Cath Ferla – GHOST GIRLS (**winner**)
  • Jane Harper – THE DRY
  • Megan Jacobson – YELLOW
  • Rachel Landers – WHO BOMBED THE HILTON?
  • Melina Marchetta – TELL THE TRUTH, SHAME THE DEVIL (correspondent’s note: don’t understand how this can be in the debut category, Marchetta has published multiple books though in the past they have been for young adults)
  • Jessica Miller – ELIZABETH AND ZENOBA
  • Shivaun Plozza – FRANKIE
  • Holly Throsby – GOODWOOD

Readers’ Choice

The Reader’s Choice Award does not have a shortlist. It is voted for by paid-up members of Sisters in Crime Australia (which includes readers such as your humble correspondent) and any crime book by an Australian woman released during the publication year is eligible for voting.

Jane Harper – THE DRY

Review: GOODWOOD by Holly Throsby

Although the specific, eponymous town of Holly Throsby’s debut novel GOODWOOD does not exist in reality, her depiction of small town Australian life oozes the kind of authenticity that can only derive from genuine affection for its real world counterparts. In part the book is a coming of age story and in part a crime one, but mostly it is a story of place. A sad, beautiful and whimsical character study of Goodwood. A town that was peaceful and carefree before. Before teenager Rosie White said goodnight to her parents and was never seen again. And before, only a week later, the much-loved local butcher seemingly drowned while out fishing, though without a body his fate was as uncertain as Rosie’s. Jean Brown, a year younger than Rosie and narrator of the town’s story tells as that her home is irrevocably changed by these events

At school, the normal feeling of things had stopped and the unease had set in. The news of Rosie White was everywhere. It had travelled down the telephone lines and across dinner tables onto the pages of the Gather Region Advocate. It had taken up residence in the minds of students and teachers. It sat in the silence between sentences; in the things that people did not say. Goodwood had never been visited by such collective worry, and we were not familiar with the burden of the unknown.

Given that Throsby is better known as an award winning singer-songwriter it ought not to be surprising that GOODWOOD has a poetic, often lyrical quality to its writing. The repetition of certain phrases or images for example serves a functional purpose in helping get across that there is a kind of rhythm to the town’s life, but it also reminded me of the way a chorus works in music. Overall the writing is quite simple I suppose but I would take issue with those who have labelled it simplistic. To me it felt like Throsby had chosen the right language and tone for this particular story. Language laden with artifice or dense phrases would have been all wrong. And the book is very, very readable. I devoured it in a couple of sittings.

The dedicated fan of traditional crime fiction might be disappointed with GOODWOOD’s lack of procedural elements. Or even its lack of obvious crime given that whether or not anything criminal has taken place is unclear until the very end of the book. But what the book does have is a very careful unpicking of the big and small secrets that people keep. Even people in small towns where everyone knows everything about everyone. Throsby shows what superhuman effort can be needed to tell. Whether it was Jean screwing up the courage to tell the town’s policeman what she had found in the clearing, or permanently frightened Doe Murray who had to try 26 times before she summoned the will to leave her house and make her own report to the same policeman these portraits were outstandingly done. And there is suspense here, partly because the book isn’t following any well-worn path so the seasoned reader’s assumptions about who’s probably done what to whom are likely to be off-base.

Having been underwhelmed recently by crime novels written by people famous in other fields, I didn’t really have huge expectations for GOODWOOD but I was pleasantly surprised by its thoughtful and authentic feel. Its depiction of the town’s mysteries being solved in large part through waiting for people’s secrets to come bubbling to the surface has a real ring of truth to it. As does the picture of the town as a whole – both before and after the disappearances. Top reading indeed.


aww2017-badgeThis is the 11th book I’ve read and reviewed for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2016
ISBN: 9781760293734
Length: 378 pages
Format: paperback
Source of review copy: I bought it

Review: OUT OF THE ICE by Ann Turner

I imagine it’s thanks to her screen writing background that Ann Turner is a dab hand at depicting a strong sense of physical place in her novels. In this, her second standalone thriller, Turner takes us to Antarctica which she brings alive in a way that few novels set there manage to do. There is, of course, the usual focus on ice and wildlife but by setting a good portion of the book in an abandoned Norwegian whaling village Tuner provides a human scale to the place which, perhaps paradoxically, makes it all the more wondrous. Showing the village as a place where whole families once lived and played in between working hard in an industry most would now find abhorrent is well done and offers a genuinely fascinating view of this little-understood part of the world.

Alas, for me at least, the remaining elements of the book were not nearly as successful.

Turner’s heroine, scientist Laura Alvarado, is asked to make a report about the possibility of removing the aforementioned whaling village, Fredelighavn, from the Antarctic Exclusion Zone and opening it as a tourist destination. Although Laura is against the idea at the outset it is assumed by those who matter that she will be objective and so she is cajoled into agreement. Her problems begin when she arrives at the scientific research base nearest to the village and is treated like some kind of pariah by most of the people there. Who just happen to be men. Is it a sexism thing? Then in the village itself (a relatively short ride away from the research base) odd things start to happen. It seems like people have been there recently even though no one is meant to be there without permission. And Laura thinks she sees actual people. Is that a real woman or the ghost of the last whaling captain’s wife? And is there really a teenage boy trapped in an ice cave or is Laura going ‘toasty’ (the phrase used to describe the particular kind of madness that strikes people who have stayed too long in Antarctica)?

My problem was that I didn’t care. I was bored early with Laura who is meant to be around 30 and behaves, mostly, like a particularly petulant and juvenile 14 year old. She rushes to judgement, swoons like a schoolgirl on multiple occasions and behaves erratically or stupidly almost all of the time. I know that might be realistic as far as human beings go but it’s just not very interesting to read about. And the fact that she does a decade’s worth of maturing over the course of the last 25 or so pages of the book make it worse somehow. There are a lot of other characters but none really are developed beyond a single dimension so they didn’t offer much in the way of engagement for me.

As for the the storyline…I found it to be absurd and not in a good, Douglas Adams-y way. More like someone threw a magnetic poetry kit at the nearest fridge door and used the resulting randomness as the basis for a plot. I know we are readers are meant to suspend disbelief when reading fiction but I’d have need to put my critical faculties in a blender to swallow the credibility gaps here. I’m not even concerned with the main “strange things going on in a really hard to get to place” element of the plot which I could have lived with. But all the little things surrounding that just didn’t ring true. Mostly because they were based on Laura’s random conjectures and/or official organisations or their representatives behaving in ways that wouldn’t happen. And you don’t want to get me started on the sappy, daft ending.

I did enjoy the parts of OUT OF THE ICE that depicted the historical use of Antarctica. which included a nice little side-trip to Nantucket to meet with the last whaling captain’s granddaughter. But as a work of narrative thrills I was sadly disappointed.


aww2017-badgeThis is the 11th book I’ve read and reviewed for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 9781925030907
Length: 360 pages
Format: eBook (iBooks)
Source of review copy: I bought it

Review: POLICE AT THE STATION AND THEY DON’T LOOK FRIENDLY by Adrian McKinty

It’s 1988. Sean Duffy, a rare Catholic policeman in the RUC, is being marched into the woods by three IRA gunmen and one IRA gunwoman. One of them carries a shovel. With which Sean will be asked to dig his own grave.

This is how the sixth book in this funny, sad, brilliant series opens and I nearly stopped right there. Few authors would dare to kill off their series hero and even fewer would do so at the beginning of a novel. But Adrian McKinty is just the sort of twisted bastard of an author to do it if it made for the best story and I wasn’t sure I was ready for that. But…I had to know.

As is the way of such things readers are left on tenterhooks awaiting Sean’s fate while we flashback to a few days earlier and start to learn what has led Sean to his dire situation. In a semblance of unexpected normality Sean is holidaying with his girlfriend and baby daughter at his parents’ house when he is called back to Carrikfergus to investigate a death-by-crossbow in the economically destitute Sunnylands estate. Where “…the only distractions to be had were hassling single women at the bus stop and building bonfires” and Sean can “…almost smell the stench of cheap ciggies, unwashed armpits, solvents, lighter fluid and special brew“. He is presented with a shambles of a crime scene. The body has not been cordoned off. The crowd is so close to it that their cigarette ash is falling onto it. There’s even a goat slobbering over the deceased. Forever contaminating what evidence there might have been. And Sean Duffy’s trusted sergeant John ‘Crabby’ McCrabben has been stabbed by the victim’s wife.

And so begins another adventure in the somewhat surreal life of Sean Duffy, his few friends and an increasingly large pool of enemies. I’ll say nothing more about the plot. Except that it’s a ripper. Lots of twists and turns and enough near-death experiences to have me reaching for the angina medication.

Although you could, you probably wouldn’t read this series just for the plots.

There’s their almost documentary-like observations of life during The Troubles which is done with dark humour yet a light, non-expositional touch. It’s the little things really. Like every time Sean Duffy gets into his car he checks underneath for mercury tilt bombs. Regardless of whether it’s been parked in the street outside his house overnight or he’s nicked into a shop for a minute Sean always checks. Sometimes he does it surreptitiously – pretending he dropped his lighter for example – but he always checks and readers are always told about it. Which means that instead of checking for bombs being a kind of abstract concept – as it would be if we had to infer its repetition from a single mention – we get a glimmer of what it must be like to live that kind of life.

And there are the characters. Duffy is 38 now and feeling every year of it with his newly diagnosed asthma and the effects of years of smoking, drinking and taking the odd recreational drug. He is still able to laugh at some of the chaos but his intermittent depression at the senselessness surrounding them all is still, understandably, there. Though of course he feels and behaves differently with the inclusion of Beth and Emma in his life. Beth is a welcome addition and her depiction seems very realistic as she struggles to stick by the man she loves while he – and their little family – is subject to very, very real danger. Duffy’s two staunchest allies, the aforementioned Crabby and DC Lawson, prove once again what real friends they truly are. It’s really quite a lovely depiction of male friendship; and not the kind involving stupid levels of drunkenness and womanising that is depicted in much of popular culture.

I could go on quite a bit more but if you are not yet convinced it’s probably a lost cause. I will just say that if you like the sound of a book in which the chaos of real life plays more of a role than neat endings and conventional justice then this one is for you. That it has gallows humour, wholly understandable musical snobbery, more than a single traitor and a very fast car is all to the good. If you want the ultimate experience then invite Gerard Doyle into your ears to tell you the story.


Publisher: Blackstone Audio, 2015
Narrator: Gerard Doyle
ASIN: B06X9Z9LDT
Length: 9 hours 49 minutes
Format: audio book (mp3)
Source of review copy: I bought it

Review: THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS by Michael Robotham

Michael Robotham’s standalone novels have a tendency to cajole me into empathising with people who I wouldn’t expect to find sympathetic. In 2014’s LIFE OR DEATH I found myself on the side of a convicted robber and with THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS I ended up feeling compassion for two women who present, at least initially, as downright unlikable.

Agatha is single(ish), works as a supermarket shelf stacker and will lose her job – and what paltry benefits it comes with – when her baby is born later in the year. Meghan has a successful and loving husband, a pigeon pair of children soon to be supplemented by an ‘oops baby’ and her mummy blog has recently been plucked from obscurity by a women’s magazine. It’s not a complete surprise then that Agatha fantasizes about having Meghan’s life. But we’re not in SINGLE WHITE FEMALE territory here; there’s something far more subtle than sheer covetousness for the sake of it going on.

Although it is suspenseful, especially in its second half, THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS is more of an exploration of its two central characters than the term ‘thriller’ might suggest. We realise almost immediately that all is not as it seems with Agatha, but as her secrets (and she has many) are revealed Agatha morphs from the scary, one-dimensional character of many ‘airport reads’ into a woman who has had more than her fair share of life’s travails and understandably yearns for the kind of life she sees other people leading. While I baulked at some of Agatha’s methods I grew to admire the strength of her determination and could identify with the depth of her need. It became really easy to like Agatha and to somehow want her to succeed, even though for her to do so would harm Meghan and her family irrevocably. And I didn’t want that either as I grew to know Meghan. Whose life is not as perfect as it appears to outsiders and who has at least one element of her life she’ll fight to keep secret. I suppose it’s not exactly a revelation that people are rarely what they present to the world but depicting that kind of dichotomy is often done in a pretty ham-fisted way whereas here it has a real ring of authenticity and is, more than once, quite beautifully sad.

The novel also offers some cuttingly sharp observations about modern living but it’s hard to say much about these without giving away spoilers. Given that even the publisher’s blurb for this book is remarkably (and wonderfully) scant on the plot’s surprises I’d hate to give the game away so will just say that I enjoyed the book’s take on the modern media landscape and our collective culpability when rushing to judgement about things or people we know bugger all about.

In short, THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS is a terrific, character-driven novel of considered suspense. Its subject matter will be tough going for those who have shared Agatha’s particular problems but because her experiences are only ever shown to help us understand her choices, the depiction shouldn’t elicit the kind of manufactured outrage so popular in today’s world.

My experience of this book was only enhanced in the audio format very ably narrated by experienced voice artist Lucy Price-Lewis. She managed to convey the different narrative voices with subtle but observable differences and didn’t over dramatise (a pet peeve of mine).


My fellow Fair Dinkum host has already had her say about the print version of THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS.


Publisher: Hachette Audio, 2017
Narrator: Lucy Price-Lewis
ASIN: B06Y26WYRJ
Length: 11 hours, 58 minutes
Format: Audio book
Source of review copy: I bought it

Review: DEAD AGAIN by Sandi Wallace

DEAD AGAIN is the follow up to 2014’s TELL MY WHY and takes readers back to a deceptively peaceful-looking rural Victoria. At the novel’s outset journalist Georgie Harvey has been commissioned to write a feature on the two-year anniversary of devastating bushfires that killed many people and saw countless homes lost. She begins attempting to draw out individual stories of several survivors but soon starts concentrating her efforts on one family in particular. Meanwhile, in nearby Daylesford, the policeman who Georgie met in the first novel is investigating a series of local burglaries and dealing with a dangerous domestic violence situation.

Although the central setting here is a fictional town it’s clear that the parts of this novel dealing with the bushfires and its survivors is drawing on very real-world experiences of such events. There is a genuine authenticity to the feelings expressed and behaviour exhibited by the survivors. I admire this realism but it is also one of the things that made the novel a difficult one for me, though perhaps not for the expected reason. It made it almost impossible for me to read about Georgie and her behaviour which I found abhorrent. The way she bullies her way into people’s lives – assuming she has a right to do so because there’s a story there – made my skin crawl. When she deliberately engages a child survivor of the bushfires explicitly against the girl’s mother’s request I wanted to report her to whatever authority I could find. I know this says more about me and my hatred of invasive journalism than it does about the book but as a reader I can’t help but drag along my own biases and journalists with questionable ethics are a particular bugbear of mine. I would like to have seen some consideration of the ethical issues associated with Georgie’s journalism, aside from the very casual brush-off she gives the matter herself.

I don’t know if my intense dislike of Georgie’s behaviour overshadowed the rest of my reading experience or whether it would have been the case anyway but I struggled to engage with this novel as a whole. The investigative thread that Georgie teases out from her coverage of the fire survivors is actually an interesting one but the other threads – the ones taking part in policeman John Franklin’s part of Victoria –  never really engaged me. In fact this content seemed to be acting solely as a means of keeping the potential romance between John and Georgie alive. For about half of the book there seems to be no reason at all that we regularly switching between what’s happening in Bullock (the fictional town Georgie is working in) and the day-to-day life of John Franklin other than we know the pair have some kind of ‘connection’.

For me anyway DEAD AGAIN feels like it’s trying to be too many things at once: jumbling police procedural, modern romance and investigative thriller elements in a way that nearly works but doesn’t quite do so. The combination of a journalist and police investigator has potential but here it felt forced and unrealistic which jarred with the more authentic elements of the novel which include many of the minor characters in addition to the parts of the story dealing with bushfire survivors. Georgie’s professional lack of ethics and her ever-present willingness to fling herself into incredibly dangerous situations made her a chore to read about for me and though I often proclaim I don’t need a protagonist to be likeable I do need them to engage me in a way that doesn’t make me want to fling their book at a wall in sheer frustration.


aww2017-badgeThis is the 6th book I’ve read and reviewed for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Atlas Productions, 2017
ISBN: 9780995377677
Length: 318 pages
Format: eBook
Source of review copy: Provided by author for honest review