Review: WATCH THE WORLD BURN, Leah Giarratano

  • published by Bantam 2010, Random House Australia
  • 388 pages
  • ISBN 978-1-74166-814-8
  • source: borrowed

Synopsis (publisher’s)

Miriam Caine, aged seventy, is dining with her son when she bursts into flames in the restaurant of a five-star hotel. The restaurant’s manager, Troy Berrigan, is first to her aid, but the woman later dies of her injuries. When investigators find accelerants on the victim’s face and clothing, the incident becomes a police matter, and attention is turned to Berrigan, a fallen hero cop, who fits the arsonist profile. Berrigan knows he’s not the killer, but he also knows that at the time of the incident, he was the only person close enough to have set her on fire. When he’s connected to another death, Troy must do all he can to discover what really happened to Miriam Caine.

Her death preludes a spate of apparently unconnected acid and arson attacks around Sydney. Is it the beginning of an orchestrated campaign of terror? And is Troy Berrigan the perpetrator or an innocent bystander caught up in a terrible train of events?

While on study leave, Detective Sergeant Jill Jackson becomes caught up in the investigation. Working with Federal Agent Gabriel Delahunt, she is determined to find out what happened to Miriam Caine, because this case for her is not only about murder and maiming in Sydney: this case will change Jill Jackson’s life forever.

My take

WATCH THE WORLD BURN was one of those books that I enjoyed more, the more I read. The opening “hook” was great though – an elderly woman bursts into flame, just when the manager, aboriginal ex-cop Troy Berrigan, was standing right next to her, but not looking at her.

WATCH THE WORLD BURN is full of intriguing little stories, starting with the one about why Troy Berrigan is no longer a cop. Then there is also the continuing story of Jill Jackson, the thread that connects all Giarratano’s novels so far. And then the story of politician Erin Hart campaigning for the installation of CCTV in public places such as railway stations. Underpinning it all is the ongoing investigation into Miriam Caine’s not-so-spontaneous combustion, and questions that elude answers.

This is a book that keeps the reader on their toes, testing out hypotheses. For me the final answer came out of left field, but then I could see that the clues had been there all along.

My rating: 4.6

If you are new to Giarratano, then I agree with Bernadette that you could begin your reading here. There is enough back story from earlier novels.

If you have an e-reader Amazon has all titles for your Kindle and Random House Australia can help you with all the e-pubs.

Earlier titles in the series – linked to my reviews
VODKA DOESN’T FREEZE (2008)
VOODOO DOLL (2008)
BLACK ICE (2009)

A difficult reader’s choice

As I mentioned back in May I am a member of  Sisters in Crime Australia and am therefore eligible to vote in the Reader’s Choice category in this year’s Davitt Awards. Never one to take voting duties lightly I was a little overwhelmed by the number of eligible titles. At that time I had read only 6 and a half of the eligible adult fiction titles so how could I possibly make an informed vote? Given I had no chance of reading all the eligible titles in the time available I decided not to fret too much, though did resolve to get my hands on as many of the books in the adult fiction category as I could given the limitations of book-buying budgets and waking hours in which to read.

I have now read 12 of the 25 eligible adult fiction books and to be honest almost all of them would be deserving winners. I have chosen my favourite (by the merest of margins) but I really wouldn’t mind if any of the others that I’ve liked was to win instead. However, my vote has gone to

DEATH MASK by Kathryn Fox: Although I thought the start a bit slow this book has one of the most creative storylines I’ve encountered in ages, focusing on sexual assaults committed by sporting stars. As with all the very best crime fiction it is about much more than the crimes it depicts; examining the psychology of team sports from all angles in a thought-provoking way that is far-removed from how we normally the subject addressed in the media. I thought it topical, non-sensationalist and utterly compelling.

Here are the others I’ve read (in alphabetical order):
  • A FEW RIGHT THINKING MEN by Sulari Gentill: A delightful historical mystery set against a fascinating backdrop of social and political turmoil in Australia in the 1930’s. A young man of a wealthy background gets help from his left-wing friends to investigate the murder of his uncle and the book has a great setting, warm-lively characters and the historical setting is interesting (my rating 3.5)
  • COLD JUSTICE by Katherine Howell: The re-opening of the investigation into the death of a teenager 19-years earlier explores the idea of people’s pasts and how they might feel differently about events they witnessed or took part in with the benefit of age and distance. It is brilliantly plotted and full of compelling characters and is the best (to date) of a terrific series (my rating 4.5)
  • DEAD MAN’S CHEST by Kerry Greenwood An intelligent cosy mystery set in 1920’s Australia this book sees private detective Phryne Fisher and her household head to the seaside for a rest. Of course they encounter some mysteries to solve including the bizarre bandit threatening the long-haired ladies of Queenscliff and the sudden disappearance of a servant couple. It’s terrific to see  the latest book in a long running series receive the attention to detail and quality story telling that the first novels received (my rating 3.5)
  • KISS OF DEATH by P.D. Martin The fifth book in this series sees ex-pat Australian FBI Profiler Sophie Anderson helping Los Angeles police with an investigation into a murder that appears to have ritualistic elements that could be associated with a religious cult. This evidence, plus one of the psychic visions that Sophie sometimes has, leads her to look into the world of self-proclaimed vampires. I liked the procedural and investigative aspects of this book but did find the supernatural elements a bit over the top (my rating 3)
  • LET THE DEAD LIE by Malla Nunn: The second book of Nunn’s set in 1950’s South Africa follows the story of Emmanuel Cooper who, under the country’s increasingly draconian apartheid laws has recently been classified non-white and so is unable to work officially for the police anymore. However while undertaking some unofficial surveillance work for his old boss he finds a young boy’s body and is compelled to investigate the case. What I enjoyed most about this book is its depiction of the impact of his changed situation on Emmanuel Cooper which felt very realistic in addition to being heart-breaking (my rating 4)
  • MATTER OF TRUST by Sydney Bauer: Boston-based lawyer David Cavanagh goes home to New Jersey to defend an old friend who is accused of murder. The novel is decently paced but has a bit too much of a tv-script sensibility for me to find 100% engaging. I’d have liked a little more depth to the characters and their motivations (my rating 2.5)
  • NAKED CRUELTY by Colleen McCullough: This is the only one that I’ve read that I would be disappointed to see win as I just don’t think it’s a great example of the crime writing craft. Set in the US in 1969 and involving the investigation of numerous crimes including a series of brutal rapes I found it historically anachronistic and pretentious (my rating 2)
  • THE HALF-CHILD by Angela Savage: (my rating 4): In the mid-90’s Jayne Keeney is an Aussie living in Thailand and working as a private detective. She is asked to investigate the apparent suicide of a young Australian volunteer some months earlier and uncovers several nasty villains in the process. It’s a terrific novel with a great sense of its setting and a very thoughtful and nuanced plot (my rating 4)
  • THE OLD SCHOOL by P.M. Newton: The first (of what I hope is many) book to feature Detective Constable Nhu ‘Ned’ Kelly, the book is set in 1992 in western Sydney and involves an investigation into some bones found at a building site. Newton does many things well but, for me, it’s the time and place captured to perfection that I will long remember in this tale that tackles such big issues as the search for identity, the treatment of Australia’s indigenous people and the nature of police corruption. (my rating 4)
  • WATCH THE WORLD BURN by Leah Giarratano: A woman dies from apparent spontaneous combustion at an up scale Sydney restaurant and then other odd, possibly related, events start happening around the city. Detective Jill Jackson is meant to be studying for her Masters Degree but is drawn into the investigation for personal reasons. As always I loved the way Giarratano draws her characters in a very believable and thoughtful way and the story is one that takes several unexpected turns. (my rating 4)
  • VIOLENT EXPOSURE by Katherine Howell: Paramedics are called to a domestic disturbance at the suburban home of Suzanne and Connor Crawford one night only to have the couple explain the incident away as nothing more than a disagreement. The next evening Police and paramedics are again called to the address only this time Suzanne Crawford is dead and her husband is missing. This is a fast-paced book with credible, recognisable characters and a superbly complex plot. (my rating 4.5)
Davitt awards in the categories of best adult crime novel, best young fiction crime book and best true crime book by Australian women writers are chosen by a judging panel. The Reader’s Choice award, voted by members of Sisters in Crime, can go to any of the titles eligible for one of these three categories. All the award winners will be announced in October. For a full list of the eligible titles in all the categories you can see my earlier post on the awards.

As for which book will actually win the award I’ve no idea. I’m notoriously bad at predicting such things and am normally well out of step with the majority, whoever and wherever they may be. All I can say is good luck to all, including those I’ve not had a chance to read yet, and I feel very fortunate as a reader to have been presented with such a terrific range of crime writing by Australian women for my enjoyment and education in just one year!

Review: WATCH THE WORLD BURN by Leah Giarratano

This review was originally posted at Reactions to Reading in July 2010

At a prophetically named upscale Sydney restaurant an elderly woman is dining with her son when she bursts into flames for no discernible reason. The restaurant’s manager, former cop Troy Berrigan, does his best to help but the woman later dies of her injuries. Other incidents which may, or may not, be connected start happening across the city. Jill Jackson is studying for her Master’s degree and is on vacation from her job as a Detective with the Police Force but is drawn into the investigation at first because her boyfriend is leading it and then because the case becomes personal.

WATCH THE WORLD BURN is the perfect example of a suspenseful police procedural mixed with a psychological thriller. There were enough disparate threads to keep me interested in who has done what and what will be done next but not too many that I lost track. Some threads allowed me to build up a picture of intriguing characters while others offered momentary snapshots but all of them kept me turning pages. In fact the shorter passages, such as the one where a woman hands out leaflets on a train station before coming to a sticky end, are really superb short stories within the larger tale and I really enjoyed these vignettes. It’s hard to talk much more about the plot without giving away huge spoilers but there were not many moments in which the story took me where I thought it would and that is always a satisfying experience as a reader.

As I’ve found with all of the books in this series the characters also standout and demonstrate Giarratano’s eye for observation of human behaviour (she is a practicing clinical psychologist). Jill Jackson has had some pretty astonishing personal problems in her life (these are briefly recapped here for those who haven’t read the previous books) but as Watch the World Burn opens she is more confident and happier than she has been before and it’s nice to see this kind of character growth. Quite realistically though she is not ‘all better in an instant’ and the personal trauma that she experiences in this book does force her to deal with her psychological issues in a more structured way than she has in the past and this entire thread has a very credible feel to it. There are other deft creations too including a terrific middle-aged woman who uses humour to help her through her marriage break-up and Troy Berrigan who is also under pressure because he has guardianship of his younger siblings and struggles to maintain some control over their lives.

The one thing missing from this book that I’ve loved about the others was a detailed picture of the ‘bad guy’. Here we only get brief snapshots of the evil-doer which would usually be fine but I must admit to a somewhat guilty pleasure in reading Giarratano’s excellent dark characters in the past. Even so, it’s a thoroughly entertaining read with a nice mixture of action and reflection which will appeal to fans of the series and is also, I think, a great place to start for those new to the world of Jill Jackson.


My rating: 4/5 stars (rating scale is explained here)
Publisher: Random House [2010]
ISBN: 9781741668148
Length: 389 pages
Format: Trade Paperback

Fair Dinkum Baker’s Dozen #4: Leah Giarratano



This is #4 in our new feature here at Fair Dinkum Crime. New South Wales writer Leah Giarratano has agreed to respond to our version of an author interview. We’ve approached the author interview a little differently, trying to offer the authors (who we thought must get asked a few standard questions fairly frequently) the opportunity to share some of their lesser known secrets. Or not, it’s entirely up to them. We provide the authors with 13 beginnings and, like the creative geniuses they are, they turn them into sentences (or paragraphs, or full blown essays should the urge arise).

And so to Leah’s responses…

I OFTEN WONDER … if my parents hid my admission letters to Hogwarts…

FRIENDS WOULD DESCRIBE ME AS … never available 🙂

I WILL NEVER … watch Two and a Half Men

MY GREATEST FEAR IS … being eaten alive by a crocodile (because their teeth are so dirty; eww)

MY WORST JOB WAS … stuffing prongs up chicken watoozies

I’M IN DIRE NEED OF … a clone

MY CHILDHOOD WAS … safe; which is maybe why I’ve been able to last so long as a trauma psychologist

I WISH I HAD… a tail with which to swing from tree to tree. Or to just swish when angry.

I WISH I HADN’T… fallen in love with so many of the cats I’ve rescued (sigh)

THE THING I HATE MOST ABOUT BEING A WRITER IS … procrastination-by-chocolate – part of the job description

THE LAST BOOK I READ WAS … The Magicians by Lev Grossman. v.good.

THE NEXT BOOK I’LL WRITE IS … Well, I’m halfway through Book 2 of my first young adult fantasy series (Disharmony), so the next book will be Book 3, to fulfil my contract with Penguin. The first book is called Disharmony: The Psychopath, the Empath and the Genius.
The publisher describes it as “a compelling, smart and sophisticated urban fantasy series with a psychological edge”. I’d describe it a little like this:

    Morgan Moreau was a truly terrible mother. An absolute witch. Literally. And although she spent decades trying to breed the right mix, there were only three children she ever wanted – Luke, Samantha and Jake, known in secret circles by other names: the Psychopath, the Empath and the Genius. But these secrets also extend to the siblings – they’ve never heard these names; hell, they’ve never even heard of each other, and they have no idea what makes them so special. But they’ll have to learn fast. Because from a gypsy camp in Bucharest, a juvenile lock-up in Sydney and a castle in Geneva, these teenagers are about to face Yakuza assassins, a homicidal gypsy king, brutal wardens and a voodoo warrior. And they’re only their mortal foe.

BEING AN AUSTRALIAN AUTHOR MEANS … being part of the gorgeous Australian book industry. All of the publishers, editors, bloggers :-), sales teams, festival organisers, book sellers, etc, I’ve met have been adorable.

Many thanks to Leah for agreeing to be interviewed and for giving such interesting responses.

Reviews of the first three of Leah’s books VODKA DOESN’T FREEZE, VOODO DOLL, and BLACK ICE featuring DS Jill Jackson can be found here on Fair Dinkum Crime.
Check Reactions to Reading for a review of WATCH THE WORLD BURN, the 4th in the series.

About Leah Giarratano (from Random House Australia)

Dr Leah Giarratano has had a long career as a clinical psychologist. Her professional background offers a unique selling point in this genre and gives an authenticity to her writing. Leah is an expert in psychological trauma, sex offences and psychopathology and has had many years assessing psychopaths and treating their victims. She has worked in psychiatric hospitals, with the defence force, and in the corrections system with offenders who suffer severe personality disorders. She has assessed and treated survivors of just about every imaginable psychological trauma, including: hostages; war veterans; rape, assault and accident victims; and has worked with police, fire and ambulance officers. In 2009 Leah began her television career, presenting Channel 7’s top rating Beyond the Darklands program, on which Leah was the expert psychologist who delved into the psyche of Australia’s most fearsome criminals.

The following links on Random House Australia will take you to all 4 of Leah’s books.

You can also purchase each of Leah’s books via Amazon for your Kindle.

Leah participated in 3 panels at the Perth Writers’ Festival including a session called Why We Lie where she talked with renowned psychologist Dorothy Rowe. This session is now available on the Big Ideas website.

Where you can find Leah in the next few months

The Fair Dinkum Baker’s Dozen has been launched especially to celebrate Australian Authors Month which is a cross-genre celebration of Australian writing. In addition to sharing reviews, author interviews, competitions and anything else relating to the writing and reading of works by Aussie authors the month is focused on raising awareness of the Indigenous Literacy Project (ILP). The ILP is a charity with the aim of raising literacy levels among Indigenous Australians in rural and remote communities and it works in partnership with the Australian Book Industry and the Fred Hollows Foundation.

VOODOO DOLL, Leah Giarratano

Random House Australia, 2008, 303 pages, ISBN 978-1-86325-614-8

A dinner at the boss’s place becomes a nightmare: a home invasion with one of the intruders wielding a machete. One of the victims is pretty sure that he recognises the man with the machete despite the fact that he is wearing a balaclava. In the moment of recognition when their eyes locked, he was pretty sure the invader recognised him too.

The Sydney police know there have been at least five brutal home invasions in the last month, each more violent than the previous. They are almost sure that the invasions are being carried out by the same gang, and that the increasing violence is being perpetrated by just one or two members of the gang.

Detective Sergeant Jill Jackson, whom we met in the first in the series, VODKA DOESN’T FREEZE, has been shifted from comfortable Maroubra to Sydney’s Western suburbs to be part of a newly formed Home Invasion Task Force. Not only does the new job mean a long commute to work, it also means she has to learn to work with a new partner. Jill’s new partner is Gabriel Delahunt, a Federal police agent seconded to the taskforce because of his interviewing skills. Jill has to re-establish herself and again prove herself worthy in her male dominated profession, and her first impression is that working with Gabriel is not going to be easy.

VOODOO DOLL is a real page turner. Each of the major characters is carrying a legacy of traumatic events that affects the way they relate to other people. Their traumas surface in nightmares, waking dreams, and flashbacks. As the police narrow their net and identify the home invaders, the tension builds. The major characters, police and civilian, each attempt to locate the psychopathic leader of the home invaders before he strikes again. The author’s experience as a clinical psychologist working with offenders who have severe personality disorders displays itself in realistic scenarios.

This novel has an authentic Australian flavour and feel to it. It isn’t just conveyed in the setting, in the way the characters treat each other, but also in the language used. VODKA DOESN’T FREEZE was remarkably accomplished for a debut novel, but VOODOO DOLL demonstrates that Leah Giarratano is a force to be reckoned with in Australian crime fiction.

My rating: 4.8

Review VODKA DOESN’T FREEZE, Leah Giarratano

This is one of those books. One of those mega-marketed, multi-stickered books that I put off reading because I figured it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype and I’d end up disappointed. Again.

Happily I was wrong.

Not that the book is a happy one mind you. The subject matter is skin-crawlingly awful enough to make any sane person consider the merits of the death penalty and/or becoming an armed vigilante. When several men are brutally bashed to death Police discover the men have all been accused of child molestation at some point. The somewhat reluctant investigation into the murders uncovers an entire club of such men who swap photographs, movies and children amongst themselves for their particular sick and sordid pleasures.

The plot is logical and contains no extraneous material which is an increasingly rare thing in this age of books the size (and weight) of house bricks. There are one or two passages, e.g. the incident at the prison, that almost push the story into “I can’t believe all that would happen to one human being” territory but they’re only short and they stretched my credulity rather than breaking it. Irrespective of them the build-up of suspense is perfectly timed and kept me awake long past my bed time. Besides, it’s all set in one of my favourite places on earth and Giarratano has captured the feel of the beachside suburbs of inner Sydney to a tee which makes up for any slight imperfections.

But it’s the characters in this book that are truly memorable. There’s Jill Jackson: an imperfect but very believable heroine who tackles the things she is afraid of despite her fears. Her white eyed companion is also perfectly written. But Giarratano hasn’t stopped with her main character. She’s written totally credibly in the voice of a kidnapped 11-year old boy, a transvestite and the most disturbing bunch of villains you’ll ever meet. For the record it will be Jamaal Mahmoud with his simmering violence and contemptuous hatred for every person he encounters who will inhabit my nightmares. Every passage in which he appears is terrifying. The kind of terrifying where a reader might close her eyes tightly while humming Walking on Sunshine and imagining pictures of puppy dogs before the dark thoughts consume her (I’m not saying I did that, just that some other, fraidy-cat reader might react that way).

For once the marketing was right: this is a killer read.


My rating: 5/5 stars
Publisher: Bantam [2007]
ISBN: 9781863255837
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: I bought it

This review was originally published at Reactions to Reading on 29 October 2008

BLACK ICE, Leah Giarratano

This post originally appeared on New Zealand blogger Craig Sisterson’s Crime Watch, on April 6, 2010.
We thank Craig for his kind permission to republish it here.

So today, I’m looking at BLACK ICE by Leah Giarratano

Downunder, Giarratano is perhaps most known as the host of the Australian spin-off of the New Zealand TV show, Beyond the Darklands, where an expert clinical psychologist delves into the minds and pasts of notorious criminals, trying to find indications of how and why they developed into vicious criminals. As a side note, the host of the original Beyond the Darklands, New Zealand child psychologist Nigel Latta, also wrote a crime novel several years ago; EXECUTION LULLABY.
BLACK ICE
By Leah Giarratano (Random House, 2009)In BLACK ICE, her third in a series featuring city detective Jill Jackson, Giarratano picks at the scab of Sydney’s murky drugs underbelly; a world where everyone from glamorous A-Listers to addicted streetkids to and vicious gangs, all collide.

The publisher’s blurb states: “Living in a run down flat and making unlikely friends Jill sees first hand what devastation the illegal drugs scene can wreak. Jill’s sister Cassie has a new boyfriend Christian Worthington. Like her, he is one of the beautiful people of Sydney, rich, good looking, great job, great car and seen in all the right places. He is a high flying lawyer doing pro bono work to keep a drug dealer out of gaol. He is also Cassie’s supplier, keeping her supplied with cocaine and ice. When Cassie overdoses and is dumped at the hospital her life begins to spiral out of control. Seren Templeton is just out of Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre. Two years in gaol away from her son for something she didn’t do. And now she is ready to get her revenge on the man responsible. Things start to go awry when these worlds collide and Jill and Cassie meet on opposite sides of the law.”

I really enjoyed this book, and I found myself enjoying it more and more as it went on. I ended up giving it a 4-star rating for a short review I did for Good Reading magazine (I mark reasonably hard – I’ve only ever given two five-star reviews out of 40-50 reviews for them).

I must admit that initially I wasn’t that enamoured with Jackson as a main character – this may have been because I didn’t have the full background on her from the first two books of the series, so some of her behaviour seemed a touch eye-rolling/contrived to me, when it may have seemed more organic and believable if I’d known more about her and her past. But Jackson (and Giarratano’s writing) really grew on me throughout, and by the end of the book I was keen to read another tale centred on the (overly?) ambitious, complex, and flawed detective.

I particularly liked Giarratano’s mix of setting (the gritty urban Australia underbelly), good dialogue, interesting plot, and some unique and memorable characters. BLACK ICE has a real modern, contemporary feel – not just because of the modern lifestyles and drugs involved, but the punchy way in which Giarratano writes, and her fresh evocation of the different layers of Australian drugs culture. Overall Giarratano pens a taut thriller; she excels in bringing the gritty world and her unique characters to life with realism and freshness.

If I have a quibble, it’s that at times at times I could see the psychologist in her coming through a little too much, especially when it came to ‘excusing’ or mitigating the actions of some characters (particularly any female character – whose flaws always seemed to come down to how badly she’d been treated by some man in her past). The consistency of this pulled me out of the story a little at times, as I was left thinking about the author and her approach, rather than being completely and totally involved with the characters and story – you could ‘see the author’s hand’ a little, which isn’t a good thing. However, this was a very minor flaw in an otherwise great read.

The freshness of Giarratano’s writing, her wonderful scene-setting, her unique characters, and her good plotting, will all bring me back for more. A good read for anyone looking for some very modern and contemporary city-set Australian crime fiction.

Have you read any of Leah Giarratano’s work? Does this type of storytelling appeal to you? Thoughts and comments welcome.

BLACK ICE, Leah Giarratano

This review was originally posted on on her blog Petrona by Maxine and is reprinted here with her kind permission.

Black Ice by Leah Giarratano
Bantam, 2009.

The third installment of this searing Australian series finds DS Jill Jackson working undercover, using the name Krystal Peters, in the slums of Sydney. She’s identifying plenty of low-life drug dealers, to the pleasure of her bosses, but is finding it a bit of a strain to maintain her facade. When she was a child, she was kidnapped and abused. Although she has superficially recovered from her ordeal by conquering her excessively ritualised life and achieving a degree of closure (described in Vodka Doesn’t Freeze), she’s still suffering, not least in her difficult relationship with her sister Cassie, a glamorous model and, unknown to her family, drug addict.

Jill’s story is one theme of this book. The other follows Seren (short for Serendipity), a young mother who has been wrongly imprisoned for a crime she did not commit – carrying large quantities of “ice” – and who has been abandoned by the man who was actually responsible, a smarmy lawyer who when he is not dealing drugs himself is getting other dealers acquitted and becoming very rich in the process of both activities. Seren reaches the end of her sentence (after some brutal descriptions of life in a women’s “correctional facility”) and, in order to be reunited with her 10-year-old son, acquiesces to a dull life in a cheap flat and a menial yet horrific job slaughtering chickens at a meat-processing plant. Seren, of course, is secretly plotting revenge on the man who got her into this trouble.

Black Ice has a lot going for it. It has an exciting, gritty plot and an attractively capable list of women characters. I am not quite sure, therefore, why I was not more involved in the story and the dilemmas these women face. Partly, I think the book is too sensationalistic without providing enough depth to the characters, giving the whole a bit of a soap-opera feel. People are not who they seem after being described positively for some time,  but it isn’t explained why.  Details are glossed-over, for example some pages are spent on describing just how broke Seren is on her release from prison, then in one sentence it is said that she has possessions “in storage” – with no indication of how she pays for this. Everything just seems to be that bit too exaggerated, and too much of the plot depends on accidents and mistakes – for example one character drops a camera being used to secretly film a drug deal, and another is recruited as an informer yet given a mobile phone to use which has crucial information on it leading the villains directly to ruin an investigation. Jill herself is a sympathetic character, but she’s like a moonstruck, wimpy teenager every time she meets a half-way handsome man (two colleagues and a drug dealer), which does not fit with other sections of the novel in which she is portrayed as a dedicated, focused professional.

Black Ice is certainly an exciting page-turner, and raises tough questions about the value of punishment and rehabilitation as well as the effectiveness of the criminal justice system.  The relationship between Jill and Cassie is perhaps the strongest element in my estimation. But the harrowing themes of the book are presented rather in the manner popularised by Martina Cole: Seren’s compulsive purchasing of $1,000 designer shoes and her spending every cent of her rent money on high fashion does not gel, for me, with her stated principles and adoration of her son, especially as the pages describing the shoes and the sexy clothes she buys are more detailed and involved than those describing the boy and his life. The physical descriptions of the women (particularly Seren and Cassie) could come from a glossy, airhead magazine. Something about this book’s odd combination of romanticised fiction with the shocking details of drugs and violence does not really ring true for me, although I do not doubt the sincerity of its intentions.

Review first posted at Petrona, October 2010.

BLACK ICE, Leah Giarratano

Bantam (Random House Australia), 2009, ISBN 978-1-74166-809-4, 323 pages

Detective Sergeant Jill Jackson is seeing the seamier side of Sydney’s drugs underworld working undercover. The aim of the operation is the identification and removal not only of drug pushers, and the drug barons, but also of the small kitchen labs where pills and tablets are being manufactured. Jill’s role requires that she live in communities where she is likely to meet users and through them gain the trust of those further up the chain. It is a dangerous sting, and the complexity increases ten-fold when she meets her younger sister Cassie at a party.

The main action BLACK ICE takes place over just 15 days, some of the described events occurring simultaneously. The convergence of several story lines: the young mother who has just done 12 months in gaol for carrying, now bent on revenge; the university chemistry student raking it in manufacturing in his kitchen now realises that it is all getting a lot more complicated than he envisaged; Jill’s own relationship with her family and her sister in particular; these all add heightened interest to what feels in particular like an authoritative novel.

BLACK ICE is #3 in Giarratano’s Jill Jackson series. While it is part of a series, BLACK ICE works quite well as a stand-alone. Giarratano sees to it that the reader gets plenty of Jackson’s back story. The action moves well, and the scenarios felt very believable.

My rating: 4.5

My reviews of earlier novels in the series:
1. VODKA DOESN’T FREEZE (2007)
2. VOODOO DOLL (2008)

Background on Leah Giarratano from her publisher:
Dr Leah Giarratano has had a long career as a clinical psychologist. Her professional background offers a unique selling point in this genre. Leah is an expert in psychological trauma, sex offences and psychopathology and has had many years experience assessing psychopaths and treating their victims. She has worked in psychiatric hospitals, with the defence force, and in the corrections system with offenders who suffer severe personality disorders. She has assessed and treated survivors of just about every imaginable psychological trauma, including hostages; war veterans; rape, assault, and accident victims; and has worked with police, fire and ambulance officers. In 2009 Leah was the expert psychologist on Channel 7’s Beyond the Darklands, a program which delves into the psyche of Australia’s most fearsome criminals.

There is no doubt that Leah Giarratano is an Australian writer to watch and follow.

VODKA DOESN’T FREEZE, Leah Giarratano

This is another of those book reviews originally published in July 2007 elsewhere, that I am re-publishing here.
VODKA DOESN’T FREEZE was Leah Giarratano’s debut novel.

Bantam Press, July 2007

Newly promoted Detective Sergeant Jill Jackson of the New South Wales Police force has a deep hatred of paedophiles and the “squirrels” who procure children for them. When Jill was twelve years old she was abducted and held in a basement for three days. During that time she was abused by men who were never caught. Even now, over twenty years later, she has recurrent nightmares, and unpredictable panic attacks. She is very security conscious and has also developed techniques for dealing with unwanted memories. Exhaustive exercise is one of her strategies.

David Carter, paedophile and voyeur, is found beaten to death in the sand dunes where he was watching a young couple. There have been two other bashing deaths with similar MOs in the Sydney metropolitan area. Jill’s colleague Scotty Hutchinson is as committed as Jill is to hunting down paedophiles. Jill and Scotty believe there are connections, perhaps even a serial killer who is hunting down paedophiles.

Mercy Merris is a psychotherapist who has treated both Jill and other trauma victims – not, it seems, particularly successfully. She is conducting a vendetta against those involved in paedophile rings, particularly those known to have been responsible for the misery of some of her patients. Her patients tend to be survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

VODKA DOESN’T FREEZE seems to me to be rather thickly populated with unpleasant characters, including a colleague of Jill’s, whose brother she gaoled in the amphetamine bust that resulted in her promotion. Jill has many enemies and needs all her physical and mental strength to win through.

The subject matter of this novel is extremely unpleasant. We are told that VODKA DOESN’T FREEZE, “though inspired by real Australian crimes, is a work of fiction”. Author Leah Giarratano is a psychologist who has obviously drawn on her experiences in working with victims of sexual offences. In this, her debut novel, the plot is tightly constructed, and the action violent. However for me Jill Jackson is just a little too larger than life. At 34 years of age, too many bad things have happened to her. I am surprised that she actually made it into the New South Wales Police force, although Giarratano has built a very strong case for this being her mission in life. Giarratano’s next book is due to be released in July 2008.

July 2007 review, originally published on Murder and Mayhem
My rating: 4.2

I’ve also reviewed VOODOO DOLL (2008)