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

Review: GUN STREET GIRL by Adrian McKinty

I should have read GUN STREET GIRL ages ago. I love the way McKinty writes. I was on the panel that awarded this book’s predecessor a Ned Kelly Award. And I really wanted to see what would happen with the fourth book in a planned trilogy (it doesn’t hurt that this scenario has echoes to Douglas Adams, another favourite author who doesn’t think in straight lines). But I went a bit overboard with my objection to all books girl-ish and let GUN STREET GIRL languish on my Audible playlist while I pointlessly and quietly protested. Until now. When shameless selfishness demanded Gerard Doyle read me another Sean Duffy story. Protest against the world’s endless capacity to avoid discussing women as adults be damned.

Not that they aren’t fully formed works of art in their own right but I find the best way to get in the mood for a Sean Duffy story is to first listen to the Tom Waits song from which the book’s title is taken. Not so much to hear the title in a lyrical context (though that is always a pleasure) but to start the process of sinking into Duffy’s world. His way of thinking and observing life. Duffy and Waits share some characteristics; both favouring the dark, even grotesque elements of human nature. Though Duffy is, I think, more likely to soften his observations with humour. Mostly gallows humour it must be said. But bloody funny nonetheless.

It is 1985. Four years since readers first met Sean Duffy. Though he has been through much more than the average person might do in a whole lifetime and not just because he’s the lone Catholic cop in a Belfast police station at the height of the troubles. Though that doesn’t help. Even at a church social for singles the women steer clear. And Duffy doesn’t blame them. As a Catholic policeman “…[his] life expectancy could be measured in dog years“. Little wonder he relies on vodka gimlets and the odd line of cocaine to see him through the day.

In GUN STREET GIRL Duffy and his colleagues are presented with a mystery wrapped in politics and greed; the usual mess for them to unravel. Though at first it looks like nothing much at all. Michael Kelly shot and killed his parents then jumped off a cliff. Then his girlfriend gases herself to death in her car. Or perhaps not. The Carrickfergus station’s newest recruit, DC Lawson, spots some inconsistencies at the latest crime scene and he and DS McCrabban convince Duffy there is more to this situation than meets the eye. And so they dive into a world of arms dealers and spooks and mysterious Americans. While the rest of the city riots. Again.

This series, and perhaps this book most strongly, has a sense of authenticity. The backdrop – bureaucratic madness disguised as strategic thinking and Thatcher’s iron will forcing itself into every corner of the not-so united Kingdom – is entirely realistic. It’s easy too to believe that the things Sean Duffy sees and experiences might very well have happened, even if not all to the same person. And for those readers who lived through the 80’s the cultural references, especially the music, offer the closest thing to time travel any of us are likely to get.

From its opening debacle to its final sadness GUN STREET GIRL had me hooked. At times it is variously funny, heart-breaking, worrying, scary and maddening. But most of all it is a ripper of a ride. And if you like voices in your head there is no better combination than Gerard Doyle as Sean Duffy.


I’ve reviewed all three of the previous books in this series THE COLD, COLD GROUND, I HEAR THE SIRENS IN THE STREET and IN THE MORNING I’LL BE GONE


Publisher: Blackstone Audio, 2015
Narrator: Gerard Doyle
ASIN: B00TXXIPLG
Length: 9 hours 52 minutes
Format: audio book (mp3)
Source of review copy: I bought it

Review: THE TWISTED KNOT by J.M. Peace

Having been very impressed with J.M. Peace’s debut novel A TIME TO RUN, I approached THE TWISTED KNOT with that mixture of anticipation and worry that always surrounds second books. Happily, the worry was misplaced.

Somewhat paradoxically one of the things that I enjoyed most about this book is that it is not all that similar to its predecessor. The author’s talent is still on show and the central character from the first, police constable Sammi Willis, is also at the heart of this one but there is never any signs of this becoming the first in a line of clones that can often, understandably but annoyingly, follow a successful debut. This is different in pacing, the kind of story it tells and in its overall sensibility. It’s still very, very good though; no worrying necessary.

Here Sammi is still recovering from the events depicted in the first novel. Physically she’s OK but not quite mentally ready to return to full duties yet so she’s working on the front counter of the police station in the rural Queensland town of Angel’s Crossing. Which is where she first learns that townspeople are angry. A man accused of being a pedophile in the town some years ago is apparently ‘at it’ again. He was not convicted last time and locals are determined that this time there will be justice, even if they have to deliver it themselves. All Sammi and her colleagues have to go on is unsubstantiated rumours, no victim has come forward. And Sammi’s superior officers make themselves scarce rather than face the angry mob that confronts Sammi. What are they hiding?

It’s difficult to talk about the many fine attributes of this book without spoiling its plot but I will say the story is a ripper. It’s not the same kind of intense, frightening story the first book told but it’s equally compelling and suspenseful. Here there are layers of secrets being kept by many locals and the way these are revealed keeps readers guessing right to the end. There’s more complexity here too because it’s not quite so clear in depicting who is and who isn’t doing the right thing. Because there’s what’s legal and then there’s what’s right and they’re not always the same thing. At least not for some of the residents of Angel’s Crossing. It’s quite thought-provoking at times in the way it makes the reader contemplate what they might do when faced with some of the scenarios depicted in the book.

Peace is a serving police officer (using a pseudonym) so it’s not surprising that the way the various aspects of police work and ‘the life’ are shown have a real ring of authenticity to them. The different types of personality attracted to the work are on show as are the variety of elements of the job. Although they do exist it’s not all car chases and shoot outs and Peace does well in showing the whole job without slowing the book down or making it dull. She also does well at showing the limitations of the legal system and the frustrations that result for both officers and the public.

The character development is well done too. Sammi’s struggles to overcome the mental issues which arose after she was chased by a serial killer are problematic but no so debilitating they threaten to destroy her. It must be a difficult balance to achieve in trying to depict such a thing sensitively and realistically. There are a few hurdles in her personal life too but these are also shown in a believable, balanced way. The townspeople who are impacted by the possible resurgence of the pedophile activity are also well drawn. Their anger and desire to take matters into their own hands are entirely credible.

All in all then another terrific read from J.M. Peace. I am especially pleased when authors try new things and take some risks with their storytelling. Even if it doesn’t always work I’d rather this than a clone any day. But, in this instance at least, Peace’s change of pace and tone work very well, leaving me keen to see what she does next.


aww2017-badgeThis is the 5th book I’ve read and reviewed for the sixth 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: Pan Macmillian, 2016
ISBN: 9781743538678
Length: 303 pages
Format: paperback
Source of review copy: I bought it

Review: THE UNMOURNED by Meg Keneally and Tom Keneally

Robert Church is the man whose murder sets off the second adventure of Hugh Monsarrat, newly freed convict and clerk to the governor’s secretary in the still young colony of New South Wales, and the woman who is ostensibly his housekeeper but really his best friend, Hannah Mulrooney. As Superintendent of the Parramatta women’s prison (known as the Female Factory) Church took full advantage of his position’s power by starving, abusing and sexually assaulting the prisoners as well as siphoning off whatever he could to line his own pockets. Literally no one, not even his beleaguered wife, mourns his death and it would be easy for the case to be quickly dealt with if not for the fact that the prime suspect appears, at least to Monsarrat, to potentially be innocent. But everyone else, including his own boss, believes Grace O’Leary, an outspoken leader among the female convicts, guilty of the crime. Monsarrat, ably assisted by Mrs Mulrooney, has only a few days and a limited amount of official tolerance for his shenanigans, to conclude his investigation.

It is always with some trepidation I approach a book I am really hoping to like because, as happened last month, it can be disappointing. But Meg and Tom Keneally did not let me down with this second instalment of their historical crime series set in colonial Australia. Although I enjoyed this novel’s predecessor, last year’s THE SOLDIER’S CURSE, very much I thought this one even better. The story here is more complex and so ultimately a more satisfying tale to unravel. Given the murder victim’s reputation there is no shortage of suspects and even if they aren’t involved in the crime many of them have secrets they’d prefer to keep hidden. Trying to ascertain which of the many secrets provided a motivation for murder keeps our amateur sleuths, and this reader, guessing until the very end.

Even Mrs Mulrooney has something to hide and its revelation provides a turning point in her relationship with Monsarrat, though not in the way the person who reveals the secret anticipates. These two characters and their relationship – something of a surrogate mother/son one I suppose – is another highlight of the novel. Monsarrat is forced to confront his core beliefs as he comes against situations in which his own freedom, something he values very deeply, is threatened if he continues down a certain path. It’s not immediately obvious which choice he will make and it’s hard to blame someone for wanting to avoid a third foray into fairly brutal penal life so there is real tension in seeing this thread unfold over the course of the story. Mrs Mulrooney continues to grow in confidence as she writes her first letters to her son, thanks to Monsarrat’s teaching. Her observations about the difficulties involved in learning to read and write offer an excellent insight into her practical and astute character

“…I would have to say that the letters won’t behave themselves. They keep insisting on doing different things in different words. There is no logic to it, no organisation. If I ran a kitchen the way the English language runs itself, it would be in ruins.”

Despite these problems Mrs Mulrooney in turn becomes a writing teacher as well as a friend to some of the inhabitants of the Female Factory. What we learn of her personal history, including her connection to the events which occurred at Vinegar Hill in 1798 only endears her further to Monsarrat (and readers).

Once again the Keneally duo has wrapped a terrific story around a fascinating and credible depiction of life in Parramatta in 1825. The physical aspects of the setting are vividly brought to life as are the psychological and emotional elements that must surely eventuate in a place where most people are either criminals (or ex-criminals) or their captors. The power imbalances and opportunities for abuse and ill-treatment seem endless and it’s almost a miracle that some people, like Grace O’Leary, retain their humanity in the face of it all.

I can wholeheartedly recommend THE UNMOURNED to fans of historical crime fiction but would even suggest it to those who’ve not tried this sub genre before. The book has humour, a touch of romance, and intelligently explores our social and political history while introducing memorable characters and telling a ripper yarn. What more could you want?


aww2017-badgeThis is book 4 I’ve read and reviewed for the sixth 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: Penguin Random House [2017]
ISBN: 9780857989390
Length: 321 pages
Format: paperback
sOURCE: I bought it

Review: CRIMSON LAKE by Candice Fox

I’m not sure if it’s a standalone novel or the start of a new series but either way Candice Fox’s CRIMSON LAKE is determined to be memorable. Every one of its 389 pages is packed with people committing crimes, investigating crimes or trying to prove their own innocence of crimes they’ve been accused of.

Most of the story is told from Ted Conkaffey’s point of view. When we meet him Ted is living a kind of half-life after having spent 8 months on remand for the rape and attempted murder of a young girl. His case was dropped for lack of evidence not because there is any other viable suspect and the charges can be reactivated at any time. Just about everyone – including Ted’s former colleagues in the police force, his ex wife and the general public – believe him guilty despite his consistent claims of innocence. So Ted has made his way to far north Queensland and gone to ground. Crimson Lake is the sort of place where people can and do hide from their pasts. But even this place may not be up to the task of hiding from determined vigilantes (some of whom wear a uniform) a man the whole world thinks of as a guilty-but-not-convicted paedophile.

Ted is put in contact with Amanda Pharrell, the region’s lone private investigator. Amanda is afraid of cars, loves to speak in rhymes and spent 10 years in prison for the murder of a fellow teenager. She is investigating the disappearance of celebrated local author Jack Scully who, it seems, may have been taken by a crocodile. His wife wants proof that he’s really dead and that he didn’t commit suicide.

The pair form a friendship of sorts as they look into the author’s deranged fans and secret life for clues to his disappearance. The two outsiders develop a genuine, if prickly, care for each other but their interactions are charged with too much dark humour to stray into mushy territory. Which is all for the best in my opinion and this relationship is one of the book’s strengths. Other characters – good guys and bad ones – are also well drawn.

Although very complicated (seriously I’ve only skimmed a portion of the book’s happenings here) the disparate strands of storyline are not difficult to follow and for those who like their crime fiction packed with action and surprising twists look no further. The book stretched the bounds of credibility at times for me as so many elements of what happened to Ted, Amanda and Jack were the result of the kinds of extremes of human behaviour that I struggled to believe would all coalesce around such a small group of people in such a small place. But the book is an old-fashioned romp of a tale about people I had grown to care about and I will freely admit to staying up way past my bedtime to find out how CRIMSON LAKE was all going to end. Next-day drowsiness is the sign of a superior reading experience.


aww2017-badgeThis is the 3rd book I’ve read and reviewed for the sixth 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: Penguin [2017]
ISBN: 9780143781905
Length: 389 pages
Format: paperback
Source of review copy: Borrowed from the library

Review: THE GOLDEN CHILD by Wendy James

WARNING: This review contains spoilers. Events which occur towards the end of the book are discussed in some detail in the 6th paragraph below. It doesn’t reveal the plot’s surprise twist but it is a pretty major reveal all the same. I tried but could not manage to discuss my thoughts about the book without revealing more plot spoilers than I am normally comfortable with.

thegoldenchildjamesUsing the philosophy that underlies the advice about ripping bandaids off quickly, I’m going to get the hard part of this review out now: I didn’t like THE GOLDEN CHILD. I wanted to like it. Very much. I have read most of Wendy James’ other books and thought them all very good, with THE MISTAKE having a firm place on my ‘go to’ list of great book recommendations for any sort of reader. I bought this one on pre-order, even before I started seeing all the good reviews it has garnered. But though I kept reading and hoping my dislike was a temporary thing, the book never really grabbed me at all. I imagine the Germans have a great word to describe the particular kind of disappointment that follows the non-enjoyment of a much anticipated book. In the absence of their superior linguistic skills I’ll just say I am sad.

The book – which falls within the suspense genre at its broadest definition – is centred on the Mahoney family. Well the Mahoney women really; engineer Dan Mahoney’s role in this story is to act as the plot device for moving the family from one place to the next. Dan’s wife Beth is the 40-something mother to teenagers Lucy and Charlie, or Charlotte as she decides she will be called when the family moves from the US to Australia where Dan and Beth were both born. Beth has a blog – where she presents an idealised version of her family life to the world – but has not worked outside the home since the kids were born. Though, as she reminds us often, she was not legally allowed to work while they lived in the US, it wasn’t like she chose just to stay home. Lucy, older than her sister by a year, is a pretty average daughter and student while Charlie is the alpha female in any group. Popular. Gifted. Ambitious. Troubled?

Beth makes friends with Andi, mother of Sophie who is one of Charlotte’s classmates at the prestigious private school the girls attend in their new home. Although musically gifted Sophie struggles socially so Andi is keen to help a potential friendship develop and gets the two families together as much as possible. Alas neither Andi nor her husband notice that Sophie is being subjected to more than the usual teenage meanness. She’s being seriously bullied, both online and in real life. Readers see it all along but the fact is only revealed to Sophie’s parents in a very frightening way.

One of the things I didn’t like about this book is its treatment of its male characters. Neither Steve (Andi’s husband) nor Dan have much agency in their own right let alone as fathers or husbands. In a different book written in a different era Steve and Dan would have been the female appendages to more charismatic, important male characters so emotionally stunted and two dimensional were they. I don’t know if this was a deliberate kind of ‘turning the tables’ on gender issues in literature or there wasn’t room to flesh either of these characters out or James just wasn’t interested in their stories but this just didn’t strike me as terribly realistic for a story unfolding in the present day.

Perhaps I would have found this treatment of the male gender more forgivable if the female characters had been stronger than they were. I don’t mean I didn’t like them (that is true but not my point) but that they didn’t develop. Even when their respective worlds fracture neither of the adult female characters changes in any meaningful way nor does any of the deep soul searching that is, surely, to be expected. There’s a fluttering of angst from both and some surprisingly short-lived anger from Andi and then it’s back to the average parenting and self-absorption they were both engaged in prior to ‘the event’.

[Spoiler alert] But the aspect of the book that most disappointed me was its handling of the central thematic issue. The way that Sophie lets on to the adults in her life that things are not going well is a suicide attempt. For some days she lies in a coma and there is uncertainty about whether she will have brain damage even if she does survive. During this period her parents are appropriately angry and vengeful. Her teachers are lining up for a proportionate response and even Beth and Dan are at least slightly invested in doing something about ‘the issue’. But when Sophie pulls through with no adverse health effects things revert almost to ‘normal’. As if nothing had ever happened. Sophie herself appears to have no memory of a suicide attempt (and no mention is made of her having any kind of treatment which in the health system I work in is just entirely unrealistic for a 12 year old who has seriously attempted suicide), both sets of parents appear eager to pretend that everything is fine and the school goes out of its way to whitewash the whole affair. I could have bought one, or perhaps two, of those but the notion that everyone involved is prepared to play make believe just stretched the bounds of credibility beyond breaking point for me. I know it’s fiction but in other aspects – such as its descriptions of the escalating cruelty towards Sophie – the book has presented itself in a realistic style and I don’t think this kind of thing can be turned on and off quite so easily. [End spoilers]

Although its depiction of the bullying teenagers can dish out seems perfectly, and scarily, accurate that wasn’t enough to make this book a good read for me. I thought its characters lacked depth and its story too contrived and unbelievable. For me the central question posed by the book’s premise – how might someone cope when they learn they are the parent of a bully – is never dealt with in any substantive way. However THE GOLDEN CHILD has been getting rave reviews just about everywhere but here so, as always, other opinions are available.


aww2017-badgeThis is the 2nd book I’ve read and reviewed for the sixth 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: Harper Collins [2017]
ISBN: 9781460752371
Length: 338 pages
Format: paperback
Source of review copy: I bought it

Review: THE UNFORTUNATE VICTIM by Greg Pyers

theunfortunatevictimpyersStarting at the end of 1864 and taking place in fledgling gold-mining town of Daylesford, THE UNFORTUNATE VICTIM tells the story of the brutal murder of a newly married young woman and the attempts to catch her killer. As the story unfolds readers realise the book’s title may have a dual meaning; referring both to slain woman Maggie Stuart and the man who becomes the prime suspect in her murder.

We are told that the book is ‘based on a true story’ (the real-life murder of a woman called Margaret Graham) but I’ve no idea how close to the truth this book’s storyline stays as it depicts the somewhat arbitrary identification and subsequent conviction of a travelling labourer for the crime. I’m curious about which aspects of the story might be true but I shan’t say more for fear of spoilers. Here anyway the investigatory and legal proceedings suffer from a lack of evidentiary and procedural rigour but it’s easy to scoff from my 21st Century vantage point. At the time even the notion of using fingerprints as a means of identification was more than a decade in the future, let alone more advanced forensic sciences. What we – and poor Maggie Stuart – are left with is an officialdom consisting primarily of amateurs and a whole lot of guesswork. The bright spot is Detective Otto Berliner. Now working in Melbourne and proposing to become a private enquiry agent due to his dissatisfaction with the colony’s police force, Berliner has previously worked in Daylesford with much success and it is no real surprise when he is called on to assist the local police.

With historical fiction the setting has to feel authentic for the story to be a success and this one does. The social attitudes, the environment, the clothing, the buildings…Pyers makes it easy to imagine oneself in the Daylesford of 150 years ago when it was a far cry from the high-end spa town it is today. And if for a moment you forget what modern creature comforts might have been missing in this era the scenes involving a delayed search in a cesspit will remind you. Rarely I have been more grateful to have been born after the invention of indoor sewerage.

The publicity material for the book describes its central character as charming but I can’t say I found him so. Like many fictional sleuths he is too egotistical for that. I did find him interesting though which is why I was a bit miffed there was relatively little of him in the book. He really only plays a small part in proceedings until about the half-way point and for me that led to the book lacking a little focus. I might not have minded so much but for the setting of my expectations by the cover proclaiming this loudly to be an Otto Berliner investigation (I was muttering under my breath about him needing to show himself). On the up side though this lack of our hero in the early stages of the book does allow lots of time for the suspect pool town’s residents to be introduced in some detail. We also get to meet a local photographer who becomes Berliner’s eyes and ears for a time and I enjoyed this aspect of the book. Tom, his sensible wife and his observant son will make good regulars if this is set to become a series.

My other minor gripe is also to do with the management of expectations in that this book is labelled by its publisher as a ‘cosy crime’ novel. While it does take place in the kind of socially intimate setting that label might suggest it is very definitely not a book that downplays the violence associated with crime. I know someone who only reads cosy crime novels and I cannot imagine her getting past the explicit and extensive description of the brutality experienced by the victim here. Of course there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the content of the book – it’s not gratuitous – but if a readers are led to expect one kind of thing and find another at least some of them won’t be happy.

On reflection most of my very minor complaints about this enjoyable book are more to do with its publisher’s publicity decisions than the book’s content. The book itself is entertaining, the historical setting well realised and the tension – especially during the second half of the book – is quite palpable. I did not expect the resolution (which makes me wonder if it’s close to the truth) and I would happily read a future instalment of the adventures of Otto Berliner.


Publisher: Scribe [2017]
ISBN: 9781925321975
Length: 294 pages
Format: paperback
Source of review copy: advanced reader copy from publisher

Review: ROMEO’S GUN by David Owen

Storytelling is the social and cultural activity of sharing stories, often with improvisation, theatrics, or embellishment.

romeosgunowenThat’s the definition according to Wikipedia anyway. I went looking for it because as I read David Owen’s latest offering I thought that to call it a novel is a little misleading. It is one, of course, but it is also something else. An old fashioned yarn. An adventure tale. Something you can imagine being slowly doled out by a grizzled chap in a pub somewhere off the beaten track.

On the surface it is about the probable death of a sommelier (his body goes missing before death can be confirmed by anyone official), the growing-cold hunt for the killer of a teenage girl and the myriad ways bureaucracy is screwed. But this is not a story that goes from point A to point B in a nice, orderly fashion. Its embellishments, improvisations and theatrics include the mechanics of international drug smuggling, a lesson in trout fishing, a disguise, a brief history of Cathedral building and musings on the nature of light. I know it sounds like these things might be irrelevant but you’ll have to take my word that none of them are.

The storytelling element of ROMEO’S GUN is heightened by the fact it is told from the first-person point of view of a larger than life person. Franz “Pufferfish” Heineken is – in my mind at least – a little like a good Jack Thompson character. As he was in The Sum of Us for example. Prone to prickliness, bored by other people’s bullshit, easily perceived the wrong way by people too dense or self-involved to see his true qualities. The kind of bloke any sensible person would want on their side in a fight. I often find the first-person perspective unbelievable – or at least unrelatable – because the narrators seem to think with a coherence my own inner voice generally lacks. But Pufferfish’s voice – with some half-formed thoughts and idiosyncratic shorthand – rings very true.

True Blue too. Funny that two ‘foreigners’, Pufferfish (who is Dutch) and his creator (born in South Africa), consistently deliver such a thoroughly Australian sensibility. The evocative setting, the idiom-filled sentences, the way that various social scenes play out are all tied irrevocably to this country or, even more locally, to the often maligned island state we occasionally leave off the map. Though some of those experiences are shared by mainlanders. In my city we too are often visited by highly-paid, expensive suit-wearing ‘experts’ from Sydney over supplied with presentations and recommendations for how we should do things their way improve. In ROMEO’S GUN it is a mythical company called EmploySolution (which of course is referred to as FinalSolution by Puff and his chums) putting the Tasmanian Police Force in general and Pufferfish in particular under its microscope with a view to the eradication of unnecessary spending. It’s a different company in my real world but the same result: roles which perform actual work get cut while roles for managers and executives who do precious little of use quadruple.

I collected ROMEO’S GUN from my post box on the last working day before Christmas which did wonderful things for my seasonal spirit. My delighted anticipation quickly turned into genuine satisfaction as I started reading it almost immediately and found myself once again enveloped in the funny, clever, complicated and mildly cynical world of Franz Heineken. If you are not already a fan of this series you could easily start here. It works as a self-contained story even with its occasional references to earlier events. And then, as I did when I first discovered the series at book six, you can begin your own frustrating quest to track down the out-of-print earlier titles.


Publisher: Fullers Bookshop [2016]
ISBN: 9780994561152
Length: 360 pages
Format: paperback

Review: DARKEST PLACE by Jaye Ford

It is a continuing annoyance to me that audio books with an Australian voice – either author or narrator – are difficult to come by even though the format has exploded in recent years. So I usually snap them up when I see them which is how I came to squeeze another read into this year’s AWW Challenge.

darkestplacefordaudioFormer journalist Jaye Ford is carving out a niche for herself as a teller of stories in which frightening but entirely believable things happen to people just like the reader. Not so long ago this ‘average person in peril’ trope was the domain of men, normally doing absurdly unrealistic things to get themselves out of various jams. In Ford’s books though the person at the centre of events is generally a woman. Often, as in real life, at most danger from a bloke.

In DARKEST PLACE we meet Carly Townsend. She has just moved to Newcastle from the small outback town she grew up in. She’d left once before but that didn’t last long when tragedy struck. Thirteen years later she has an apartment in a renovated industrial building and has enough savings to be a full-time student, at least for a few months. But when Carly’s home is broken into on only her third night in residence her new life starts to look more troubled than she’d hoped for.

That’s all I’ll say about the plot because half the pleasure of these kinds of books is experiencing all the twists and turns for yourself. Ford does a great job of teasing the reader. Introducing people who might (or might not) be dangerous, sharing a reflection from Carly’s past that may (or may not) be relevant to what’s going on in her present-day life. Or is Carly herself the untrustworthy element in this story? Perhaps the only drama is in her own imagination? The reader is never sure who or what to believe here which builds a delicious kind of tension. Well delicious for me, experiencing it from the safety and comfort of my reading nook; not so delicious for poor Carly who is living in mounting trepidation and anxiety.

There’s a strong cast of characters in DARKEST PLACE too. Carly herself is well developed; struggling to come to terms with her past in a believable way and yet despite having a lot to deal with she doesn’t wallow in self-pity. Or not for long anyway. She meets an interesting array of new people as neighbours and fellow students though they are all potential suspects. Or perhaps I was alone in trying to work out how the girl with the broken ankle might be hiding her true identity as a twisted stalker. There is even a romantic interest (but again he might be the one terrorising Carly). And let’s not forget the building into which Carly has moved. Ford gives it a palpable presence in the story which makes for a very effective, almost claustrophobic setting.

Fans of the audiobook format should enjoy Sarah Blackstone’s narration as much as I did; she really brings Carly’s story to life and it is nice to hear Australian voices telling Australian stories. Which makes this the complete package. A truly scary tale of psychological suspense with credible characters and a cracker of an ending.


AWW2016This is book 21.5 that I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge (one book was written by a father daughter team so I’m only counting it as a half). For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Wavesound Audio [2016]
ASIN: B01IRUCMRI
Length: 11 hours, 1 minute
Format: mp3

Review: THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET by Jock Serong

therulesofbackyardcricket29023_fWhen THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET opens Darren Keefe is trussed up in the boot of a moving vehicle. He believes he is being taken somewhere to be killed and doesn’t seem terribly surprised by the fact. For him the only real mystery is whether or not he’ll be forced to dig his own grave before death. A difficult proposition given his left hand hasn’t worked properly since the broken thumb of years before. And he’s been shot in one knee.

For a long time this is really all we learn about Darren’s present-day life. Over the rest of the book there are brief return visits to the boot, where Darren is making half-hearted attempts to free his cable-tied limbs. But before we can find out why Darren is in this predicament we have to learn what led up to it. Darren’s story begins on the backyard pitch where he and his older brother Wally fight for supremacy

From the day – lost now in the Kodachrome blur – when we take up backyard cricket, we are an independent republic of rage and obsession. Our rules, our records, our very own physics. Eye-to-eye and hand-to-hand combat. By the time we emerge into the world beyond the paling fences, it surprises us to learn that anyone considers this a team sport.

You might not have grown up in a cricket-mad household. The names Lillee, Thomo and the rest may mean nothing to you. And it’s possible that you don’t know mid-on from fine leg (the vegie patch and the asbestos outhouse respectively in the Keefe backyard, the small rose garden and the rumpus room wall in the backyard of my own youth). You may never have known the anguish of watching a whole Test only to have it end in a rain-soaked draw on the final day. But even if all this is true you couldn’t fail to miss the authenticity in the depiction of Darren and Wally’s lives. It’s not just that the pages of the book have absorbed Australian cricketing lore in a physical way. It’s that the obsession the boys display for it is entirely believable. The most natural thing in the world. Their single mother works dead-end barmaid jobs to keep her sons in cricket gear. The game – and their skill at it – is the best chance they have of not re-living her own hard life and Pamela Keefe is almost as determined as her boys.

But, like many brothers that have come before them, the Keefes are not equal in all things. Wally is disciplined, focused, responsible, emotionally impenetrable. Qualities which are almost as important as his talent in securing him the ultimate prize – the Australian captaincy. Darren is none of these things. To call him a risk taker would be misleading; implying as it does that he weighs up the potential consequences of his actions. Darren doesn’t put nearly enough thought into things for that. On the field his innate ability and the fact that his boyhood tussles with Wally were tougher than almost anything anyone else can dish out take him a long way. But a combination of hubris and lack of forethought bring on the game-changing injury to his hand. He never reaches the heights he imagined for himself as a kid. Though high enough that his fall from grace, when he becomes “…a man who retains a public profile, but with all the good parts eaten away”, is deeply painful to watch.

That was the first surprise for me here. As someone who normally wavers between disgust and boredom at the adoration and sycophancy heaped upon sports stars – even those who continuously engage in juvenile, debauched and often illegal activities – I was not predisposed to feeling much other than scorn for Darren Keefe. And some of that is there. He really does have no one but himself to blame for his circumstances. But Serong’s portrait is so nuanced…so honest…that I will, somewhat grudgingly, admit to feeling much more. At times my heart ached. Because I saw that to be angry at Darren for his inability to behave sensibly would be akin to scoffing at a paralysed person for not walking up a flight of stairs. Like there is free will involved in either case.

The resolution to the story was the second surprise. In the way that being struck from behind with a brick might be. The noir label is thrown around with far too much abandon for my liking but as I closed the back cover of this book I thought it might just be the most perfect example of the genre I’ve read. In forever. For me noir is at its finest when the inevitable quality to the ending is only visible in hindsight and I am left physically aching for a different outcome while knowing such a thing would be both impossible and imperfect. The very definition of bittersweet.

I would recommend this book to everyone. Except I am a bit worried about how those who still think of cricket as the gentleman’s game might fare with it. There’s nothing genteel about any of the cricket in this book. Not the war waged in the Keefe’s backyard and not the big, sometimes corrupt business they are involved with as adults. But everyone who isn’t afraid of losing their wide-eyed innocence about the sport should read this book. It is beautifully written, brutally honest and gets the balance of aching sadness and dark humour just right. An outstanding read.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Text [2016]
ISBN 9781925355215
Length 291 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone