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

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: 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

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