Review: THE SOLDIER’S CURSE by Meg Keneally and Tom Keneally

thesoldierscursekeneallyAlthough I am an ardent fan of Tom Keneally’s writing – and the man himself who is rightfully one of our national living treasures – I admit to wariness when approaching his latest book which he has written in collaboration with his oldest daughter Meg. Due to a combination of bad history teachers and my working for several years in an archives where the only researchers I met were on never-ending quests for convicts in their family trees there are few subjects more likely to send me to sleep than Australia’s convict era. I ought to have had more faith: THE SOLDIER’S CURSE successfully weaves literary, historical and crime fiction together in a very engaging package.

The story’s action takes place in the penal settlement of Port Macquarie in 1825 which, at the time, was some days sailing north of Sydney and was about as remote as it got in a country that was already a bloody long way from anywhere else. A suitable site then for the prisoner’s prison; the place where those criminals who had been transported to Australia and had subsequently transgressed for a second time were confined. The authors have done a superb job of depicting this time and place, eschewing some of the more familiar (and wearying) convict lore such as our collective desire to believe that the only people transported here were those who’d stolen stale bread to feed their starving families. Instead most people display a mixture of good and bad traits but generally try to do the ‘right’ thing, even if their definitions of the word differ. The isolation of the place itself and the fact so much of it is unexplored and unknown is also brought vividly to life and the settlement’s interactions with the Birpai, the Aboriginal group native to the area, are sensitively incorporated.

Hugh Monsarrat is one of the prisoners though his circumstances are not as dire as they might have been. Due to his penmanship and writing skills Monsarrat works as the clerk to Major Shelborne who runs the settlement and has some leeway in how he spends his time if not the full freedom he yearns for. His characterisation is a fascinating one as we learn that what has been his undoing is, at heart, his ego and his unwillingness to accept the limitations his world tried to impose on him. Even being transported to the ends of the earth doesn’t engender in him the capacity to be as prudent as his situation demands. It’s a wholly realistic depiction and doesn’t gloss over the fact that Hugh is a criminal by his society’s definition and he really has no one to blame but himself for his predicament.

Hugh becomes a kind of amateur sleuth when the Major’s wife falls gravely ill before dying and his friend and confidante Hannah Mulrooney, the Shelborne’s housekeeper, comes under suspicion. As is sometimes the way with historical crime fiction the mysterious elements of the story do take a back seat. There is certainly a crime but there’s not a lengthy suspense over who committed it so I suppose I ought not recommend this to die-hard whodunit purists. Though I think most others would enjoy the way this story doesn’t end when the culprit has been revealed which gives the authors time to explore what happens to the criminal after they have carried out their plan. There mixture of pride and fear and regret the culprit displays seems very credible and I found it totally compelling. I may even have shed a tear or two for the killer which is something of a feat given it was a truly heinous crime.

I’m always fascinated by joint writing projects so was interested to hear (via this Radio National interview) that the Keneallys had originally planned to write alternating chapters based on Tom Keneally’s initial outline but that they ended up with Meg doing the initial drafting with lots of input from her father. It certainly doesn’t feel in any way disjointed, as perhaps it might have done if the original plan was followed. Although she has been a journalist I don’t think Meg Keneally has written fiction before so it’s difficult to know how much of the story’s voice is hers, whereas it does seem like Tom Keneally’s voice is present. Some of the themes common to his other work, including the role of Catholicism in Australian society (Keneally trained to be a Catholic priest though left the seminary before being ordained) and the tensions between classes or social stratas, are certainly present.

Apparently there is at least one more book featuring Hugh Monsarrat and Hannah Mulrooney coming our way and I must say I can’t wait. Engaging characters, fascinating period details and the thoughtful exploration of sociopolitical themes is more than enough to have me coming back for more.


AWW2016Given it was written by a male/female pair I’m counting this as half a book towards my obligations for reading and reviewing books for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge, bringing my total so far to 11.5. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Random House [2016]
ISBN: 9780857989369
Length: 369 pages
Format: paperback

Review: DEATH OF A LAKE by Arthur Upfield

DeathOfALakeUpfieldAudioFor the third time I’ve chosen an Arthur Upfield novel with which to participate in Crimes of the Century, this month requiring a novel originally published in 1954. Once again I chose to listen to a version narrated wonderfully by Peter Hosking (who’s won a narrator of the year award in his time and it’s not hard to hear why).

As with the previous two novels I’ve read it is Upfield’s depiction of the Australian setting that steals the show for me. This novel’s central place is a temporary inland lake: an area that has water for a year or three but which routinely dries up completely when the drought that is inevitable in Australia takes hold. Upfield’s lake is the fictional Lake Otway but it resembles real-life Lake Eyre which is, when it isn’t a dust bowl, is the largest lake in the country. We are introduced to it, and the novel, with these words

Lake Otway was dying. Where it had existed to dance before the sun and be courted by the ravishing moon there would be nothing but drab flats of iron hard clay and then the dead might rise to shout accusations shouted by the encircling sand dunes.

 

The out-station crowned a low bluff on the southern shore and from it single telephone lines spanned 50 miles of virgin country to base on the great homestead where lived the boss of Porchester station which comprised eight hundred thousand acres and was populated by 60,000 sheep in the care of some 20 wage plugs…

Three years ago the lake was so full of water that it was possible to swim in. And even to drown in, as apparently happened to young stockman Ray Gillen. But now, as police Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte arrives on the scene in the guise of a horsebreaker, the lake is rapidly emptying and Bony soon realises he’s not the only person keen to see what the disappearance of the lake will reveal about the stockman’s death. Gillen was a lottery winner and almost everyone connected to the station seems to think they have some claim on the dead man’s money, wherever it might be.

I’ve thought before that the Upfield plots are the weakest elements of his novels but this one was strong, managing not to get bogged down in too much esoteric detail and maintaining a cracking pace with a load of twists as Bony – and readers – whittle down the greed-driven suspect pool. Whether it be the motley collection of fellow workers or the mother/daughter cook and housemaid team that look after the station everyone seems to have had both motive and opportunity to take advantage of the scenario. The culprit, when eventually unveiled, is among the coldest human beings you’ll encounter fictionally.

Although there is much to anchor this book to place – including a heat which literally has birds dropping from trees in death and the kind of mass rabbit skinning that I can’t imagine happening anywhere else – there is not a great deal to pinpoint the novel in time. Mention is made that Ray Gillen had fought in Korea and there are one or two other indicators that this is one of Upfield’s later novels but it does have a fairly timeless quality. At least it does if you ignore the casual bigotry that pervades all these stories (though here it is women rather than Aboriginal people who cop the brunt of the social stigmatising).

I don’t know that I’d recommend this as the best place to start discovering Arthur Upfield and/or Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte but the book is a solid entry to the series and continues to provide a unique voice in classic crime fiction.


Publisher: This edition Bolinda Audio 1954 [Original Edition, 1954]
Narrator: Peter Hosking
ASIN: B01GKAJMCA
Length: 6 hours, 12 minutes
Format: audio book

Review: COMMON PEOPLE by A.E. Martin

CommonPeopleMartinThe full title of the this novel – at least the edition I read – is COMMON PEOPLE: MURDER IN SIDESHOW ALLEY which gives a little more of a flavour of what is to come. The book’s original American title – THE OUTSIDERS (1945) – also offers a good feel for its story’s subject matter Initially published as a serialised story in an Australian magazine in 1943, as a novel it was first released a year later and tells the story of a group of ‘freaks’…carnival and circus acts who do what they can to get by in a world that either pointedly ignores them or stares rudely. The central character is not really one of them but feels an affinity with these outsiders having grown up an orphan and never really fitting in with ‘normal’ people. Pelham – or Pel as he’s generally known – is what today we’d call an entrepreneur but who is described in the book as

…he was city – a lurker, a fellow who lived on his wits, with no trade, no profession, relying on his imagination for his bread and butter.

His central work in this story is the financing. promoting and running of a 10-week show displaying the world’s most successful starving man to the people of London. Business-wise things are going well but on the eve of his big show’s commencement an old friend of Pel’s is murdered. This horror happens in the flat underneath the one in which Pel and his sideshow act friends are celebrating so they all become potential suspects and at least one policeman is champing at the bit to arrest at least one of ‘the freaks’.

The character of Pel must surely be at least a little autobiographical given A.E. (Archibald Edward) Martin’s own potted history which includes several years on the European carnival circuit with Houdini as his mentor. He also worked as a journalist, magazine owner, travel agent and publicist for a variety of the kinds of acts we meet in the book before turning his hand to writing (both fiction and non fiction). This breadth of experience gives COMMON PEOPLE its authentic feel and the sense that the reader is being drawn into a different world rather than being asked to point and snigger at it which could so easily have happened. There’s no hint that the author is laughing at or exploiting these people which gives the reader permission to simply be fascinated in learning about this truly absorbing world.

The plot rocks along at a fair pace with Pel hooking up with a couple of more enlightened policemen than the one who sneers at and suspects all the carnival acts. Even so there are a couple of genuine suspects among the crowd and suspicions must be worked through before a satisfactory resolution comes to pass. All the while we are treated to the trials and tribulations of being a carnival act or the promoter of one which provides the story with a lot of warm humour.

My only disappointment in reading the book – given the author was born in my home town – is that there is very little Australian about it. Aside from one character claiming to be an Australian that is. But for someone not terribly fond of the circus I found myself completely absorbed in this tale and its characters and gripped by the classic whodunit suspense. I’m grateful (as ever) to the people at Wakefield Press who included this story in the series of forgotten Australian crime classics they released in the 80’s and 90’s.


Publisher: this edition Wakefield Press [1994]
ISBN: 9781862543034
Length: 212 pages
Format: paperback

Review: THE DRY by Jane Harper

TheDryHarperAudioJane Harper’s THE DRY is well named. The drought-ridden, stiflingly-hot town of Kiewarra and its surrounding farmland dominate the book. Remote. A small population; always someone you know nearby which can be a blessing and a curse. And the weather. Always the weather. Refusing, almost with intent, to give even a hint of relief from heat and dryness and failing to provide the sustenance needed for the farming everyone relies on for their livelihoods. Their lives.

The story opens with an all-too imaginable scene of an apparent murder-suicide of a farming family in this inhospitable place. All dead except for baby Charlotte

First on the scene, the flies swarmed contentedly in the heat as the blood pooled black over tiles and carpet. Outside, washing hung still on the rotary line, bone dry and stiff from the sun. A child’s scooter lay abandoned on the stepping stone path. Just one human heart beat within a kilometre radius of the farm.

We are drawn into the story of this place via Aaron Falk. Kiewarra has dominated his life too. He was born there but left as a teenager. Forced out. Literally. After one of his friends had died. Officially she committed suicide but many locals think Aaron played a role in her death. Only something as dramatic as his best friend Luke Hadler’s funeral brings him back 20 years later, after he’s made a life for himself as a Federal police officer in Melbourne. Well that and a veiled threat. Still Aaron plans to be in and out of town pretty quickly but Luke’s parents have other ideas. They don’t believe their son killed his wife, their son and himself. They want Aaron to prove it. Need him to prove it.

A lot of crime novels rely on abnormalities to keep readers’ attention. Serial killers with macabre fantasies. Impossibly convoluted crimes. Implausibly brilliant and/or quirky detectives. THE DRY has none of that. Even that horrendous weather is par for the course in the driest continent on the planet. Yet even without gimmicks and quirks, the story is completely gripping. There is such a palpable sense of the hidden here. Some people’s secrets are innocuous – merely an attempt to wrestle some privacy from life in the fish bowl that small town living can be. Others are embarrassing. Others are truly awful. Criminal. Harper does a brilliant job of keeping us guessing about which is which right through the novel.

THE DRY is a very modern tale of Australian life that happens to have a crime or two in it. There’s no criminal mastermind at work. Just ordinary people reacting to what they experience. What they think they know. Aaron feeling unable to walk away, wanting to know the truth about his old friend Luke. Once and for all. Luke’s parents wanting to feel like they can look people they’ve known all their lives in the eye again. The local policeman wondering if the murder suicide is really staged or does he just want it to be something unusual. Random locals believing the version of that long ago death that has become folklore. Amidst the powerful backdrop of place these people’s stories could get swamped but Harper brings them all vividly and realistically to life and makes the reader desperate to know what has brought each of them to the point at which we’ve met them.

It would be more remarkable that this is a debut novel – because it is about as flawless as they come – except that Harper is a long-time journalist. So storytelling is clearly not new for her. Even so, whatever she produces next will have a lot to live up to. I for one can’t wait.

My experience of this truly excellent book was further enhanced via a fabulous narration of the audio version by local voice artist Steve Shanahan. His voice changes for different characters are perfect, his cadence and pacing are natural and he seems to be enjoying the story himself (this is not always the case). 


AWW2016This is the 11th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth 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: This edition Wavesound Audio (original edition Pan Macmillan) [2012]
Narrator: Steve Shanahan
ASIN: B01GSHH17S
Length: 9 hours 37 minutes
Format: audio book

Review: THE BANK MANAGER by Roger Monk

TheBankManagerMonkFollowing the adventures depicted in this novel’s predecessor Detective Sergeant Brian Shaw is assigned to provide an on site detective presence for the Yorke Peninsula, north west of Adelaide. The year is 1950 and until this time all police detectives have been based in Adelaide which proves expensive and wastes time when investigations requiring their expertise happen outside the city. Brian Shaw, and his personally selected offsider Senior Constable Harry Fetter, are to act as a sort of pilot program for the notion of having detectives based in key locations all around South Australia. Anyone could be forgiven for thinking the two policemen ensured their program’s success via some kind of personal intervention when the normally uneventful (fictional) town of Midway sees high drama the same week that the Adelaide policemen arrive. The manager of one of the town’s two banks disappears one Tuesday afternoon, failing to return from his regularly scheduled visit to an outlying town to provide banking agency services. Frank Anderson is well liked and respected; a happily married man. His family, the town residents and the police are baffled to explain the reason for his disappearance let alone the manner.

As with THE BANK INSPECTOR  the book has an authentic historical feeling to it. Monk has depicted the pace and lifestyle typical of such places with affection, obviously using his own experiences as a country banker to draw on. There’s no big city sneering at country bumpkins here; if anything the slower pace and inter-connected nature of the town’s residents are highlighted as positive attributes of country living. The difficulties that Shaw and Fetter encounter in uncovering what has happened to Frank Anderson really highlight how policing has changed with the advent of technology. About all Brian Shaw can rely on is shoe leather, the town grapevine and his own wits.

Perhaps the pace at which the story unfolds would be a little slow for some readers but I enjoyed the way the book offered a real sense of the time it must have taken for such investigations to unfold. And there is a lot else to enjoy in the book as we meet all the town’s residents, several of whom attempt to ensnare Brian Shaw as an eligible bachelor for their unmarried daughters, and often provide humorous elements to proceedings.

I found the characterisations here stronger than in the first novel. Brian is more well fleshed out we seem to spend more time learning his inner thoughts. His sense of nervousness and excitement at being given such an opportunity is palpable, as is his excitement over a growing love interest (I’m not letting on whether it’s one of the town’s daughters or not). Among the other well-drawn characters my favourite is Miss Iris Wearing: the last surviving member of a wealthy family. She can be haughty, even rude, but reveals both softness and nerves of steel to Brian Shaw in some very engaging passages.

I can thoroughly recommend THE BANK MANAGER to fans of historical crime fiction, especially those who prefer plot and character to guns and blood. There are deaths in the book but minimal depictions of violence, even the kind that happens after death in the form of autopsies and the other grim realities more modern settings seem to demand these days.


Publisher: Horizon Publishing Group [2016]
ISBN: 9781922238573
Length: 335 pages
Format: paperback

Review: COMFORT ZONE by Lindsay Tanner

ComfortZoneTannerThese days I can count on one hand the number of politicians of any political persuasion I admire but former federal Finance Minister and ALP stalwart Lindsay Tanner makes the cut. Which explains why I was prompted to select his first foray into fiction writing for my book club to read this month. Something I now feel the urge to apologise for. I thought I didn’t have any expectations of the book because I didn’t know anything of the story before selecting it but realise now I had expectations of Tanner. He was a thoughtful politician and has demonstrated a capacity for nuanced communication of difficult issues in his public life and I anticipated that skill would be evident in his fiction writing. Alas…

Set in Melbourne with much of the action taking place within the boundaries of the inner city electorate Tanner served for seven years, COMFORT ZONE is primarily the story of Jack Van Duyn. Jack is a loser. If you forget for a moment that Jack is a loser you will be reminded. Either he will say it himself, someone will say it of him or his many failings will be repeated. I ran out of sticky notes in identifying all the times the book mentions Jack’s schmuck status but here are a few

Jack Van Duyn didn’t exactly cut an impressive figure. He was quite tall, but a gently protruding potbelly was accentuated by Australia’s least imposing set of shoulders.

and

Underneath Jack’s crusty exterior lay a dank, stagnant pool of loneliness that was slowly consuming him.

and

Jack’s world was full of pessimism, low expectations and failure. Missing out was normal. People like him were always at the end of the queue.

I won’t bore you with the dozens more similar quotes I could include. I know I was meant to be enchanted by the fact that over the course of the book Jack confounds his loser status by behaving against type but this transformation would have been a lot more intriguing if any level of subtlety had been applied to it.

Jack is a cabbie. One day as he is about to pick up a fare he notices two young African boys being assaulted by young men. On his own Jack would probably have done nothing but his would-be-passenger urges Jack to join him in rescuing the boys. The situation is resolved between our two heroes and a couple of police constables and that should have been the end of it. But Jack becomes smitten with the boys’ mother, single Somali mum Farhia Mohammed, and when he finds a book Farhia must have dropped seizes the opportunity to reconnect with her. Jack subsequently becomes involved in his passenger’s botched drug deal, a fight within the Somali community and soon has both ASIO and mysterious drug kingpins on his tail.

Alas that summary makes the story sound more interesting than it actually was. Although it’s a quick and short read at 240 pages it doesn’t reach any dramatic or comedic heights, is entirely predictable and almost entirely unbelievable. That wouldn’t have mattered quite so much if the attendant social commentary had been engaging but that too was laid on with an over-sized trowel rather than the artist’s brush I might have hoped for. To save you the trouble of finding our for yourself what it boils down to is this: people, even people who are different from us, are generally OK if you take the time to get to know them.

Groan.

I was going to say that if COMFORT ZONE had been written by someone else my reaction to it might have been different as I wouldn’t have had prior expectations of its author. But I am pretty confident the book would never have been published without ‘former federal government minister’ attached to the author’s name. So I think I was justified in having an expectation that the book would use Tanner’s relatively rare experiences to offer genuine insight into the complexities of modern inner city life rather than the thinly veiled lament about Green voters spoiling a once wondrous place (for non Australians following along Tanner’s former seat has been in the hands of the Australian Greens since 2010). When combined with overly stereotypical characterisations and some truly clunky dialogue I really could give a one word review: disappointing.

It seems my co-host here at Fair Dinkum Crime and fellow book club member liked the book more than I did so perhaps I won’t have to grovel too much about my choice

Publisher: Scribe [2016]
ISBN: 9781925321029
Length: 240 pages
Format: paperback

Review: AN ISOLATED INCIDENT by Emily Maguire

AnIsolatedIncidentMaguireIf I tell you AN ISOLATED INCIDENT is about the death of a beautiful young, female aged care worker in a small country town you’ll think you know at least a little about where the book will go. But you don’t. the book subverts just about every stereotype and trope of the genre. Brilliantly.

What I found most noticeable about AN ISOLATED INCIDENT is what isn’t there.

Firstly the killer is not present at all in this book. I’m not talking about whether the identity of the killer is or isn’t revealed but the book is not about that person. That bloke (because let’s be frank when a young woman is brutally murdered the odds are astronomically high that her killer will be male) doesn’t get italicised passages from his point of view or consideration of his motivations. Or Excuses. The why of the crime is present only in the subtext: men kill women, all too bloody frequently, because they can.

Another traditional element missing from the book is the police perspective. Of course there are police officers and various plot points in which one or more of them is central but we do not spend any time seeing things from their point of view and we do not know if any of them are haunted by the death and the subsequent investigation. This is not their story either.

In a way the book isn’t even about Bella Michaels – the young woman who has been murdered.

Instead the book is about the aftermath of her death, primarily about the people who are affected by it. The most important of these people is Bella’s older sister Chris who experiences an almost unsurvivable grief. Not ‘just’ the grief that comes with a loved one dying horrifically and much, much too early. But the dual complications that come with the knowledge that someone caused that death and is still going about their lives and that because Bella’s death is so public other people – most of whom didn’t even know Bella – feel some kind of ownership of her. And her death. Chris’ descent into a form of madness as she grasps the enormity of her new reality is one of the most compelling characterisations I have ever read. As a divorced barmaid and amateur prostitute Chris is an atypical heroine but I defy even the most uncharitable of readers not to feel entirely sympathetic towards her.

One of the people who never knew Bella but who is affected by her death is May Norman. Suffering an ignoble relationship breakup she heads to the fictional town of Strathdee – ostensibly half-way between Sydney and Melbourne – to put some distance between herself and her lover as well as to take on her first big crime reporting assignment. It’s what she’s always wanted. Isn’t it? Initially May is a typically dogged yet somewhat insensitive journalist but finds herself increasingly invested in ensuring that the truth of Bella’s life and the impact of her death on those who loved her is meaningfully presented to the world.

Maguire lets Chris narrate most of this story, honestly and directly (she is even allowed to break the literary equivalent of the fourth wall occasionally) which helps the reader to develop a real understanding of all that Chris is going through. Though there is humour too as evidenced by Chris’ physical description of her sister

Bella was, if I’m being honest, Strathdee-pretty. I was always telling her she could be a model if she wanted, and I still think that was true, but it’d modelling in the Kmart catalogue not Vogue or anything. I’m not putting her down. Like I said, she was the most beautiful thing anyone around here had ever seen in the flesh, but she was five foot nothing in high heels and had a size 10 arse on a size 6 body.

But it is through Chris’ response to the public appropriation of Bella’s death that we start to really see how the situation is impacting on Chris. When there is a ‘march for Bella’ in Sydney – some six hours drive away from where she lived and died – Chris is angry

…Look, for the record I believe they were sad and scared. But that march was about them, for them. That’s fine. Whatever gets you through this life. But they shouldn’t have pretended it was for Bella. How could it have been? They had no memories of her to celebrate, no way of just what it was the world lost when she died. And the coverage that thing got, well, it made people – all the goddam compassionate, sad people out there – feel like something had been done, some kind of justice. It made a lot of those nice ladies and men marching through Sydney feel better about what had happened and that was the opposite of what was needed. We needed rage and heartbreak, we needed the whole country to be unable to sleep, to eat, to move on with their lives until the men who did this were found. Instead we got warm feelings about community and sweet quotes about paying tribute. They got peace and we – Bella and me – got jack-fucking-shit.

There is more. Much more about the way in which these kinds of deaths are reported by the media and picked over by the rest of us.

Another subversion of the genre is in the book’s approach to violence. We know Bella’s death was violent but whatever brutalities she endured are not recounted. Chris knows what they are – they infuse her thoughts – but she doesn’t pass them on. And even when she looks at leaked photographs of Bella’s body posted online we don’t learn the details from May either. Chris knows it’s what people want – details and the gorier the better – but Maguire is determined we won’t have them.

I’ve only scratched the surface of AN ISOLATED INCIDENT both in this review and in my own thinking. I suppose that is as it should be given the book subverts just about every aspect of the crime genre while forcing readers to consider their own responses to real world incidents of the type it depicts. Being confronted in this way should not be easily forgotten. So if you like your reading thought-provoking and don’t mind keeping company with fictional people long after you’ve closed the back cover of their stories then I highly recommend AN ISOLATED INCIDENT.


AWW2016This is the 8th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challange check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Pan Macmillan [2016]
ISBN: 9781743538579
Length: 343 pages
Format: paperback

Review: RUNNING AGAINST THE TIDE by Amanda Ortlepp

RunningAgainstTheTiedOrtleppAlthough set in a fictitious town Amanda Ortlepp’s RUNNING AGAINST THE TIDE takes place in a very recognisable rural South Australia. The small Eyre Peninsula town of Mallee Bay is dominated by the oyster farming industry, local tourism and a sense of community (or the horror of everyone knowing everyone else’s business if you’re reading the book with my a city person’s eyes). Remembering the place fondly from her childhood holidays Erin Travers relocates there with her sons Mike and Ryan when her Sydney life collapses. Mike soon has a job with a neighbour’s oyster farming business and Erin starts to set down new roots with a win in the local art competition and a love interest but youngest son Ryan struggles to fit in at all. When increasingly worrying things start to go wrong for the Travers’ and others in the town suspicions fall easily. But not everybody is what they seem to be.

I am a city girl through and through and would need motivation along the lines of an impending annihilation of all large metropolises to force a move to somewhere as remote as Mallee Bay so could easily have found this book a struggle. Instead though I was quite intrigued by Erin’s story and the way Ortlepp tells it. What went wrong with her marriage? Why take the boys so far from their father? How much does everyone in her life know about all this? Does the town’s resident Lothario have sinister intent with respect to Erin? Is she seeing dead people? And what about the boys? Is each as he appears is one or other of them hiding secrets? Ortlepp does a great job of making the reader question or suspect everything and everyone in the tradition of the best suspense novels.

The setting is an evocative and authentic one. I spent my share of childhood holidays in a town called Coffin Bay which is on the same peninsula as Ortlepp’s fictional creation and I recognised many of the qualities she depicts. We get a sense of the town’s geography, including its heavy reliance on the sea for what it contributes to the local economy, and the people who make up the community. There are several nicely drawn characters who collectively remind us all that we should not rush to judgement based on first impressions. Of course this is in part to keep readers guessing about who to trust but there’s some natural and engaging character development too.

Strictly speaking RUNNING AGAINST THE TIDE is a suspense novel rather than pure crime fiction but it is very readable and does set the heart beating quickly when things get dangerous for multiple characters. I always know I am completely hooked when I have an internal struggle between wanting to read to the end yet wanting to put the book down in case something horrid happens to someone I have come to care about. I suppose it’s the literary equivalent of watching a thrilling movie with your hands partly covering your eyes and it’s a great feeling.


AWW2016This is the 7th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Simon & Schuster [2016]
ISBN: 9781925030631
Length: 359 pages
Format: paperback

Review: ALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS by Aoife Clifford

AllThesePerfectStrangers27050_fALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS is Pen Shepherd’s story. Or stories. She’s the ultimate in unreliable narrators is Pen and so the narrative has an appropriately elastic relationship with truthiness. Pen is young – 18 or 19 for the main narrative – and is primarily telling the stories of the deaths which occurred during her first few months as a law student. Pen is only able to attend the University because she is a survivor (of what we don’t know at the outset) and secured a scholarship based at least in part on having survived whatever it is. She tells that story too eventually. If that is not enough mystery for you we don’t even know where in Australia Pen is – she comes from ‘a small town’ and goes to University in ‘a city’.

I struggled to really engage with this book. I very much wanted to but couldn’t. Part of the problem was one of it failing to manage my expectations. Within the first half-dozen pages I was told that Pen has led a dramatic life, especially for one so young. The fact (if not the details) of a home town mystery that has made everyone hate her and multiple deaths at university are all announced up front, demanding attention. So I wanted to start learning about these events straight away. I did not want to have small details parceled out to me as you might lollies to a toddler. Especially as the parceling out came amidst a swag of ‘young people getting drunk and being horrible to each other’ narrative that, frankly, bored me. This is the part that I’m prepared to accept is my problem: the drunken, self-absorbed goings-on of teens didn’t interest me when I was 19 myself and it holds even less appeal 30 years later. I am too old for this book?

I think perhaps other people appreciate the use of unreliable narrators more than I do too. The issue is not that I didn’t like Pen (though I didn’t) but that I had no investment in her and she is the book. Whether she turned out to be a killer or a victim, whether she lived or died. whether she lied or told the truth, whether she was found out or got away with whatever it was she had done…I couldn’t seem to care. Mostly because I didn’t feel like we got much of a glimpse into why Pen was the way she was. There are hints that there is something dark and traumatic in her background – even before the thing that occurred in her home town that made everybody hate her – but these aren’t fleshed out in any meaningful way. Without something to explain Pen’s actions and behaviour she’s just…not interesting.

I can appreciate that the writing is good and Clifford has pulled together a complicated structure that mixes the present and past with genuine skill that many authors with far more output under their belts would be jealous of. But a book that chooses the first person voice and an unreliable one at that has to ensure that voice connects with the reader in some way and that just didn’t happen for me on this occasion. I am, as is often the case, a minority voice and you are sure to find plenty of rave reviews like this one if you are keen to find a different opinion about this debut novel.


AWW2016This is the 6th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Simon & Schuster [2016]
ISBN: 9781925310726
Length: 392 pages
Format: paperback

Review: DEATH OF A SWAGMAN by Arthur Upfield

If my future self had been able to travel back in time and tell twenty-something Bernadette that I/she would one day fall back on Arthur Upfield as a reliably decent read I/she would have laughed in my/her face. I used to pontificate – as only a twenty-something who believes they’re the first to uncover the political and social inadequacies of earlier generations can do – that Upfield’s work should be consigned to history for its confrontingly wrong-headed depictions of race relations in Australia. But as a regular participant in the Crimes of the Century challenge, which requires the reading of a book published in the nominated year, I’ve had a rough couple of months (with my inaugural and lacklustre reading of a Dorothy L Sayers novel then the truly, deeply awful I, THE JURY by Mickey Spillane) and this month I wanted to at least enjoy the story. Older (much, much older) Bernadette has discovered that not everything is as black and white as my/her younger self believed and that Upfield still has something to offer. Further, in the context of wondering when we will ever get our indigenous relations up to scratch, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded how far we have come.

DeathOfASwagmanAudioAnd so my 1945 book is DEATH OF A SWAGMAN: Upfield’s ninth novel to feature half Aboriginal, half European police inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte. In this installment Bony has inveigled himself into the investigation of a death in rural New South Wales after having recognised a possible clue in a photo of the death scene. It is nearly two months since the stockman, George Kendall, was found dead but even so Bony slides into the case in a sideways move rather than hurrying to sort things out. He arrives in town with no fanfare and in something of a disguise so that he can get himself arrested and have an excuse to stay in town to question and observe the locals without them being wary of his official, and somewhat famous, status.

As always, Upfield depicts his chosen setting with rich imagery. On this occasion we travel to a small town in the south west part of New South Wales where the most notable natural feature is the nearby Walls of China, ancient, wind-formed sand dunes that stand out due to both their age and height in the otherwise flat landscape. The place where the body was discovered is described forcefully

…the hut faced toward the east across three miles of open country falling gently to the foot of the Walls of China. Here and there were giant red claypans, hard as cement and separated by narrow ridges of loose sand. Old man saltbush were scattered about the scene, and widely spaced water gutters, now dry, zigzagged slightly to the northeast to join a dry creek bordered by box trees.

Even if I hadn’t been there on what seemed like a fairly dull school trip (there’s young Bernadette getting it wrong again) I would be able to picture the place.

Less usually this book also has some quite deep character development and displays a lot less of the casual bigotry towards Bony than is standard for the series. Whether they know him to be a policeman or believe him to be a vaguely shady stockman (having been arrested after all) Bony is treated with warmth by most of the townsfolk. Of course that’s as it should be but this is 1945 and it isn’t always the case for Bony. Just as he is accepted by the townsfolk he quickly grows to like them too, especially the young daughter of the town’s police Sergeant. Rose Marie is a clever and engaging little girl and her conversations with Bony are a highlight of the novel.

The story is more standard for the series in that it relies heavily on Bony’s skills as a bush tracker as well as his deductive reasoning to move things along. It starts out fairly slowly but its ending is dramatic as the novel’s cutest character is in peril which worries Bony and the reader in equal measure. The resolution is well enough reasoned but is nothing short of peculiar, at least with respect to the motive it supplies for the killer, and I think falls into the “each whodunit has to have a more bizarre puzzle than the last” trap.

One of the things that identifies DEATH OF A SWAGMAN as belonging at least to a different era if not the actual year 1945 is the amount of smoking that takes place. Eh gads it’s continuous!. But one thing I noticed by its absence was any discussion of the war. If there were any returned soldiers or war widows or elements of that nature mention must have been rapid because they entirely passed me by which does strike me as unusual for a book published in 1945. Or perhaps it is only distance that has assigned that period only one significant event?

Overall though I found this a thoroughly entertaining read and I’d recommend it as a great introduction to the Bony series if you’ve never tried it before. If you happen to be a fan of audio books the narration by local actor Peter Hosking is a delight: really bringing to life Upfield’s authentic contemporary dialogue.


Publisher: Bolinda audio 2009 [originally published in the US 1945, UK 1946 and Australia 1947]
ASIN: B002UZNIAW
Length: 7 hours, 24 minutes
Format: audio book (mP3)