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.


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


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.


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


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]
Length: 7 hours, 24 minutes
Format: audio book (mP3)

Review: MURDER IN MT MARTHA by Janice Simpson

MurderInMtMarthaSimpsonMURDER IN MT MARTHA engagingly blurs the line between crime fact and crime fiction. Taking as its source material the still unsolved 1953 murder of teenager Shirley Collins, the book weaves a compelling “what if…” scenario. Simpson is not claiming to have solved the case here and has taken pains to change names and otherwise make it clear that her story is a fictional one, but using some details of the real case and other contemporary snippets gives the book a realistic feel.

The story unfolds in two parallel threads. In 1953 we meet the murderer just after he has committed his crime and is in the process of covering it up. Over the course of the novel we learn more about his exploits as well as finding out what happens to him in later life. In the present day we meet Arthur Boyle, an elderly man who is sharing his life history with Nick Szabo, a young student, for an oral history project. His reflections on his life include remembering the shocking murder of a teenage girl at Mt Martha, a crime which was so unusual then as to warrant months of coverage in the press and much speculation in the community. Together Nick and Arthur uncover his family connection to the murder.

I’m normally wary of narratives told from the killer’s point of view but this one does not glamourise or sensationalise the man or his repulsive deeds. It doesn’t even try to justify them, merely offer an account – a very believable account – of how and why he did the things he did. The modern day thread is good too, though for me slightly less engaging due to its reliance on a string of coincidences. Some parts of this element of the story felt a little too forced to me, as if the author was setting us up for future installments of a series featuring Nick Szabo though I have no idea if this is actually Simpson’s plan or not. I just felt like we were getting a lot of character elements that could only really be teased out in further books. But Nick is an interesting character and it’s hard not to like a young man who loves his grandmother so openly and affectionately.

MURDER IN MT MARTHA  is a terrific debut novel; engaging in its own right and full of promise of good things to come from Janice Simpson, whether in the same series or not. It straddles the line between true crime and crime fiction with great aplomb and will satisfy fans of both.

AWW2016This is the fifth 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: Hybrid Publishers [2016]
ISBN: 9781925272161
Length: 293 pages
Format: paperback

Review: SWEET ONE by Peter Docker

SweetOnePeterDocker23590_fTruth is not only stranger than fiction; it can be infinitely sadder too. The event depicted in this novel’s opening pages – in which an elderly Aboriginal man is cooked to death in the cargo hold of van while being transferred from one Western Australian town to another in police custody – is gruesome enough in the context of a work of fiction. But knowing that it is based on a real life – and death – experience that occurred in the very recent past makes the book a lot more visceral.

In the real world this incident resulted in official enquiries (because one is never enough) and a whole lot of people being shocked for a few moments before getting on with their lives. Helpless to know what to do even if they wanted to do something. Same as it ever was. In Docker’s thinly disguised version of Australia (Kalgoorlie is Baalboorlie for example) the incident results in a kind of civil war. Or what we would call a civil war if it was happening in some conveniently faraway place across an ocean or two. But one of the stories Australians like to tell about ourselves is that we don’t do that kind of thing here. We’re too laid back. We’d rather have a beer together than fight. We do mateship not war. There are entire school syllabuses devoted to this notion.

But in Docker’s Australia an Aboriginal man – an ex soldier just like the man who died in the van – starts taking revenge on the people responsible for the man’s horrendous death. Not just the two who drove the van but all the people who played a role in enabling the death. The one who thought it reasonable to imprison (rather than bail) a man just for being officially drunk. The one who decided not to get the air conditioning of the transport van fixed. And so on. He is joined by another former soldier, engaged in his own crusade, and they are aided by local Aboriginal people.

Trying to make sense of all this as it unfolds is a young female journalist. Izzy-from-the-Star as one of the locals calls her. She has been an embedded journalist in Afghanistan and wrote about another Aboriginal death at the hands of police in Palm Island. But as SWEET ONE unfolds the lines between reporting and participating blur for Izzy as she comes to know the locals and learn of her personal connection to them.

As one of the city-living, latte sipping southerners that various characters take pot-shots at throughout the SWEET ONE, I cannot really comment on this book’s authenticity with respect to the events it describes. Although they are taking place in the state next to mine they could just as easily be on Mars for all I know of the world being depicted. But I can attest to the sense of helplessness that underpins it. We’ve Brought Them Home, and Closed The Gap and said sorry and  had more than one Royal Commission into some aspect of Indigenous life – and death. And still we can bake an Aboriginal man to death in the back of a van in the name of law and order. In the 21st century.

Unlike all the official reports that governments have been issuing for decades – earnest and well-meaning though they may be – SWEET ONE grabs the reader’s attention on page one and doesn’t let up until the final word. Not just via the mounting body count (though it is constant and violent) but also in conveying how grim the situation is. For everyone. Black and white. Young and old. Male and Female. Police and civilian. It is (pardon my language) a fucking mess.

As well as telling a helluva yarn Docker writes beautifully. It’s almost like poetry at times. But not your grandmother’s poetry. Imagine the poetry that Mel Gibson’s character from the first Mad Max movie might have written between road races. Sharp and quick and brutal. And gorgeous.

It seems odd to say I loved this book but I did. Despite the fact it is confronting as all hell and does nothing to improve my sense of helplessness and guilt. But I have to believe that things can get better if we tell real stories about ourselves.Or at least I know things won’t get better unless we do tell real stories about ourselves. Even if it hurts. Like all great art SWEET ONE entertains, even nourishes in its way. But it also informs and makes you think. And squirm. As it should.

Publisher: Fremantle Press [2014]
ISBN: 9781922089755
Length: 316 pages
Format: paperback

Review: GHOST GIRLS by Cath Ferla

GhostGirlsFerlaGHOST GIRLS is not a novel to read on an empty stomach. Its forays into the Asian restaurants and noodle bars of Sydney – their tastes and smells all evocatively described – will have your mouth-watering too much to concentrate. That’s the upside of the book’s authentic sensibility. The downside of that realism is that the reader can’t pretend the novel’s depiction of abused and exploited foreign students isn’t something going on right under our noses.My office is in the midst of several campuses teeming with foreign students and the best restaurants nearby are those which serve this clientele so as soon as I’d started reading GHOST GIRLS I couldn’t help but look at these kids (I’m old, to me they are all kids) with the worry that something like the book’s events could be happening to some of them.

Our journey into the world is via Sophie Sandilands: a young teacher of English to foreign students. She is the daughter of an Australian PI, now dead, and his Chinese wife who disappeared without trace many years ago. And that isn’t the only tragedy in Sophie’s background. So when one of her students commits suicide and some students are revealed not to be who they purport to be Sophie feels obligated to find out more.

What she uncovers is horrific. Not so much in a bloody way (though there is a little of that) but more in a “this kind of stuff could be going on next door and I wouldn’t know about it” way. Many of the students are under pressure from home to perform at almost impossible levels yet they struggle to make enough to live on doing the kinds of jobs available to them. Some of them make unwise if more lucrative choices and some have even that – the choice – taken out of their hands. It is confronting and heart-breaking all at the same time.

Sophie is a nuanced character who I enjoyed getting to know – not least because her love for good food and nice tea offered some much needed relief from the necessarily sombre narrative. She is tenacious and caring and if she sometimes does things that put her in jeopardy her reasoning is always sound within the context of her personal story. Other characters are equally well drawn, though not all are as delightful. The people who exploit the students only do so because of demand. And the man who represents that demand here – a middle-aged husband and father to a young girl who all-too slowly comes to realise the kind of ripple effect his base desires have – is awkwardly credible too. Perhaps because I’d already started looking at the students I see every day with fresh eyes I couldn’t help but also look at the men around me with the same new awareness. Which of you is like him?

As with all the best crime fiction GHOST GIRLS is first a ripping yarn and its exploration of modern life does nothing to undermine that. It’s lack of easy answers to the complex issues it explores is fitting: there aren’t easy answers to be had. I am impressed that this is a debut novel for Cath Ferla – it seems too assured both thematically and stylistically for that – and can’t wait to see what she delivers next.

AWW2016This is the fourth 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: Echo [2016]
ISBN: 9781760401177
Length: 280 pages
Format: paperback

Review: DEADLY DIPLOMACY by Jean Harrod

DeadlyDiplomacyHarrodWhere she has followed the dictum to ‘write what you know’ Harrod’s efforts in DEADLY DIPLOMACY are successful. Her many years in the diplomatic service lends authenticity to the book’s depiction of British diplomat Jessica Turner’s efforts to support the sister of a British women who is murdered in Queensland. The victim was involved with a Very Important international trade deal so as well as trying to alleviate the fears of the victim’s paranoid sister Turner must liaise with harried local police and juggle strained high level relationships between private and public organisations. When allegations of corruption and the death of a Federal politician form part of this narrative’s mix, things really do get interesting for Turner and, by extension, the reader.

Other elements of the novel were, for me, less successful. The most significant of these was the high body count and violence which turned what could have been a thoughtful story into a bloodbath of the type that doesn’t interest me terribly much. I was surprised to see the Sydney Morning Herald describe the book as a ‘light mystery’ given the number of brutal killings, including a completely pointless (story wise) graphic murder of a teenage girl. The fact that these crimes are being committed by one of the ‘crazed chap who loves killing‘ type of characters makes it worse for me. I accept that nature (or nurture?) throws up one of these nutters every now and then in the real world but not nearly as often as this kind of thriller would have me believe. And regardless of their epidemiological likelihood they are boring. A person who kills because he (or she) likes to kill offers little of interest to a reader looking for character development and motivation.

The writing itself is also awkward at times. This is a plot driven book with lots of dialogue to move things along and quite a bit of that dialogue doesn’t ring true. It’s fair enough that Jessica Tuner and the victim’s sister – both English women who have only been in Australia a short time – are not attuned to local speech patterns and terminology but the rest of the characters are meant to be locals. I can’t imagine too many Australians wouldn’t twig early on that this is a book written by an outsider (and one with a different take on social class than most Aussies) but I suppose no one else will know or care. I see that the author’s second book takes Jessica Turner to a different setting and I imagine I won’t know enough about that place to be able to tell if the dialogue is equally out of place so perhaps this really doesn’t matter much in the big scheme of things.

The story itself rips along and engages the reader in wanting to learn the reasons for its events and whether or not the victim’s diary will reveal enough secrets to warrant the killing spree its existence has caused. With the violence level dialed down a couple of notches I could easily be persuaded to check back with Jessica Turner and the world of international diplomacy which does seem like fertile ground for great yarns.

Publisher: York Authors Coffee Shop [2015]
ISBN: 9780992997137
Length: 329 pages
Format: paperback
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Review: THE LOST SWIMMER by Ann Turner

TheLostSwimmerAnnTurner24087_fTo me THE LOST SWIMMER reads like a book written by a committee. At least that’s the only way I can think of to describe its disjointedness and almost schizophrenic sensibility.

The biggest issue of this kind is what kind of book it is. I’m not normally one to get hung up on labels (in fact I’ve been known to lament their restrictiveness) but someone – I’m not sure if it’s the publishers or author or someone else in the chain – has gone to some lengths to market this book as literary. The word appears in publicity material – both with and without the word thriller attached – and there are even a series of book club questions in the edition I read (which, I’m afraid, I always find insufferably patronising). Not only does this over-emphasis give the impression that someone thinks literary fiction is intrinsically better than the popular kind (another sentiment guaranteed to get my hackles rising), but it draws attention to the fact that the book doesn’t fit any definition of literary fiction I can think of. It’s at least as much plot driven as it is focused on exploring any particular theme, it does not demonstrate much in the way of social commentary (insightful or otherwise) nor are its characters terribly well developed. It’s protagonist – an Australian archaeological professor called Rebecca Wilding – is not noticeably more complex than the average human and the rest of the characters are entirely one-dimensional. Some of the descriptive passages provide good imagery but I suspect that owes more to the author’s screen-writing credentials than any literary sensibility the book has in its own right.

But the book isn’t what I’d call a thriller either. There is a lot of stuff happening all the way along but most of it isn’t very suspenseful and much of it is simply odd. For example there’s a whole passage involving an altercation between Rebecca, her dog and a kangaroo that I’m sure was meant to be metaphorical (confirmed by the inclusion of this passage in one of the book club questions) but just felt way too contrived to me. The book’s major dramatic event doesn’t happen until about two thirds of the way through, which wouldn’t have mattered except that the publicity made such a big deal of it that I was waiting for it from the outset. Impatiently. Until that point there is just a lot of white noise. The university where Rebecca and her husband both work is going through hard financial times and both their faculties are having to radically cut costs and sack people. Then Rebecca is accused of financial fraud. At the same time she begins (for no reason that I can actually pinpoint) to suspect her husband of having an affair. After the big event the book is more squarely thriller-like, though there are a lot of implausible coincidences crammed into the last third of the book in order to bring about a resolution.

Another aspect of the book I struggled with is Rebecca herself. On the one hand she is head of a university department an expert on a particular archaeological period and has a good reputation amongst her colleagues. In short she is fairly ‘together’ and competent. She rather suddenly develops a kind of paranoia – about her husband’s potential affair and the activities of her boss – but there’s no consistency to her thinking or behaviour. I’m not troubled by whether or not her fears have validity – that’s a legitimate question for the narrative to answer – but Rebecca just doesn’t seem to me to be a recognisable person from the beginning of the book to the end. In one chapter she behaves one way. In the next another that doesn’t gel with what went before. One moment she’s wondering which of the women in his life Stephen is having an affair with and being surprised to learn he has started investing in the stock market after they’d agreed he never would. The next she is asking her friends to ‘give her some credit for knowing her husband’. I suppose this could all be put down to Rebecca’s status as a first-person narrator – often unreliable beasts – but to me it just tell as if each version of her had been written by someone different.

THE LOST SWIMMER was the most reviewed crime novel for last year’s Australian Women Writers challenge so I was keen to read it but found myself disappointed. I concede that’s partly to do with the expectations that the publicity and popularity inevitably set but that’s not the whole story. I think the book tried too hard to be something it isn’t and in so doing failed to be what it ought to have been. In reaching for but not achieving literary status it neglected the foundations of a good suspense novel; taking too long to build up its drama and being too obvious in its plotting (I lost count of how many times I muttered ‘show don’t tell’ under my breath as I was reading). It did keep me reading to the end but, if I’m to be totally honest, more so I could sit back in smug satisfaction at having predicted the main plot points than because I was genuinely interested in what happened to Rebecca or her husband.

As is always the case other opinions are available and many of them are more positive about this book than I feel, including my fellow Fair Dinkum co host who reviewed the book in April last year

AWW2016This is the second 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: Simon & Schuster [2015]
ISBN: 9781925030860
Length: 341 pages
Format: paperback
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