Review: WIN, LOSE OR DRAW, Peter Corris

  • published January 2017, Allen & Unwin Australia
  • #42 in the Cliff Hardy series
  • source: my local library
  • format: e-pub
  • ISBN:
    9781760294786

 Synopsis (Allen & Unwin Australia)

 

A missing teenager, drugs, yachts, the sex trade and  a cold trail that leads from Sydney to Norfolk Island, Byron Bay and Coolangatta.
Can Cliff Hardy find out what’s really going on?
Will one man’s loss be Hardy’s gain? 

‘I’d read about it in the papers, heard the radio reports and seen the TV coverage and then
forgotten about it, the way you do with news stories.’

A missing girl, drugs, yachts, the sex trade and a cold trail that leads from
Sydney to Norfolk Island, Byron Bay and Coolangatta.

The police suspect the father, Gerard Fonteyn OA, a wealthy businessman. But he’s
hired Cliff to find her, given him unlimited expenses and posted a $250,000 reward for information.

Finally there’s a break – an unconfirmed sighting of Juliana Fonteyn, alive and well. But as usual, nothing is straightforward. Various other players are in the game – and Cliff doesn’t know the rules, or even what the game might be. He’s determined to find out, and as the bodies mount up the danger to himself and to Juliana increases.

My Take
When Juliana Fonteyn disappears she is an underage teenager. By the time her father hires Cliff Hardy to find her the case is already 18 months old, and other investigators have tried to find her and failed. In her father’s estimation they have largely been concerned with how much they will be paid. In Cliff Hardy he hopes he has found someone who really cares. And there is new evidence that Juliana is still alive – a photograph taken on Norfolk Island.
Even so the investigation doesn’t go smoothly and after fruitless weeks Hardy tells Gerard Fonteyn that he is giving up. And then there is yet another breakthrough.
This relatively easy read reflects the fact that the Australian author is most accomplished. This is #42 in a very popular series, although I have read very few of them before. Something I can see I should remedy in 2017.
My rating: 4.4
I’ve also read
About the author
Award winning Australian author Peter Corris has been writing his best selling Cliff Hardy detective stories for nearly 40 years. He’s written many other books, including a very successful ‘as-told-to’ autobiography of Fred Hollows, and a collection of short stories  about golf.

Review: ROMEO’S GUN by David Owen

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Review: DARKEST PLACE by Jaye Ford

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Review: THE BANK MANAGER, Roger Monk

  • first published by the Horizon Publishing Group 2016
  • ISBN 13: 978-1-922234-573
  • 337 pages
  • source: my local library
  • paperback also available from Amazon

Synopsis (Publisher)

Detective Sergeant Brian Shaw is transferred  to a country town.

Just an ordinary, average Australian country town where nothing ever happens — except blackmail, fornication, embezzlement, revenge, avarice, brutality, snobbery, rape … and murder.

Like any other ordinary, average Australian country town.

My Take

We first met DS Brian Shaw in Roger Monk’s first crime fiction book, THE BANK INSPECTOR.
I felt his character emerged rather more clearly in THE BANK MANAGER.

The year is 1950. Superintendent Matthews of  the South Australian Police Headquarters decides to try stationing detectives in different regions in the state. This will mean when a serious crime occurs a detective will not have to be sent out from Adelaide, he will already be more or less on the spot.
Brian Shaw’s boss Inspector Williams breaks the news to him that he will be reporting to the Midway police station on Yorke Peninsula as officer in charge of all detective functions.

Shaw does not have very long to settle in. The day after he arrives the manager of the Midway branch of the Great Southern Bank disappears on his way back from visiting a local agency. His car mysteriously turns up in his garage overnight but there is no sign of Frank Anderson.

I very much enjoyed this carefully plotted story. There is a good sense of South Australian country life just after World War Two, and some interesting characters.  Brian Shaw is seen by some families as an eligible bachelor, and receives a number of social invitations which gives the reader a good idea of the structure of this country town.

Unfortunately there is no sign of an e-book, but South Australians at least can easily get a copy of both titles through their local library. I look forward to the next in this series.

My rating: 4.8

I’ve also read 4.8, THE BANK INSPECTOR

Review: THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET by Jock Serong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A double dip into historical crime fiction by Aussie women

My reading mojo took a holiday in November (because this) but the books which got me back in the saddle were the latest instalments of two of my favourite series by Australian women crime writers. The present-day world, even in fictional form, proved too darned depressing lately but visiting these bygone eras evocatively brought to life was just what I needed.

adonationofmurderyoungThe 5th instalment of Felicity Young’s series set in that awkward period that isn’t quite within the Edwardian era but is before the start of WWI is A DONATION OF MURDER. Perhaps not surprisingly given that it’s 1914 and talk of war is everywhere, the book is a little darker than its predecessors. But just as good.

Here Dr Dorothy ‘Dody’ McCleland is performing a routine autopsy when her subject wakes up! Dody feels somehow responsible for the woman’s plight and takes her home for the night after she reveals that escaping a man was what led her to be picked up as a frozen dead body from the street. But, naturally enough, things are not what they seem Dody is exposed to a seamier side of London life than she’s used to. While all this is going on Dody’s lover, Chief Inspector Matthew Pike, is wrapped up in a case involving brutal burglaries and also has to worry about betrayal from within his own force.

I love the way the two lead characters of this series are developing both individually and as a couple (they are a couple even if they have to hide their relationship from many people). They are both realising that compromises have to be made if they are to be together more formally and the way they both approach this notion is well drawn as they display the conflicting feelings that compromise brings with it.

As is always the case with this series readers are introduced to an aspect of life in the era which is fascinating and troubling all at once. Here we see the operation of a criminal gang and the lack of value gang leaders place on the lives of those that work for them.

And, of course, it’s a ripper of a yarn.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

givethedevilhisdueaudioBy rights I should have discussed the 7th instalment of Sulari Gentill’s wonderful series set in 1930’s Australia when I read the print version last year. But as I didn’t do so at the time I feel it’s not breaking the rules to discuss GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE now that I’ve listened to an audio version narrated wonderfully by transplanted English actor Rupert Degas (note to publishers…you’ve done the first and last instalments as audiobooks, can I have the other five books in the series now please?)

The series hero, Rowland Sinclair, is to drive his much-loved S-Class Mercedes in a celebrity race for charity at Sydney’s Maroubra speedway (known in the book and in real life as a “killer track”) but he’s barely driven a practice lap before a journalist who interviewed him about the race is found murdered. One of Rowland’s best friends and housemates comes under suspicion of the murder so the whole gang must once again put their sleuthing skills into action.

There really is nothing I don’t love about this series – the characters, the cameos by real people from history, the humour – but I was particularly struck this time by how much history can teach us (should we choose to learn). One of the recurring themes it explores is the rise of fascism in the 1930’s and what steps can be taken by those who are fearful of it to get others to see what is so troubling. Here Rowly elects to put on an exhibition of paintings inspired by his trip to Germany and the brutality he saw and experienced there (detailed in PAVING THE NEW ROAD). This puts him at odds with his brother and many people in the community who just can’t see that things are as bad as Rowly and his friends know them to be. This element of the novel feels eerily (and sadly) relevant to what’s going on in the world today.

Rowly has a pretty rough time of it in this instalment – both physically and emotionally. There’s a truly poignant passage in which he discovers that one of his artistic heroes is anti semitic and this really puts poor Rowly in a spin but I love the way Gentill depicts this and shows his friends helping him to deal with it.

And, of course, it too is a ripper yarn.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

What both these books and the series they represent have in common is that they are terrific examples of the historical crime genre. They offer interesting insights into their respective eras, compelling storylines, really well drawn characters who have foibles alongside their nicer traits and a view of the world that is hopeful without ignoring life’s harsher realities. Read ’em both, you won’t regret it.


AWW2016I’m counting these as book 18.5 and 19.5 that I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge (one book was written by a father daughter team so I’m only counting it as a half). For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.

Review: VANISHING POINT by Pat Flower

For this month’s Crimes of the Century read I dived into little-known Australian author Pat Flower’s 1975 novel VANISHING POINT which means the book also counts towards my Australian Women Writers Challenge obligations.

vanishingpointflowerThe edition of VANISHING POINT I read was published in the 1990’s as the first of a local publisher’s series of publications aiming to breathe new life into forgotten Australian crime stories. A noble aim indeed (and many of the later instalments are wonderful reads) but I’m finding it hard to believe it set the series off with a bang. If I had to describe the book in a single word it would be languid, which doesn’t sit well with the blurb’s claims of it being a ‘claustrophobic thriller’. Claustrophobic yes; thrilling not so much.

The book’s structure appears to take shape from its author’s other life as a stage and screen writer, having three distinct acts. In the first act Sydney couple Geraldine and Noel take a driving and camping holiday to Far North Queensland with some acquaintances. The trip is not a success. In the second act the pair are back in Sydney and attempting to get life back to normal. The final act returns us all to the monotony of driving and camping in the humid north. There are less than a handful of dramatic incidents in all three acts combined. This doesn’t make the book terrible – as a portrait of one human’s madness it’s quite exquisite – but it is a bit slow and I can’t imagine it would attract a wide audience.

VANISHING POINT is less a story and more a study of Geraldine’s seriously skewed inner life. Geraldine doesn’t really do anything. She doesn’t work, she has no kids, she doesn’t belong to groups or do charity work or have any friends. At home she lies by the pool all day – not even a book in her hand – and on the camping trips she sits and stares and thinks and keeps herself as distant as possible from her travelling companions. The only thing she actively does is obsess, mostly about her husband. She wants always to be near him, if not touching him then with him. She has a jealous hatred of anyone else who spends time with him – business partner, friend, possible lover – and she smothers him. Of course she doesn’t see it as smothering but even through the lens of Geraldine’s view of the world – hardly an unbiased one – we can see that Noel is suffering. Geraldine is disdainful of almost everyone else she comes across. She can barely remember people’s names they are so insignificant. Even the numerous men she assumes to be in love with her have a sort of shimmering, semi-transparent quality to them.

In an Afterword this edition’s editors quote the author as having said

…Why murder? I’m absorbed in character, not in murder. In ordinary people a bit round the bend. I like to follow the effects on my characters of heredity, environment and circumstance, and reveal in action, reaction and interaction the instability which might in real life go unnoticed but in my books is fatal. For my crackpots murder is the only way out.

And in VANISHING POINT she does exactly this. Well almost. I’d have liked to know a little more about Geraldine’s past…to glean some more about why her psyche was so damaged. There is a hint of it (don’t blink, you’ll miss it) but it doesn’t explain everything. Although perhaps that’s the point? Sometimes people are just ‘crackpots’ and there really isn’t a rational explanation for their behaviour? However true that may be it’s not a notion that I’m comfortable with which perhaps explains why I struggled with the book in parts. My fault not the author’s then.

Because the book is so much about Geraldine’s inner life there really isn’t much to set it in 1975 versus any other time in history. There’s no hint of the tumultuous 70’s taking place outside Geraldine’s head (one character wearing a kaftan is the only concrete reference to the decade I noticed). The only thought that struck me was that, being a book about an obsessive, controlling woman who poses a danger to her domestic partner, the book might struggle to get published today? I don’t know this to be true of course, it’s just a thought, but it seems to me that these days stories about obsession and control have to put the male in the dangerous role. Has that particular pendulum swung irreversibly?

VANISHING POINT is well written and does exactly what the author set out to do. I found it a bit slow going but admit that’s likely down to my liking for more of a balance between action and introspection. And my discomfort over the novel’s premise – that sometimes irrational, horrendous behaviour might have no explanation – can’t really be considered a criticism of the book.


AWW2016This is book 17.5 that I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge (one book was written by a father daughter team so I’m only counting it as a half). For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: This edition Wakefield Press 1993, original edition 1975
ISBN: 1862542929
Length: 200 pages
Format: Paperback

Review: ONLY DAUGHTER by Anna Snoekstra

onlydaughtersnoekstraI wasn’t surprised to read that Anna Snoekstra’s debut novel ONLY DAUGHTER has already been picked up by Hollywood. To me it read more like a movie script than a novel and whether you think that is a compliment or not will probably determine whether or not you’ll want to read it. For me it was quick and readable but never really delivered on its intriguing premise.

A young woman is caught shoplifting. To avoid being fingerprinted – when the truth about her past would come to light – she tells police she is Rebecca Winter. She’d seen a TV show about Winter a few months earlier: a teenage girl who had disappeared from her Canberra suburb a decade earlier. The young woman looked uncannily like Bec. At least enough like her to pretend for a few hours until she can escape police clutches. Only she doesn’t escape. Instead she goes home with Bec’s family. Because she really misses having a family.

We never learn the young woman’s real name so I’ll call her Pretend Bec. About half of the book is told from her perspective in 2014 in the days after she is ‘found’. Her parents, twin brothers and best friend all seem to accept that she is really Bec. Anything she doesn’t know she either fakes or pretends not to remember. Pretend Bec is enjoying having a family, especially a mother who looks after her. We don’t learn much about whatever it is that Pretend Bec is running away from but we do know her real mother has not been in the picture for some time. The other half of the book is real Bec’s story unfolding in 2003 in the days leading up to her disappearance. She is a fairly typical teenage girl with a best friend, a crush on an older boy at work and a couple of secrets that could lead to an unpleasant demise. Snoekstra pulls off this narrative structure well and the two threads are easy to keep track of while offering a good way to build up tension.

The rest of the book was less successful for me. This is mostly because I never really bought the situation I was meant to suspend my disbelief for. I could accept that the people who knew Bec would accept her reappearance – at least for a while – because the power of wanting such a thing must be fierce. But the way officialdom handled the event never rang true. For example the act Pretend Bec used to get out of providing DNA (which would have immediately proven her a liar) is completely implausible, as is the broader way police (represented by a lone detective) are portrayed as handling the reappearance. Snoekstra had already given herself a tougher than normal job of maintaining suspense by showing readers that Pretend Bec wasn’t the real missing girl; adding a laughably incompetent police and a strangely standoffish media presence just made it all the more difficult. Not to mention a complete lack of social media which for events taking place in 2014 just added to the lack of credibility for me.

The other element that didn’t really work for me were the characters. Real Bec was decently drawn and her teenage friendship with Lizzie has a genuine feel to it. But there are limits to my interest in the inner life of 16-year old girls. Especially ones interested in clothes, makeup, shoplifting and an older boy who turns out not to be prince charming. Yawn. Pretend Bec just annoyed me. Partially because I am not the world’s biggest fan of unreliable narrators but mostly because her inner life was even less interesting than Real Bec’s and I never got to the point where I cared much if she got found out or would meet the same fate as her doppelganger. The rest of the characters are pretty one-dimensional and I cannot possibly be the only reader who saw the end coming – including who’d done what – from a mile away. The red herrings – such as they were – felt way too forced and the culprit too obvious.

As always, other opinions are available and I can imagine that if you are not a nearly-50 grump then you might get more from this novel than I did.


AWW2016This is book 16.5 that I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge (one book was written by a father daughter team so I’m only counting it as a half). For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Harlequin Enterprises [2016]
ISBN/ASIN: 9781489210814
Length: 191 pages
Format: eBook (ePub)

Review: TELL THE TRUTH, SHAME THE DEVIL by Melina Marchetta

tellthetruthshamethedevilI was intrigued to see that Melina Marchetta had written a crime novel for adults because she’s bucking a trend. These days it seems nearly all the crime writers I know of are moving away from writing for adults towards the presumably more lucrative YA market whereas Marchetta, who has won a string of local and international awards for her YA novels, has gone in the other direction. I knew nothing about the book before diving in other than that it was for adults and at least vaguely a crime novel.

Perhaps not surprisingly given her previous work TELL THE TRUTH, SHAME THE DEVIL does feature more teenagers than the average book for adults but the story’s main character is Bashir “Bish” Ortley, a senior desk-based officer with the Metropolitan Police in the UK currently on suspension for reasons I won’t go into here. When the book opens Bish is at home teetering on the edge of a personal abyss when he learns that there has been an explosion on a tourist bus full of teenagers in Normandy. Bish’s daughter Bee is on such a trip and he is immediately galvanized into action. He and his mother soon arrive at the Calais campground where the explosion took place and discover death, barely controlled chaos and a whole lot of fear. It soon becomes known that one of the teens on the bus is the daughter of a notorious terrorist, a woman who confessed more than a decade earlier to a bombing in England which killed 23 people. Violette LeBrac is at once a ‘person of interest’ but she manages to disappear from the campground before much official questioning can take place. Bish, being currently unemployed and having a personal stake in matters, becomes semi-officially involved in the subsequent hunt for Violette and the younger boy who disappears with her.

This is one helluva story. It does rely on some potentially unlikely coincidences – it reminded me of Kate Atkinson novels in that way – but Marchetta’s skill at weaving all the complex strands of narrative together allows the reader to believe it all. This overall sense of credibility is aided by the many real-world elements incorporated into the storyline such as the role social media plays in most lives these days and the ever-present tension between society’s demands for punishment and revenge and the fact that most individuals have a basic humanity to them. And then there’s the fact that it’s a damned fascinating story and perfectly paced to boot. Where so many thriller writers go wrong (for me) is that they never let their characters, or their readers, catch their breath. TELL THE TRUTH, SHAME THE DEVIL is full of suspense (it kept me awake way too long on a week night because I had to know what happened) but there are pauses and light moments and characters have time for some introspection even while chaos unfolds around them.

As a nearly 50 year old woman I’m not all that interested in stories which only show the world from teenagers’ eyes so have been a bit bemused by the recent explosion in YA popularity among adults and was a little wary when I realised so much of this book would focus on teens. But Marchetta has done a great job of allowing us to see things from all her characters’ perspectives. The dialogue in particular is spot on and the subtle differences between adults talking to each other, teens talking to adults and teens talking to each other shows both where the adult and teen worlds are similar and where they’re wildly different. It’s a real highlight of the book. In fact the characterisations as a whole are a highlight. Whether it is Bish himself or Violette or her mother – whom Bish is forced to visit in prison to gain what insights she’s prepared to share that might help him to locate Violette – or any of the more minor characters they are all very believable and compelling.

In short, I loved TELL THE TRUTH, SHAME THE DEVIL. It’s got action, suspense, humour, sadness and enough hope to ensure the reader is not left feeling suicidal at the end. It has a very ‘of the moment’ sensibility in that it tackles very topical issues such as the role of social media in the modern world and the complex way we collectively deal with horrendous crimes such as terrorism, but all of this is done intelligently so that the book won’t feel out of date in a year’s time. Highly recommended.


AWW2016This is the 15th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge (well technically it’s 14.5 as one book was written by a father daughter team). For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Penguin [2016]
ISBN: 9780670079100
Length: 405 pages
Format: paperback

Review: THE WRONG HAND by Jane Jago

thewronghandjagoI suppose it was inevitable that the real-life 1990’s kidnap, torture and murder of 2 year-old James Bulger by two 11 year-old boys would become the subject of exploration by writers and other artists. Evil acts are hard enough to understand, let alone evil acts perpetrated by children, and surely one of the purposes of art is to expose such incomprehensible things to scrutiny if not explanation. Although she doesn’t make specific reference to the case there are enough similarities to it in THE WRONG HAND that Jane Jago has clearly spent more than a little time contemplating the horrendous events and their fallout on everyone involved. The result, to her credit, is a thoughtful, sometimes confronting but never sensationalist, depiction of the aftermath of horror on those left behind and at least the start of a conversation about the broader responsibility we all – as members of a shared society – have in dealing sensibly, and perhaps even compassionately, with all those involved in such events.

Although it has at its heart a kidnapping and murder similar to the Bulger case THE WRONG HAND doesn’t provide prurient details of these events. The book is not really concerned with what happened. Instead it is primarily concerned with what happens afterwards, and, to a lesser extent, what went before. In chapters told from multiple perspectives the bulk of the book takes place 15 years after the death of 3 year old Benjamin, although there are some passages set at the time of the murder and a few at other moments in between. At each stage we meet people who are largely sympathetic. There are the boy’s parents, Rachel and Matthew, as well as the lead detective from the investigation and a journalist who has covered the story from the beginning. Essentially the book offers us character studies of these people and shows us the different ways each copes, or doesn’t, with Benjamin’s death and the discovery that he was murdered by two boys not that much older than him. Not surprisingly Rachel and Matthew separate. Rachel is re-married and has two children who she physically struggles to let out of her sight. Matthew on the other hand is still fuelled by anger and a burning desire for revenge so has built up a network of informants and others who offer ‘information’ about possible sightings of his son’s killers since they were released from prison.

In some ways this is all standard fare, even if done well, but where Jago has been brave is to incorporate the perspectives of other, less sympathetic people involved in and impacted by the murder. This includes the parents and siblings of the two perpetrators who are hounded and in some cases haunted by their connection to the horrors. And it includes the two perpetrators themselves who, for the bulk of the book, have been released from juvenile detention and are living under their new identities which have been provided for them along with some ongoing monitoring and counselling. At times this aspect of the book is confronting. As adults both men struggle with their pasts and it’s so very easy to believe they deserve all the inner turmoil that comes their way. Until Jago reminds us that they were so very young when they did what they did and neither of them had an ideal home environment. Ought they live in torment forever? The question of how long people should be held accountable for things they do as children permeates the book, as does the exploration of what options society has for dealing with child perpetrators of violent crimes. Jago doesn’t offer concrete solutions – I doubt that was ever her intention – but rather prompts the reader to really contemplate these complex issues with more thoughtfulness and consideration than sound bites and social media outrage allows in the modern era.

Although it is this aspect of the book – this exploration of an almost impossible to contemplate social issue – that has been uppermost in my mind since I finished it I must say the book is also a great work of fiction. The story is always compelling, even when it is recounting events that the reader knows will not end well, and the characters are all sensitively drawn, credible and engaging. I particularly admire that Jago was able to make the two perpetrators come to life as something more than cardboard cutout evildoers. She doesn’t make excuses for them or portray them flatteringly but neither does she demonise them. That cannot have been an easy thing to achieve.

My only criticism of the book is its almost total lack of a sense of place. It’s just about possible for a local to tell the story is taking place in Australia (I couldn’t tell you what state though) but it seems like there has been a deliberate attempt to have this be seen as a story that could be taking place anywhere the reader is familiar with. I suppose I can understand this but at times I think that detracted a little from the otherwise very authentic sensibility the book has (especially as the edition I read used some very jarring American terms like ‘downtown’ and ‘subway’ which are simply not used here in the same way they would be in the US). However this is a relatively minor complaint and overall I was thoroughly impressed with Jago’s ethically sound and well-considered handling of a truly difficult subject.


AWW2016This is the 15th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge (well technically it’s 14.5 as one book was written by a father daughter team). For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Penguin [2016]
ISBN: 978405920421
Length: 362 pages
Format: paperback