Review: UNDER THE COLD BRIGHT LIGHTS by Garry Disher

Garry Disher’s latest novel is a standalone story (at least for now) set against the backdrop of greater Melbourne, occasionally stretching as far as Geelong. UNDER THE COLD BRIGHT LIGHTS opens in a small town on the urban fringe. A dangerous snake has hidden itself under an old, unused concrete slab in the backyard of a young family’s home. When the slab is dug up as part of snake catching efforts a skeleton is found. We meet the book’s central character, Alan Auhl, when the cold case squad he works with is called in. At first they must identify the person, not easy due to the house’s history as a rental home, before moving on to discovering what led to their death and burial. The process the team has to go through is well depicted, giving a good sense of how painstaking it must be to investigate cases from even the relatively recent past.

Several other strands play out alongside the story’s main plotline. Auhl is contacted for news each year by the daughters of a man killed some years ago whose murderer has never been caught. Then there’s the tangled case of the doctor who alerts the police that his wife might be a murderer. Auhl is skeptical because he believes the doctor has killed two of his previous wives but was clever enough to get away with it. And we haven’t even gotten to Auhl’s personal life yet. He lives in the big old house he inherited from his parents and rents rooms out to a mismatched collection of waifs and strays. These include Neve Fanning and her daughter Pia who are trying to escape the clutches of Neve’s abusive ex husband who has the money and connections to use the legal system to his advantage.

These days picking up a new police procedurals is a bit risky as the trend for damaged central characters can make for repetitive reading. But Disher is a true master of his craft so manages to make Auhl stand out from the pack without using tired tropes such as the almost ubiquitous addiction. That doesn’t mean he’s all sweetness and light though. His nickname in the office is Retread because he’s returned from retirement and is the oldest person in the team by quite some years. I can attest personally to the authenticity with which the complexities of being an ‘older worker’ in a workforce entranced by youth is depicted. His marriage is…awkward to say the least and at one point he crosses a behavioural line that will surely haunt him but all this just makes for an interesting character that doesn’t feel like a rehashing of all those who have come before him.

And the story itself is a ripper. Disher juggles all the threads expertly and maintains just the right levels of suspense and heart. Readers aren’t led to believe that strange cold cases can be solved in a moment but nor are we bored to tears by too much detail. There is a good mix of the personal and professional too with Auhl’s home life offering lots of interest.

It doesn’t really come as a surprise that Garry Disher has produced another fantastic book but when someone is as consistently good as Disher it can be easy to take them for granted. UNDER THE COLD BRIGHT LIGHTS could easily be the start of a new series but stands equally well as a single novel, and is highly recommended for fans of top notch procedurals. It’s fast paced, sparsely written and genuinely surprising.


Publisher: Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925498882
Length: 285 pages
Format: paperback
Source of review copy: Borrowed from a friend

Review: TOO EASY by J.M. Green

TOO EASY is the second novel to feature sometimes self-deprecating, always amusing social worker Stella Hardy and proved the perfect start to my reading year. The combination of a plot depicting organised chaos, insightful social commentary, genuine humour and engaging characters was exactly right.

Though it’s easy enough to follow, the plot is complex and has many elements that I don’t want to give away but it starts with Stella receiving a call from her best friend. Phuong is a police detective whose boyfriend, also a policeman, is under a corruption cloud. He wants to find a particular drug dealer to corroborate his version of a questionable incident and Phuong thinks that Stella, who has a different sort of connection to Melbourne’s dodgy underbelly than the police, might be able to help with the hunt. Stella and Phuong almost come to blows over the request and what Stella thinks of as Phoung’s lousy taste in men but their friendship is a strong one. The search though puts Stella in the path of a murderous bikie gang, other corrupt police and teenagers whose lives are being threatened in a truly grim way. At the same time her own love life undergoes a test as her artist boyfriend finds a new muse.

Whether they be total geniuses or alcoholic loners I can struggle to believe in many crime fiction protagonists. But Stella Hardy seems like a real person I might actually know. Heck at times she seems like one of the voices inside my own head. The depiction of her as being good at her job (at the wonderfully named WORMS) but struggling with the inane bureaucracy rings absolutely true. As does her knack of setting somewhat unrealistic personal goals – such as becoming a gourmet cook – and spectacularly failing to meet them. That she faces everything in her life with a combination of wry humour and stubbornness help make her into an authentically Aussie woman.

The story that unwinds in TOO EASY is at times madcap but somehow even the most outlandish elements of it have the same aura of truthiness as Green’s characters. It is full of people doing stupid things for entirely believable reasons – either good or bad – and events build up at just the right pace.

There was a time not so long ago when the general consensus seemed to be that the only truly Australian stories could take place in ‘the Outback’. J.M. Green is one of a new breed of artists proving that urban locations and city dwellers can offer equally compelling depictions of what it is to be Australian. She has captured the essence of Melbourne living, provided a thoroughly modern heroine and a supporting cast that oozes familiarity in a story that is an absolute hoot, where even the scary bits are tinged with comedy.


Publisher: Scribe, 2017
ISBN: 9781925322025
Length: 292 pages
Format: paperback
Source of review copy: I bought it

Review: WIMMERA by Mark Brandi

Told in three parts WIMMERA focuses on two people. In the first part we meet Ben and Fab; best friends in their final year of primary school. In their small rural town they are left to their own devices for great swathes of time. Not due to bad parenting but because that’s the way the world was then. The boys watch TV, play backyard cricket, go yabbying and camping. They can talk endlessly of mindless things such as the intricate rules for their favourite activities but they actively avoid discussing the big, scary stuff. Like why Ben’s 14-year old neighbour hung herself on the family clothesline or the fact that Fab’s father beats him regularly. No one, not even the adults, talks about those things. Towards the end of this part of the book readers know that something has gone awry for one of the boys but we have to speculate about the details. In the book’s second and third acts we find out a little more as the boys’ history is investigated, but even by the end of the novel there’s still a lot we don’t know.

It doesn’t feel quite right to say I loved WIMMERA given it is so sad and full of melancholy. But what other word is there?

I loved that it depicts an Australia I instantly recognised. Although it is set in rural Victoria I think WIMMERA owes more to its core events taking place in the late 1980’s than to its geography. Things – often awful or frightening things – that are known but not spoken of are at the heart of this story and that kind of secret keeping is – or was – not reserved for country towns. The inner-city street I grew up on was equally good at hiding things. That said, the book’s physical setting is utterly authentic too.

I loved that the book’s central characters are neither heroic nor extremely flawed. They’re ‘normal’, for want of a better word. They do good things and not-so-good things and fumble their way through life, like most of us. Maybe other readers look for inspiration from fictional characters but I like it best when people in fiction are as clueless and awkward as I usually am.

I loved that the book left so much unsaid. At 262 pages WIMMERA is one of the shortest modern novels I’ve read. And though it clearly annoys some readers I found the lack of detail very fitting. This is, after all, big scary stuff. Not the kind of thing people talk about. It feels very realistic to me that people like Ben and Fab – growing up when and where they did – would never tell all. Probably couldn’t tell all even if they had the desire to.

Like its geographic namesake WIMMERA is quite beautifully sparse and reveals its secrets unwillingly. Surely only the hardest of hearts could fail to be moved by Ben and Fab’s story even though they struggle so hard to share it. Or perhaps because they struggle so hard to share it. Highly recommended.


Publisher: Hachette, 2017
ISBN: 9780733638459
Length: 262 pages
Format: paperback
Source of review copy: I bought it

Review: THE LIGHT ON THE WATER, Olga Lorenzo

  • this edition published by Allen & Unwin Australia 2016
  • ISBN 978-1-92526-654-2
  • 350 pages
  • Longlisted Best Adult Novel – Davitt Awards 2017

Synopsis (publisher)

A little girl disappears in the wilderness. Two years later her mother is arrested for her murder. A provocative and unflinching literary novel of love, guilt and grief set against the wilderness of the Australian coast.
Recently divorced and trying to make sense of her new life, Anne takes her daughter Aida on an overnight bushwalk in the moody wilderness of Wilsons Promontory. In a split second, Aida disappears and a frantic Anne scrambles for help. Some of the emergency trackers who search for Aida already doubt Anne’s story.Nearly two years later and still tormented by remorse and grief, Anne is charged with her daughter’s murder. Witnesses have come forward, offering evidence which points to
her guilt. She is stalked by the media and shunned by friends, former colleagues and neighbours.On bail and awaiting trial, Anne works to reconstruct her last hours with Aida. She remembers the sun high in the sky, the bush noisy with insects, and her own anxiety, as oppressive as the heat haze.

A superbly written and conceived literary work about the best and the worst aspects of family life, this story asks difficult questions about society, the media, and our rush to judgement.
This is a thoughtful, provocative and unflinching novel in the tradition of Helen Garner, Joan London and Charlotte Wood.

My Take
Aida, 6 years old and autistic, runs ahead of her mother on an overnight camping trip and bushwalk to Wilsons Promontory and disappears. Anne has already questioned her own wisdom in taking Aida for this walk, and when Aida cannot be found, others question it too. Hours turn into days, weeks, and months and there is no news about what has happened to Aida. Media attention ensures that Anne is unable to appear in public without people recognising her face and often saying dreadful things. A FaceBook page she sets up turns nasty. Friends turn away when they see her.
Eventually it becomes obvious that the police are considering charging Anne with negligence or worse.
A very thought provoking read, probably on the outer rim of crime fiction.
My rating: 4.4
About the author

Olga Lorenzo is the author of The Rooms in My Mother’s House,
which was published in 1996 and shortlisted for various literary awards.
She has won the Felix Meyer Scholarship and the Percival Serle Bequest
at the University of Melbourne for her writing, as well as grants from
Arts Victoria and the Australia Council, and a Varuna Fellowship. Olga
has taught writing at RMIT University and in a variety of other
Melbourne tertiary institutions for nineteen years, and has a Masters
and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Melbourne. She
previously worked as a journalist and sub-editor for the Melbourne Age.

Review: BARKING DOGS, Rebekah Clarkson

  • this edition published 2017 by Affirm Press
  • ISBN 978-925475-49-4
  • 230 pages
  • source: my local library

Synopsis (Affirm Press)

Everybody thinks they know this story. But do they? If you took a bird’s-eye view of any sprawling Australian regional town, you’d see ordinary Australians living on their ordinary suburban blocks. Get closer. Peer through a window.

In the town of Mount Barker, you might see Nathan Hearle obsessively
recording the bark of a neighbourhood dog, or the Wheeler family sitting
down for a meal and trying to come to terms with a shocking discovery.
You might hear tales of fathers and their wayward sons, of widows who
can’t forgive themselves, of children longed for and lost, of thwarted
lust and of pure love. Within the shadows is an unspeakable crime.

Rebekah Clarkson has created a compelling, slow-burning portrait of a
town in the midst of major change as it makes the painful
transformation from rural idyll to aspirational suburbia. What looked
like redemption is now profound loss. What seemed spiteful can now be
forgiven. A novel in stories, Barking Dogs is an assured debut from one of Australia’s most respected storytellers.

My Take

This book is an anthology of connected short stories written over half a decade or so. Not only are they connected with some characters appearing in or referred to in more than one story, they nearly all focus on the Adelaide hills town of Mt Barker, currently undergoing incredible change with an influx of new residents, in a myriad of new housing “estates”.

The book does not qualify in my mind as crime fiction, although there are plenty of mysteries to be unravelled, and certainly a crime or two committed. Between them the stories explore a range of contemporary issues: the pressures of modern living on young families, the onset of dementia, the effects of death from cancer on a family, barking dogs. Older folk, long time residents, live cheek by jowl with newly arrived families with younger children.

The stories were of particular interest to me because it is an area we travel through every weekend. We have friends who’ve moved from suburban Adelaide into one of the new Mt. Barker estates. Over the years we have seen farmland sold, cleared, scoured and subdivided into new estates with improbable names. These stories remind the reader that not every rainbow leads to a pot of gold.

The publisher refers to this anthology as a “novel in stories”, but I beg to differ. It is as if somehow a “novel” brings higher acclamation. These stories are well crafted and cleverly written. But they don’t have a completeness, or denouement, that a novel tries to achieve. In a sense too there is plenty of room left for further stories.

Just one thing extra I could have wished for – a table of contents at the beginning listing the stories by title.

My rating: 4.4

About the author:

Rebekah Clarkson’s award-winning fiction has been published widely, most recently in Best Australian Stories, Australian Book Review and Something Special, Something Rare: Outstanding Short Stories by Australian Women (Black Inc.).

Her stories have been recognised in major awards in Australia and overseas, including the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize and Glimmer Train’s
Fiction Open. She has a BA in Aboriginal Studies and a PhD in Creative
Writing from the University of Adelaide, where she also teaches. She has
taught Fiction Writing at the University of Texas in Austin.

Review: THE DARK LAKE, Sarah Bailey

  • this edition first published 2017 by Allen & Unwin Australia
  • ISBN 978-1-76029-589-9
  • 429 pages
  • source: my local library

Synopsis (Allen & Unwin Australia)

A hot summer. A shocking murder. A town of secrets, waiting to explode. A brooding, suspenseful and explosive debut that will grip you from the first page to the last.

There were a few minutes when I was alone with her in the autopsy room. I felt wild. Absent. Before I could stop myself I was leaning close to her, telling her everything. The words draining out of me as she lay there. Her long damp hair hanging off the back of the steel
table. Glassy eyes fixed blindly on the ceiling. She was still so beautiful, even in death.

Our secrets circled madly around the bright white room that morning. Rocking back and forth on my heels as I stood next to her, I knew how far in I was again, how comprehensively her death could undo me. I looked at Rosalind Ryan properly for the last
time before breathing deeply, readying myself, letting her pull me back into her world, and I sank down, further and further, until I was completely, utterly under.

A beautiful young teacher has been murdered, her body found in the lake, strewn with red roses. Local policewoman Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock pushes to be assigned to the case, concealing the fact that she knew the murdered woman in high school years before.

But that’s not all Gemma’s trying to hide.
As the investigation digs deeper into the victim’s past, other secrets threaten to come to light, secrets that were supposed to remain buried. The lake holds the key to solving the murder, but it also has the power to drag Gemma down into its dark depths.

The Dark Lake is an addictive crime thriller, a mesmerising account of one woman’s descent into deceit and madness, and a stunning debut that is already causing a stir around the world.

My Take

Gemma Woodstock is a Detective Sergeant in the town she grew up in.  Rosalind Ryan has recently returned to Smithson to teach in the high school she once attended. When she is murdered shortly after a performance of Romeo and Juliet at the school, Gemma’s boss questioned whether there was a conflict of interest in her being involved in the investigation. But she assures him that there is no question about that – her special knowledge of the town and its people will be invaluable. She and Rosalind were in the same class but that was all.

Gemma obviously believes that being involved in the investigation will give her an edge in solving the murder, as well as keeping elements of her own past hidden. There is at least one big secret that she doesn’t want anybody to know.

The author uses a time frame device to reveal snippets of the past, generally labelled “Then”, alongside carefully dated chapters (together with times) to encapsulate the present. I am never sure when we have carefully labelled time episodes whether I have got the timeline right in my mind. I find myself hoping the author hasn’t played a trick on me, put something out of sequence.

Her relationship with the deceased is not the only thing that Gemma is trying to hide, but I’ll let you find the rest out for yourself.

A good read from a new Aussie writer that I will have to watch out for.

My rating: 4.7

About the author
Sarah Bailey is a Melbourne based writer with a background in advertising and communications. She has two young children and currently works as a director of creative projects company Mr Smith. Over the past five years she has written a number of short stories and opinion pieces. The Dark Lake is her first novel.

If you are interested in reading something more by Sarah Bailey I have found on Google books what appears to be a set of short stories titles THIS IS HOME

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Review: ON THE JAVA RIDGE by Jock Serong

This book almost doesn’t belong here on this blog devoted to Australian crime fiction but its author is Australian and the book is, in part, a thriller. And there are plenty of criminal acts depicted in it. Or things that would be criminal if that word’s definition didn’t change at the whim of the powerful. So here it is. 

Warning: I don’t normally curse in my reviews. But sometimes only a curse will suffice. If that upsets you, do not read on.

A disparate group of refugees from the Middle East pay for an Indonesian fishing boat to take them to Australia. There are rumours and half-truths about what might await them: detention camps perhaps. Worse? But they are fleeing persecution, torture and heaven only knows what else. It’s not really a choice in the commonly accepted meaning of the term.

Isi Natoli is skippering the Java Ridge for a group of seven of surfers looking for their slice of the surfing nirvana the waters around Indonesia are known for. Her partner Joel, the surfing legend who usually acts as skipper for these trips, has gone to Australia in a last-ditch attempt to wrangle some finances to keep their struggling business going.

In Australia there is a Federal election a week away. The party in government (Serong doesn’t identify which one but it is depressing as fuck to realise our major parties have converged so closely that it could be either of them) wants to win. At all costs. Cassius Calvert, former Olympic rower and current Minister for Border Integrity (a fictional but entirely plausible portfolio) announces new, tougher border controls which include the outsourcing of at-sea monitoring and a blanket refusal to allow Australian vessels to engage with foreign ones. Including for the purposes of rescue.

Somehow ON THE JAVA RIDGE managed to be so tense I had to stop reading to slow my breathing a couple of times, yet be so awfully, depressingly inevitable that I had to physically will myself to read through to the end. As if by not looking the outcome could be deferred or different. Alas that seems to have stopped working when I was about six. Of course some of the action is obvious: we know the two boats are going to intersect for example, but that doesn’t detract from the strong narrative pull of the book. Each of these stories, even the politician’s, is utterly compelling.

A lot of that is to do with the characters. The ‘stars’, including Isi, Calvert and also 9 year old Roya who has fled Afghanistan with her pregnant mother, each offer a unique and often unexpected window into their respective communities. Unlike almost everyone in Canberra these days Calvert is not a career politician, Isi is not the regular skipper of a surfing charter boat and not even Andrew Bolt could view Roya as the-potential-terrorist-in disguise that we’ve been led to believe all asylum seekers are. Given this book tackles the hottest of hot-button issues the choice to use these somewhat unorthodox characters as the primary way into the action is a master stroke. One of many. That doesn’t mean the more usual types of people who populate each world aren’t depicted, but for the most part Serong has chosen not to confront readers with them. Or at least not continuously. I think that’s the aspect of the book that might make it possible to get someone who isn’t already of the same political opinion as the author’s to read more than a few pages of this book.

Because there is absolutely no doubt where Serong sits on the issue of refugees and Australia’s current policies with respect to them. ON THE JAVA RIDGE is a polemic. Serong is, I think, genuinely outraged. That word has lost its meaning since outrage has become a weird kind of currency in modern culture but this is the real deal. The disbelief, fury and impotence at not being able to make people see is palpable. The story aims a giant, high wattage spotlight on the absurdity, banality and outright bullshit that falls from politician’s mouths on this subject. Presumably so that readers might all see. I have no clue if it will work on those who don’t already.

If it is possible to love and hate something at the same time then that’s how I feel about ON THE JAVA RIDGE. I love its heart and the way it let me see into new environments and its unrelenting tension. And the writing. Serong is a craftsman. But I hate that it had to be written. And that its vaguely futuristic sensibility isn’t nearly fictional enough to give me any comfort.


Publisher Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN 9781925498394
Length 312 pages
Format paperback
Source of review copy Borrowed from the library

Review: AND FIRE CAME DOWN, Emma Viskic

  • first published August 2017 by Echo Publishing
  • source: an ARC from the publisher
  • ISBN: 9781760402945
    Format: Trade paperback
  • 326 pages

 Synopsis (Echo Publishing)

Deaf since early childhood, Caleb Zelic used to meet life head-on.
Now he’s struggling just to get through the day. His best mate is dead, his ex-wife, Kat, is avoiding him, and nightmares haunt his waking hours.

But when a young woman is killed after pleading for his help in sign
language, Caleb is determined to find out who she was. And the trail
leads straight to his hometown, Resurrection Bay.  The town is on
bushfire alert and simmering with racial tensions. As he delves deeper,
Caleb uncovers secrets that could threaten his life and any chance of
reuniting with Kat. Driven by his demons, he pushes on. But who is he
willing to sacrifice along the way?

My Take

Returning to Resurrection Bay means dealing with events he’d rather forget but the death of the girl who comes to him for help in Melbourne means that Caleb Zelic has no choice. He has been working in Melbourne as an independent investigator but he really has few clients.

The contact details for him that the girl had were written on a receipt that came from Resurrection Bay and the first person he asks about her is able to identify her. Immediately after he visits her father Caleb is attacked and warned off.

As he investigates further Caleb realises that there is a trade in ice happening in Resurrection  Bay and trying to work out who is behind it gets more and more dangerous. A young aboriginal man is murdered and at his funeral Caleb meets up with his wife Kat and her family.

There are a number of very complex relationships in this novel, and the picture painted of the small coastal community of Resurrection Bay is very grim.  I had trouble remembering what happened in the original title in this series, and my advice to the reader would be to read them in order.

My Rating: 4.3

I’ve also read
4.3, RESURRECTION BAY

About the author
Emma Viskic is an award-winning Australian crime writer. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, Resurrection Bay, won the 2016 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction, as well as
an unprecedented three Davitt Awards: Best Adult Novel, Best Debut, and Readers’ Choice. Resurrection Bay was iBooks Australia’s Crime Novel of 2015. She has also won the Ned Kelly and Thunderbolt Awards for her short form fiction.

A classically trained clarinettist, Emma’s musical career has ranged from performing with José  Carreras and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, to busking in the London Underground. Emma studied Australian sign language (Auslan) in order to write Resurrection Bay.

Review: FORCE OF NATURE by Jane Harper

I’m sure all authors wish for the kind of success Jane Harper had (indeed is still having) with her debut novel THE DRY but I imagine most would, at least fleetingly, think twice about wishes coming true when presented with the need to produce the next novel. Happily for Harper, and her readers, she has soldiered through that intense pressure and delivered another cracking read. Among the many things I admire about FORCE OF NATURE is that it isn’t the same novel wrapped in a different skin and some risks have been taken with the narrative choices.

One of the things that does carry across though is Harper’s skill at creating a setting with an almost physical presence for the reader. Here we are in a fictional but recognisable bushland area called the Giralang Ranges east of Melbourne. It is isolated, cold and claustrophobic due to the dense foliage. Easy to become lost in. As if that isn’t troublesome enough it is the scene of an infamous series of killings two decades earlier. The perpetrator of those crimes was found but, local legend has it, the killer’s son still roams the area. Into this suitably nightmare inducing setting Harper drops a group of employees from a Melbourne company embarking on one of those corporate retreats designed solely to be such a horrendous experience that staff never complain about their normal office environment ever again. They are separated into two groups – men and women – who must trek through the Ranges for several days on separate, but close, tracks. In the women’s group things go awry and one of them – Alice Russell – goes missing.

Being lost in the bush is a well-mined plot line for Australian artists of all kinds but Harper easily holds her own in the space. The storyline is genuinely original, no mean feat in itself, and the way it unfolds adds a lot of tension. There are two strands: one moving forward from when retreat begins and one beginning when the search for Alice gets underway. This dual thread works really well. Adding to the suspense is that we are almost spoiled for choice as to what might have happened to Alice. Has she wandered off? Is she the victim of the serial killer’s son? Did one of the women do her in because she’s not very nice?

Or has she been killed because of what she knows? Aaron Falk, an Agent with the financial crimes unit of the Australian Federal Police and protagonist from THE DRY, has been working with Alice as a whistleblower at her company. Her involvement was meant to be a secret but Aaron and his partner, Carmen, worry that her actions may have resulted in Alice being placed in danger. Their superiors are worried that she hasn’t handed over all the documents she promised which endangers their case. So the pair become involved in the search and in trying to piece together what led up to her disappearance. I liked reading about Aaron again and seeing him in a work setting rather than dealing with something personal. Though one of the risks Harper has taken with this book is to make his role somewhat smaller than the traditional procedural might do with its hero. For me this worked well as it allowed us to really get to see the victim’s world and did not bog us down in procedural elements. If the series is to be a long one this is a sound strategy as it means we won’t become bored with the main character.

Jane Harper is proving to have a real skill at taking quintessentially Australian settings and making them truly frightening. Not through an overt violence or gruesomeness but by teasing out just enough information to make the reader’s imagination take flight. And telling a ripper yarn. FORCE OF NATURE is good from beginning right through to the end which is, these days, a rarity. If you are an audiobook fan I highly recommend Steve Shanahan’s narration which is outstanding and adds another layer to the storytelling here.


aww2017-badgeThis is the 14th book I’ve read and reviewed for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Wavesound Audio, 2017
Narrator: Steve Shanahan
ASIN: B075QM2Q8N
Length: 8 hours, 56 minutes
Format: Audio book
Source of review copy: I bought it

Review: A DANGEROUS LANGUAGE by Sulari Gentill

A blogger I visit regularly recently posted their musings on a particular aspect of the attraction of old-fashioned detective novels which they summed up as a sort of ‘agreed artificiality’. Or, in more depth defined as

“…that quality of creating a particular type of world in which both the reader and the author are in collusion on certain ground rules which make the reading experience more enjoyable by distancing them from the reality of what would otherwise be a harrowing read.”

Although I’m not a huge reader of the golden-age detective novels being discussed in that post, I was nodding my head in agreement with the sentiments expressed and could not help but think that is exactly how I feel about the Rowland Sinclair series even though it’s closer to an artificial adventure novel than a detective one. Written today, the books are set in the 1930’s and depict the experiences of an idealistic group of young Australians who embrace the fortunes life has dealt them and display lashings of honour and backbone whenever their luck turns sour. For me the series offers a safe, sometimes slightly surreal place from which to explore such dark subjects as murder, the rise of fascism and how much of a pain older brothers can be even when you love them to bits.

In the eighth instalment of the series it is 1934 and Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair, son of a wealthy pastoralist family whose fortunes have not been dented by the Great Depression, heads to the Melbourne International Motor Show with his friends Clyde and Milton to pick up a new car. All agree the Chrysler Airflow is a suitably beautiful replacement for the beloved Mercedes he lost in events depicted in this novel’s predecessor. While in Melbourne Rowly is approached to assist the local Movement Against War and Fascism; a cause he is very supportive of since he and his friends visited Germany and saw first-hand what the Nazis were up to (see 2012’s PAVING THE NEW ROAD). He agrees to assist the movement by trying to ensure that prominent European peace activist Egon Kisch makes it to Melbourne in time to speak at a planned peace rally. Before he can make that happen he heads to Canberra where his friend Milton is to be engaged in a bit of stealthy activism on behalf of the Communist Party. On the way there the lads encounter a dead body which they worry might be the fourth member of their group, the sculptress Rowly loves silently, and when they reach the nation’s new capital someone is murdered. Mayhem, of course, ensues.

Given that a good chunk of the action here takes place in Canberra, a city that only exists because of politics, A DANGEROUS LANGUAGE is a bit more political than some of the other books in the series. I really enjoyed the way this shines a light on some aspects of our history that are rarely the subject of popular culture (honestly you could be forgiven for thinking the only things of importance Australians have ever done is play sport and go to war) (and yes that order is deliberate). Gentill just gets better and better at weaving historical fact into her stories and the part of the book in which Rowly and Clyde meet up with Kisch is just one example of this. I won’t spoil the details for you but knowing the story of Kisch’s visit to Australia pretty well (thanks to a high school history teacher who nearly got herself fired for teaching Catholic kids about a Communist in a positive light) I can attest to the fabulous way solid facts have been strung together with imaginative but entirely plausible madcap fun.

As always though it is the characters that are the highlight of the book. In this outing Clyde Watson-Jones, the landscape painter in Rowly’s group of adventuring artists, takes more of a central role and I enjoyed getting to know him in more depth. He has always been the group member least comfortable with living off Rowly’s wealth so he takes any opportunity to offer something meaningful in return such as looking after Rowly’s various vehicles. But here he has matured to the point that he is able to poke gentle fun at his friend about the difference in their respective social status, such as when the pair are forced to take tourist class berths on a ship rather than the first class suites that Sinclairs are more used to. But at heart the book shows how these differences – of class or religion or politics – are not important when it comes to standing up for one’s friends and doing the right thing. It’s not unreasonable, especially with the lens of the current political climate, to think that might be the most artificial element of all the book’s fictions – the notion that our similarities are more important than our differences – but if so it’s an artifice I’m happy to buy into for a while.

Unlike his two friends Rowly is not a member of the Communist Party (despite what his older brother and others may believe when they call him Red Rowly) but he is sympathetic to some of the issues the Party supports, especially their opposition to the rise of fascism. His total belief in the worrying behaviour of the Nazis has come between Rowly and his older, far more conservative, brother Wilfred and the pair’s strained relationship is wonderfully drawn. Gentill teases out the nuances of what’s going on between the two so that the reader is able to really feel for both men who are, at heart, good people each believing he is in the right. The peaks and troughs of this relationship are depicted without the sibling bond being broken irretrievably.

Even though I have blathered on for far too long I’ve only scratched the surface of  A DANGEROUS LANGUAGE. There’s a marriage proposal, two broken leg accidents, an international air race and a potentially murderous politician amidst this tale of excitement, friendship, humour and being honourable even when you’re scared. Read it, you won’t regret it.


A DANGEROUS LANGUAGE is officially released in Australia on 1 October (though I spied copies in my local bookshop earlier this week)

I have reviewed this book’s predecessors:

If you prefer audio books instalments 1-4 and 7 of this series are available already, wonderfully narrated by Rupert Degas and books 5 and 8 are due for release early next month (at least they are on the listings Audible makes available to me in Australia).


aww2017-badgeThis is the 12th book I’ve read and reviewed for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Pantera Press
ISBN: 9781921997662
Length: 384 pages
Format: paperback
Source of review copy: provided by the publisher