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: OLMEC OBITUARY, L.J.M. Owen

Synopsis (Publisher)

Yearning for her former life as an archaeologist, Australian librarian Dr. Elizabeth Pimms is struggling with a job she doesn’t want, a family she both loves and resents, and enforced separation from her boyfriend.

A royal Olmec cemetery is discovered deep in the Mexican jungle, containing the earliest writing in all the Americas. Dr. Pimms is elated to join the team investigating these Aztec ancestors. Triumph is short-lived, however, as Elizabeth’s position on the team is threatened by a volatile excavation director, contradictory evidence, and hostile
colleagues. With everything working against her, will Dr Pimms find the cause of death for a 3,000-year-old athlete and those buried with her?

With the archaeological intrigue of Elizabeth Peters, forensic insight of Kathy Reichs, and comfort of a cosy mystery, Olmec Obituary is the first novel in a fascinating new series: Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth. Really cold cases.

My Take

Her father’s unexpected and untimely death means that Dr Elizabeth Pimms, forensic archaeologist and Egyptologist, has to abandon work she is doing in Egypt to return to her family in Canberra and take work as a librarian, so that she can provide financial support for her brother and sister and extended family.

She is approached to do some voluntary weekend work in Canberra working on the bones of 17 skeletons retrieved from an Olmec cave in Mexico. Her work is to be unpaid because the supervisor says basically that she needs to prove herself before he will consider remuneration. Elizabeth finds this difficult to understand because he has already obviously spent considerable funds on the work in Mexico. He and she have a falling out however on the first day when Elizabeth challenges some of the conclusions he wants to publish about the remains.

The reader is given background story to the events which have resulted in the burial of the bodies. These are details that Elizabeth has no way of knowing because there are no written records relating to this site. I am not sure about the wisdom of this as a plot structure.

Elizabeth has a personal mystery to unravel related to the death of her mother in a car crash nearly a decade earlier. She has to admit that she has been wrong in her assumptions about what caused the crash. But jumping to the wrong conclusions seems to be pretty par for the course for Elizabeth.

There is a lot going on in this book but my enjoyment of it was not helped by the fact that I didn’t particularly warm to Elizabeth herself. I thought I found some inconsistencies in the background details about Elizabeth: later in the book the family celebrates her 26th birthday, but in the Prologue we are told “after twenty years of yearning, planning and dedicated study she was finally here… a skilled archaeologist and knowledgeable Egyptologist”. I found it difficult to juggle her expertise against her age, and would have been more comfortable if she had just been a few years older.

Nevertheless, it is always interesting to find a new female Australian author, with a very different scenario, leading me into a world I am not really familiar with.

A second book in the series is promised: MAYAN MENDACITY. Elements of the story from OLMEC OBITUARY are left unresolved, so this should help link the two.

My rating: 4.4

About the author
L.J.M. Owen drew extensively on her education and experience when
developing the novel. Relevant qualifications include an undergraduate
degree in archaeology and a PhD in palaeogenetics from ANU, and a
graduate diploma in library management from Curtin University. See more information on her website.

Review: SILENT KILL, Peter Corris

  • #39 in the Cliff Hardy series which began in 1980 with THE DYING TRADE
  • Published 2014 by Allen & Unwin Australia
  • available in Amazon Kindle
  • ISBN 978-1-74331-637-5
  • 255 pages
  • Source: my local library

Synopsis (author website)
Politics, murder and sex push Hardy to the limit.

When Cliff Hardy signs on as a bodyguard for charismatic populist Rory O’Hara, who is about to embark on a campaign of social and political renewal, it looks like a tricky job – O’Hara has enemies. A murder and a kidnapping soon cause the campaign to fall apart.

Hired to investigate the murder, Hardy uncovers hidden agendas among O’Hara’s staff as well as powerful political and commercial forces at work. His investigation takes him from the pubs and brothels of Sydney to the heart of power in Canberra and the outskirts of Darwin. There he teams up with a resourceful indigenous private detective and forms an uneasy alliance with the beautiful Penelope Marinos, formerly O’Hara’s PA.

A rogue intelligence agent becomes his target and Hardy stumbles upon a terrible secret that draws them into a violent – and disturbing – confrontation.

My Take

Peter Corris’ latest episode in the Cliff Hardy series SILENT KILL shows clearly he hasn’t lost his touch. He certainly is in the ranks of excellent writers of crime fiction internationally as well as on the Australian stage. As the blurb says, he is “the godfather of Australian crime fiction.”

In Rory O’Hara’s quest to launch a new Australian political party, Australian readers will recognise references to Clive Palmer’s recent, and more successful, bid for Parliament. But someone doesn’t want Rory O’Hara to succeed, and after he is injured when he is run down in the street, Cliff Hardy is employed by a backer to join the campaign and seemingly to protect Rory. Then things get really serious, and not even Cliff Hardy can prevent a murder.

So, a few thousand kilometers later, Cliff Hardy closes in on his quarry. The original financial backer of Rory’s tour has dropped out, but new money from a surprising source has employed Cliff to track down a killer. And it seems Cliff is not the only one on the trail. He will probably be doing someone else a favour.

I haven’t read all the Cliff Hardy series, but I am sure fans will be glad to see that Peter Corris is still hard at work.

My rating: 4.5

I’ve also reviewed
APPEAL DENIED
DEEP WATER

Review: DEAD CAT BOUNCE by Peter Cotton

DeadCatBouncePeterCotto20469_fFor something a little different today we’re offering you two perspectives for the price of one on DEAD CAT BOUNCE, a debut crime novel by Peter Cotton who is an Australian journalist and former media adviser to several government ministers. The book is set during the last weeks of a divisive Australian election campaign (though in yet more evidence that truth is stranger than fiction Cotton’s imagination didn’t run to a second dumped PM in a three year period) and opens with the discovery of the body of the Environment Minister dumped near a Canberra landmark.

Bernadette’s thoughts are in green. I’m a politics junkie from way back and don’t consider my weekend complete without Sunday morning Insiders viewing. My crime fiction tastes lean towards procedurals and whydunnits.

Josh’s thoughts are in red. As my twitter handle suggests (@OzNoir) my genre of choice is noir which tends to lead me down the dark and shadowy back alleys of crime fiction. DEAD CAT BOUNCE was something a little different, something outside my comfort zone which still alluded to that slithering underside of crime enough to satisfy my curiosity. Not a consummate reader of police procedurals, I saw enough in the premise to warrant a look-in, and I’m glad I did.

What was your immediate reaction to the premise of the novel?
I salivated at the prospect of a book which combines two of my favourite things: crime fiction and dead politicians.

I saw satire, murder, and an Aussie setting – enough to interest me. I like books that don’t take themselves too seriously and the premise of DEAD CAT BOUNCE certainly leaned towards it being more tongue-in-cheek than hardnosed police procedural.

The central character in Dead Cat Bounce is young-ish Detective Darren Glass. Did you like him? Hate him? Find him compelling?

I liked the fact that Darren is not in the ‘so psychologically damaged it’s hard to get out of bed’ mould of crime fiction investigator and is basically a well-adjusted, fully functional human being with awesome MacGyver-like skills. The blunders he makes during the case (e.g. letting something important slip to a political blogger during an interview) give him credibility. Perversely though I did not find him terribly compelling…I never felt any lingering worry about what was happening to him when I had to put the book down as I do sometimes with characters who get under my skin. This makes me wonder if I actually do prefer the psychologically damaged characters after all.

I liked Glass more than I thought I would. His stumbling, blundering detective style, while not endearing, was a quality that made him more human than a traditional Detective (a generalisation I know). He came across as someone who lets his emotions lead him – thankfully this premise serves a purpose throughout the course of the novel and doesn’t become all-consuming in dictating his every action. I found his personal and professional life blurred the lines to the extent I had trouble distinguishing the two – not a bad thing, I wouldn’t say I found him compelling but was a little something there that other procedurals I’ve read didn’t have.

Did the story maintain your interest? Keep you guessing? Keep you awake at night? What bits did you like most?
Even for me there was a lot of procedural minutiae in the first third of this book. The Minister who was killed had been at a public function prior to her kidnapping and so police have to establish who was there, what everyone did and who they spoke to, who left early and so on. This seemed to drag on a little for me but I suspect people who don’t read as many police procedurals as I do wouldn’t notice or be bothered by this. The pace improved after this though as the action level ramped up. I did think one part of the resolution was telegraphed a little early on but there were enough more well hidden elements to keep me satisfied.

I thought it took a while to get to the good stuff. When thrust into action, Glass and the accompanying characters really took on a life of their own. The murder mystery didn’t keep me awake at night but I did spend the odd minute here and there pondering the person behind it. One thing that stuck out was how well rounded the plot was, I thought Peter Cotton came full circle with his plot devices and characterisation to perfection.

Was the Australian political setting well done?
Absolutely. Everything from the investigative problems caused by one of the key players being the country’s Prime Minister – a legitimately hard to access person – to the sometimes dangerously symbiotic relationship between the Canberra press gallery and their subjects seemed to be spot on. For the politics junkie there is much frivolity to be had in trying to work out which real-world people Cotton’s fictional politicians, journalists and bloggers represent.

A little hard for me to comment on this one as I don’t tend to get involved in politics – I’ll default to Bernadette’s take on this one.

Was there something you particularly liked about DEAD CAT BOUNCE?
The main narrative is broken up with extracts from a blog and TV newsbreaks. These were well done and really added to the authentic sensibility.

I didn’t pick a definitive suspect until relatively late in proceedings – in a murder mystery setting that always scores points. I also liked the blog/newsbreaks to keep the narrative fresh.

Was there anything you really didn’t take to about the book?
I shouldn’t criticise someone for not delivering something they never promised but, for me, the book would have been better with a dash of humour. I often struggle to take politics – and politicians – as seriously as they take themselves and I have an idea that most Australians feel the same way. But this could be me projecting my personal view of the world outwards in a way that is totally wrong.

More satire. I think Peter Cotton touched upon it; more so in a subtle manner than by using blatant overtones.

Who would you recommend the book to?
I suspect the book’s ideal reader is someone who doesn’t read a lot of police procedurals but is reasonably interested in Australian politics. But even if that doesn’t quite describe you I’d think most readers would enjoy this tale.

People who enjoy crime fiction within the Australian setting. While a police procedural it doesn’t feel as typecast as the genre suggests by virtue of its subject matter and lead character in Detective Glass. I think readers who come into this looking for a good time will feel satisfied.

In a nutshell that’s two lots of thumbs up from two readers whose tastes are not generally all that similar, proving the book offers something for everyone. Enjoy.

Review: THE MARMALADE FILES, Steve Lewis & Chris Uhlmann

  • published by Fourth Estate (Harper Collins Australia 2012)
  • ISBN 978-0-7322-9474-8
  • 311 pages
  • Read an extract

Synopsis (Publisher)

A sticky scandal. A political jam. THE MARMALADE FILES will be the most-talked about political satirical thriller of 2012!

An imaginative romp through the dark underbelly of politics by two veteran Canberra insiders. When seasoned newshound Harry Dunkley is slipped a compromising photograph one frosty Canberra dawn  he knows he′s onto something big. In pursuit of the scoop, Dunkley must negotiate the
deadly corridors of power where the minority Toohey Government hangs by a thread – its stricken Foreign Minister on life support, her heart maintained by a single thought. Revenge.

Rabid Rottweilers prowl in the guise of Opposition senators, union thugs wage class warfare, TV anchors simper and fawn … and loyalty and decency have long since given way to compromise and treachery.

From the teahouses of Beijing to the beaches of Bali, from the marbled halls of Washington to the basements of the bureaucracy, Dunkley′s quest takes him ever closer to the truth – and ever deeper into a lethal political game.

Award-winning journalists Steve Lewis of News Ltd and Chris Uhlmann from the ABC combine forces in this arresting novel that proves fiction is stranger than fact.

My Take

Each of the shortish chapters in this novel is headed with a date, starting with June 16 2011, but the reader soon discovers these chapters are not sequential although there is a logic to them. Eventually this sent me to pen and paper to try to make sure I understood the time line.

We begin with Harry Dunkley, press gallery veteran in the National Parliament in Canberra being given a photo that is about 30 years old. He quickly identifies the Cabinet minister who is centre stage but who are the others?  Later on the same day Catriona Bailey, once Labour Prime Minister, but now the Foreign Minister, has a very public stroke on national television.

So Labour’s Toohey government, already an unpopular minority government hanging on by a thread, and predicted to lose the next election, begins a downward spiral. Can things get any worse?

THE MARMALADE FILES is political satire rather than strictly crime fiction, although crimes, including a murder, are committed. There’s a quirky humour from beginning to end, and certainly connections to current Australian politics, even if events have been warped and names changed.

For me, a fascinating read from beginning to end, although the ending strained my sense of credibility.

I’m not sure that THE MARMALADE FILES will have much appeal outside Australia but in case you do want to look for it, try Amazon (Kindle) or the publisher.

My rating: 4.8

And what do Australia’s politicians say? (Do they recognise themselves?)


Other reviews:

DOCUMENT Z by Andrew Croome

I’m not sure that this would normally be considered crime fiction but it was shortlisted in the best first novel category for the 2010 Ned Kelly Awards so I guess that qualifies it for this site.
If you ignore the fact that we (literally) lost one of our serving Prime Ministers in the 1960′s, relative to most countries in the world Australia’s political history is uneventful. We’ve had no civil wars, no major coups, our lone armed rebellion lasted a single day and for most of the 223 years of our political history you’d have had to look awfully hard to find more than six people holding anything approaching radical political beliefs. It is little wonder then that when a genuine political upheaval does occur it receives an enormous amount of attention. What is known colloquially as ‘the Petrov Affair’ is one of these events. Taking place in 1954 it involved the defection of a senior official from the Russian Embassy in Canberra and his wife who had both also been operating as spies. This sparked the Royal Commission on Espionage which in turn led to the severing of diplomatic relations between Australia and Russia until the end of the decade.
In Document Z Andrew Croome has provided a fictional account of these events from the point of view of the primary ‘players’: Vladimir Petrov, his wife Evdokia and the Polish/Australian spy who orchestrated Petrov’s defection. Croome says that using fiction allowed him to put his characters in every-day scenarios in a way that factual historians cannot For me, someone who has never been able to take the subject of spying seriously due to an early and prolonged exposure to Get Smart, I found this particularly effective as it showed that the art of spying is subject to the routines, mistakes, ordinariness and petty rivalries familiar to any workplace.
The story that Croome tells is personal rather than political. Vladimir is depicted as a womaniser, a petty thief and fairly unsuccessful spy. His decision to defect has a lot less to do with any deeply held beliefs than it does vested personal interest. His betrayal of his wife is in keeping with that character. Defecting alone, without telling her what he was up to, put Evdokia in an impossible situation because she had family in Russia whose safety she was worried for. Her story is just sad. Having lost her first husband to a Russian gulag she marries Vladimir more out of necessity than anything else. She appears to spend her entire life dealing with the real or imagined death of loved ones and, though she is stoic, it is quite heart breaking to read.
I have never been much engaged by the study of history as a series of dates and events to be remembered. In this confidently written novel Croome has provided the kind of history that is intriguing even if it is not entirely true (though the factual basis for his imaginings is evident). He shows us a reality that might very well have been. One in which there were innate problems in maintaining strong Marxist principles while living in a place that demonstrates daily that capitalism has its advantages and one in which people’s fears and worries don’t always (often?) lead them to do the laudable thing. As someone who has plowed through a considerable amount of the non-fiction available on this subject I found this fictional account offered the much-needed human element that is missing from so much historical writing.
*****
You can hear a 15-minute discussion with Andrew about the book on our national radio network’s Book Show here. He talks, among other things, about making use of the extensive documentary archive as well as ignoring it when it did not suit his narrative needs.
Document Z has won many awards including the 2008 Vogel Award (for best debut fiction by an Australian awarded by The Australian newspaper) and was shortlisted in the best first fiction category at the 2010 Ned Kelly Awards.
*****
My rating 4/5 
Author website http://www.andrewcroome.com/
Publisher Allen & Unwin [2009]
ISBN 9781741757439
Length 346 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone
Source I bought it

SMOKE & MIRRORS, Kel Robertson

Pan Macmillan Australia 2010, 326 pages
first published by Ginninderra Press 2008
ISBN 978-0-330-42619-0
Joint winner Ned Kelly Award winner 2009
#2 in the Brad Chen series.

Why would anyone want to murder an aging Australian ex-politician and his editor? And where was the manuscript they had been working on?

Alec Dennett had been a minister in the Whitlam government in the 1970s, and his autobiography had promised to reveal secrets that some people would rather see remain hidden. But surely no one would think they were important enough to kill for?

Detective Inspector Brad Chen of the Australian Federal Police has been on compassionate leave, hiding away at the university in Canberra doing a doctorate in politics. But its time to return to work, and really this sort of investigation, laced with political overtones, is just his sort of work. And there’s definitely somebody who doesn’t want the truth to come out. Before the end of the first day he has been beaten and threatened, so he’s obviously on the right track.

This political crime fiction won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. It isn’t that you need to know much about the Whitlam era, Robertson fills you in on all the details, but there’s more to the story than just a whodunnit, so an interest in politics helps. I suspect too the fact that it is Australian politics we are focussed on will also limit its audience appeal.
The blurb on the back of the novel refers to intricate plotting, witty dialogue and eccentric character, and it is right on all three counts.

Sites that might interest:
Kel Roberton’s web site
Sunnie’s review
Wikipedia: Australia’s 1975 constitutional crisis: the Whitlam dismissal

I liked SMOKE & MIRRORS a little more than I did #1 in the series DEAD SET (see below).
I don’t think you have to worry about reading DEAD SET before SMOKE & MIRRORS although perhaps it might help to read them in quick succession, rather than 3 years apart like I have.

My rating: 4.3

Mini-review of DEAD SET, #1 in the Brad Chen series,  published in 2006. My rating 4.0
The Hon. Tracey Dale, Australia’s Minister for Immigration (ALP) has been murdered in her Canberra apartment. She was the author of Australia’s current immigration policy: the Compassionate Australia Program, which has recently resulted in significant increase in Australia’s refugee intake. Some believe her death is the work of terrorists, or at the very least racists. Federal Australian Police Detective Inspector Brad Chen is returning from sick leave of 3 months, and this is his first case back. Some would see him as a man with many handicaps: still on crutches after being knocked down by a car,  an Australian-Chinese with Chinese appearance but unmistakeable Australian accent, addicted to pain killers of the worst sort, and named after a cricketer. DEAD SET is almost a political thriller as much as a murder mystery. Set in Canberra and Melbourne. As Chen’s investigation proceeds, the list of suspects grows, and others die. Tracey Dale ignored a time bomb, something that spelled political ruin for her. A debut novel for Kel Robertson.