Review: THE UNMOURNED by Meg Keneally and Tom Keneally

Robert Church is the man whose murder sets off the second adventure of Hugh Monsarrat, newly freed convict and clerk to the governor’s secretary in the still young colony of New South Wales, and the woman who is ostensibly his housekeeper but really his best friend, Hannah Mulrooney. As Superintendent of the Parramatta women’s prison (known as the Female Factory) Church took full advantage of his position’s power by starving, abusing and sexually assaulting the prisoners as well as siphoning off whatever he could to line his own pockets. Literally no one, not even his beleaguered wife, mourns his death and it would be easy for the case to be quickly dealt with if not for the fact that the prime suspect appears, at least to Monsarrat, to potentially be innocent. But everyone else, including his own boss, believes Grace O’Leary, an outspoken leader among the female convicts, guilty of the crime. Monsarrat, ably assisted by Mrs Mulrooney, has only a few days and a limited amount of official tolerance for his shenanigans, to conclude his investigation.

It is always with some trepidation I approach a book I am really hoping to like because, as happened last month, it can be disappointing. But Meg and Tom Keneally did not let me down with this second instalment of their historical crime series set in colonial Australia. Although I enjoyed this novel’s predecessor, last year’s THE SOLDIER’S CURSE, very much I thought this one even better. The story here is more complex and so ultimately a more satisfying tale to unravel. Given the murder victim’s reputation there is no shortage of suspects and even if they aren’t involved in the crime many of them have secrets they’d prefer to keep hidden. Trying to ascertain which of the many secrets provided a motivation for murder keeps our amateur sleuths, and this reader, guessing until the very end.

Even Mrs Mulrooney has something to hide and its revelation provides a turning point in her relationship with Monsarrat, though not in the way the person who reveals the secret anticipates. These two characters and their relationship – something of a surrogate mother/son one I suppose – is another highlight of the novel. Monsarrat is forced to confront his core beliefs as he comes against situations in which his own freedom, something he values very deeply, is threatened if he continues down a certain path. It’s not immediately obvious which choice he will make and it’s hard to blame someone for wanting to avoid a third foray into fairly brutal penal life so there is real tension in seeing this thread unfold over the course of the story. Mrs Mulrooney continues to grow in confidence as she writes her first letters to her son, thanks to Monsarrat’s teaching. Her observations about the difficulties involved in learning to read and write offer an excellent insight into her practical and astute character

“…I would have to say that the letters won’t behave themselves. They keep insisting on doing different things in different words. There is no logic to it, no organisation. If I ran a kitchen the way the English language runs itself, it would be in ruins.”

Despite these problems Mrs Mulrooney in turn becomes a writing teacher as well as a friend to some of the inhabitants of the Female Factory. What we learn of her personal history, including her connection to the events which occurred at Vinegar Hill in 1798 only endears her further to Monsarrat (and readers).

Once again the Keneally duo has wrapped a terrific story around a fascinating and credible depiction of life in Parramatta in 1825. The physical aspects of the setting are vividly brought to life as are the psychological and emotional elements that must surely eventuate in a place where most people are either criminals (or ex-criminals) or their captors. The power imbalances and opportunities for abuse and ill-treatment seem endless and it’s almost a miracle that some people, like Grace O’Leary, retain their humanity in the face of it all.

I can wholeheartedly recommend THE UNMOURNED to fans of historical crime fiction but would even suggest it to those who’ve not tried this sub genre before. The book has humour, a touch of romance, and intelligently explores our social and political history while introducing memorable characters and telling a ripper yarn. What more could you want?


aww2017-badgeThis is book 4 I’ve read and reviewed for the sixth 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: Penguin Random House [2017]
ISBN: 9780857989390
Length: 321 pages
Format: paperback
sOURCE: I bought it

Review: THE GOLDEN CHILD by Wendy James

WARNING: This review contains spoilers. Events which occur towards the end of the book are discussed in some detail in the 6th paragraph below. It doesn’t reveal the plot’s surprise twist but it is a pretty major reveal all the same. I tried but could not manage to discuss my thoughts about the book without revealing more plot spoilers than I am normally comfortable with.

thegoldenchildjamesUsing the philosophy that underlies the advice about ripping bandaids off quickly, I’m going to get the hard part of this review out now: I didn’t like THE GOLDEN CHILD. I wanted to like it. Very much. I have read most of Wendy James’ other books and thought them all very good, with THE MISTAKE having a firm place on my ‘go to’ list of great book recommendations for any sort of reader. I bought this one on pre-order, even before I started seeing all the good reviews it has garnered. But though I kept reading and hoping my dislike was a temporary thing, the book never really grabbed me at all. I imagine the Germans have a great word to describe the particular kind of disappointment that follows the non-enjoyment of a much anticipated book. In the absence of their superior linguistic skills I’ll just say I am sad.

The book – which falls within the suspense genre at its broadest definition – is centred on the Mahoney family. Well the Mahoney women really; engineer Dan Mahoney’s role in this story is to act as the plot device for moving the family from one place to the next. Dan’s wife Beth is the 40-something mother to teenagers Lucy and Charlie, or Charlotte as she decides she will be called when the family moves from the US to Australia where Dan and Beth were both born. Beth has a blog – where she presents an idealised version of her family life to the world – but has not worked outside the home since the kids were born. Though, as she reminds us often, she was not legally allowed to work while they lived in the US, it wasn’t like she chose just to stay home. Lucy, older than her sister by a year, is a pretty average daughter and student while Charlie is the alpha female in any group. Popular. Gifted. Ambitious. Troubled?

Beth makes friends with Andi, mother of Sophie who is one of Charlotte’s classmates at the prestigious private school the girls attend in their new home. Although musically gifted Sophie struggles socially so Andi is keen to help a potential friendship develop and gets the two families together as much as possible. Alas neither Andi nor her husband notice that Sophie is being subjected to more than the usual teenage meanness. She’s being seriously bullied, both online and in real life. Readers see it all along but the fact is only revealed to Sophie’s parents in a very frightening way.

One of the things I didn’t like about this book is its treatment of its male characters. Neither Steve (Andi’s husband) nor Dan have much agency in their own right let alone as fathers or husbands. In a different book written in a different era Steve and Dan would have been the female appendages to more charismatic, important male characters so emotionally stunted and two dimensional were they. I don’t know if this was a deliberate kind of ‘turning the tables’ on gender issues in literature or there wasn’t room to flesh either of these characters out or James just wasn’t interested in their stories but this just didn’t strike me as terribly realistic for a story unfolding in the present day.

Perhaps I would have found this treatment of the male gender more forgivable if the female characters had been stronger than they were. I don’t mean I didn’t like them (that is true but not my point) but that they didn’t develop. Even when their respective worlds fracture neither of the adult female characters changes in any meaningful way nor does any of the deep soul searching that is, surely, to be expected. There’s a fluttering of angst from both and some surprisingly short-lived anger from Andi and then it’s back to the average parenting and self-absorption they were both engaged in prior to ‘the event’.

[Spoiler alert] But the aspect of the book that most disappointed me was its handling of the central thematic issue. The way that Sophie lets on to the adults in her life that things are not going well is a suicide attempt. For some days she lies in a coma and there is uncertainty about whether she will have brain damage even if she does survive. During this period her parents are appropriately angry and vengeful. Her teachers are lining up for a proportionate response and even Beth and Dan are at least slightly invested in doing something about ‘the issue’. But when Sophie pulls through with no adverse health effects things revert almost to ‘normal’. As if nothing had ever happened. Sophie herself appears to have no memory of a suicide attempt (and no mention is made of her having any kind of treatment which in the health system I work in is just entirely unrealistic for a 12 year old who has seriously attempted suicide), both sets of parents appear eager to pretend that everything is fine and the school goes out of its way to whitewash the whole affair. I could have bought one, or perhaps two, of those but the notion that everyone involved is prepared to play make believe just stretched the bounds of credibility beyond breaking point for me. I know it’s fiction but in other aspects – such as its descriptions of the escalating cruelty towards Sophie – the book has presented itself in a realistic style and I don’t think this kind of thing can be turned on and off quite so easily. [End spoilers]

Although its depiction of the bullying teenagers can dish out seems perfectly, and scarily, accurate that wasn’t enough to make this book a good read for me. I thought its characters lacked depth and its story too contrived and unbelievable. For me the central question posed by the book’s premise – how might someone cope when they learn they are the parent of a bully – is never dealt with in any substantive way. However THE GOLDEN CHILD has been getting rave reviews just about everywhere but here so, as always, other opinions are available.


aww2017-badgeThis is the 2nd book I’ve read and reviewed for the sixth 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: Harper Collins [2017]
ISBN: 9781460752371
Length: 338 pages
Format: paperback
Source of review copy: I bought it

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: 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Review: DEATH OF A LAKE by Arthur Upfield

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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


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

Review: NOW YOU SEE ME by Jean Bedford

I was quite excited to see Australian author Jean Bedford’s name appearing on a new releases for 2016 list and promptly added the title to my library requests list. The copy they dutifully provided looked too dog-eared to be this year’s and I have since discovered that Endeavour Press – independent publisher of eBooks, many of which are out of print – have released a new edition of a book first published in 1997. My review is of the earlier edition.

NowYouSeeMeBedfordJean27780_fI apologise in advance if what follows sounds confused. Overall I liked the book – it is very readable, has a high pageturnyness score and tackles a difficult subject thoughtfully – but there are some elements that make me pretty darned uncomfortable. Though of course that is likely the point.

Action in NOW YOU SEE ME centres on a group of adults, most of whom were at University together some years ago. They are an incestuous little clique – having multiple coupling variations between them and seeming reluctant to welcome members’ partners or other newcomers into their circle. The fact that the reader easily believes any one of them could be a child murderer operating undetected in Sydney is an indication of how dysfunctional they all are. I know that in classic whodunits it is normal for an entire cast of characters to operate as the suspect pool but for some reason I find it easier to swallow that premise when applied to a collection of strangers invited to a country house for the weekend than a group of long-time friends and their partners. To be fair though this book does offer the notion that people with similar backgrounds tend to be drawn to each other as a reasonable explanation for such disturbed individuals all knowing each other.

We know one of the group is a killer because that person tells part of the story via a series of italicized chapters detailing their own childhood of extreme abuse and the actions they’ve undertaken as an adult. Regular readers of my ramblings will know I’m not a huge fan of this literary device but I have to acknowledge that most of my annoyance is due to overuse and it’s entirely probable that in 1997 italicized thoughts from inside the mind of a serial killer was some years away from becoming a tired cliché.

That said those passages are graphic. The violence is not, on consideration, gratuitous, but it is very, very graphic. Readers wary of this type of content should consider themselves warned: it is at the borderline of what I would normally read and I considered stopping a couple of times.

The author has gone to some pains to let us know her depictions of sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children have been included in NOW YOU SEE ME for reasons other than to titillate. For example political theorist Hannah Arendt, whose 1970 essay On Violence is still an influential work on the subject, gets a deliberate mention and there are other signs that the passages are not merely aiming to shock or entertain. Rather, their aim is to reflect reality. A harsh reality no doubt but one which did – and still does – exist outside the pages of fiction for too many children and which society has for most of history swept under the proverbial carpet. I couldn’t help but ponder if Bedford might make different choices if writing the book today when there are some signs, such as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse which has now been hearing evidence around the country for three years, that collectively we are more aware of these realities and are taking steps to prevent future occurrences. But perhaps she would still feel that the story needs these passages to provide readers with a real sense that child abuse takes many forms, is not always perpetrated by identifiable no-hopers and has lasting and unimaginable consequences for its victims. Personally I think the story could have had the same powerful narrative and thematic impact without so many detailed descriptions of abusive acts but accept this issue is a subjective one and that the author’s intentions are sound. And there’s no arguing: she does get her point across.

Although I baulked at accepting them as a collective suspect pool I thought the individual characterisations were very good. The emotional baggage that the core group are all carrying manifests itself in various ways, all of them realistic. The two that particularly stood out for me were the couple struggling to deal with the male member’s need to dress as a woman. Both go through a range of emotions including embarrassment, confusion, selfishness and despair and the reader is brought along with them, feeling equally sympathetic for both parties going through a difficult experience.

Noel Baker is the outsider: a journalist who becomes convinced that some of the deaths of vulnerable children which have occurred in Sydney in recent times are the responsibility of a single killer rather than the various parents and guardians who have been convicted of the crimes. She struggles to generate official interest in her theory but does make friends with a female police constable, who also happens to be the girlfriend of one of the core suspect pool, and they start looking at cases in which things might not be as they first appear. Noel is realistically portrayed. Stumbling about somewhat given that her theory is implausible and difficult to prove regardless of its veracity and when it becomes clear who the likely perpetrator is as she says to her boyfriend

I can’t think straight. It was like a game – working out the rules, angling for the moves. Then it stopped being a game, it was someone I knew, someone I cared for. It made me go to water.

This sensibility – that there is a chasm between intellectual exercise and reality – should exist in more crime novels but rarely seems to be acknowledged.

I even liked the ending of this novel though it won’t be for everyone. It’s too ambiguous for some but I thought it fitting. Unpleasant and anger-inducing but more believable than a resolution which tied everything up neatly would have been.

So I am glad to have read NOW YOU SEE ME though there were points when I thought I might not be. The graphic nature of its content, particularly the depictions of violence being inflicted upon children, will be too much for some but I did find it worth persevering through the difficult content. The book has a lot to say about the insidiousness of child abuse and its ever-lasting consequences and the complexities of investigating it and the impact of that activity on those tasked with doing it. It’s certainly not a book easily forgotten.


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


 
Publisher: Random House [1997]
ISBN/ASIN: 0091832411
Length: 306 pages
Format: paperback

Review: AN ISOLATED INCIDENT, Emily Maguire

  • format: Kindle (Amazon)
  • File Size: 1161 KB
  • Print Length: 316 pages
  • Publisher: Picador Australia (March 22, 2016)
  • Publication Date: March 22, 2016
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B01AKXZOS4
  • Author website

Synopsis  (Amazon)

When 25-year-old Bella Michaels is brutally murdered in the small town of Strathdee, the community is stunned and a media storm descends.

Unwillingly thrust into the eye of that storm is Bella’s beloved older sister, Chris, a barmaid at the local pub, whose apparent easygoing nature conceals hard-won wisdom and the kind of street-smarts only experience can bring.

As Chris is plunged into despair and searches for answers, reasons, explanation – anything – that could make even the smallest sense of Bella’s death, her ex-husband, friends and neighbours do their best to support her. But as the days tick by with no arrest,
Chris’s suspicion of those around her grows.

An Isolated Incident is a psychological thriller about everyday violence, the media’s
obsession with pretty dead girls, the grip of grief and the myth of closure, and the difficulties of knowing the difference between a ghost and a memory, between a monster and a man.

My Take

AN ISOLATED INCIDENT is not really about the investigation into the horrific death of Bella Michaels, although that happens in the background for nearly three months with few suspects. It is not really even about Bella herself although we are looking over her shoulder as investigative reporter May Norman tries to understand who Bella was and what might have caused her violent end.

Through the eyes of Chris Rogers, Bella’s older half sister, and May Norman we uncover the nature of the town of Strathdee, a truck stop half way between Sydney and Melbourne. After the first flush of media activity caused by the discovery of Bella’s body the reporters depart but May stays on. She feels that there is more of a story to be had if she can interview a few more residents and then focus on Chris.

The novel has its focus in uncovering the sort of town Strathdee is, the violence that seems to underpin most relationships, the impact of Bella’s death on Chris and also on those who barely knew her, and on May’s own relationships.

There’s plenty to think about in this novel, plenty to talk about in a book group if you are part of one, but be warned, you may find the scenarios and language confronting.

My rating: 4.8

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About the author
Emily Maguire is the author of the novels An Isolated IncidentFishing for Tigers, Smoke in the Room, The Gospel According to Luke and the international bestseller Taming the Beast. She was named as a Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year in 2010 and again in 2013. She is the recipient of the 2011 NSW Writer’s Fellowship.

Her non-fiction book Princesses and Pornstars: Sex + Power + Identity
(2008) is an examination of how the treatment of young women as fragile
and in need of protection can be as objectifying and damaging to them
as pornography and raunch culture. A Young Adult version of this book
titled Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power, Choice was published in 2010.
Emily’s articles and essays on sex, feminism, culture and literature have been published widely including in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Observer and The Age.