Review: GOODWOOD by Holly Throsby

Although the specific, eponymous town of Holly Throsby’s debut novel GOODWOOD does not exist in reality, her depiction of small town Australian life oozes the kind of authenticity that can only derive from genuine affection for its real world counterparts. In part the book is a coming of age story and in part a crime one, but mostly it is a story of place. A sad, beautiful and whimsical character study of Goodwood. A town that was peaceful and carefree before. Before teenager Rosie White said goodnight to her parents and was never seen again. And before, only a week later, the much-loved local butcher seemingly drowned while out fishing, though without a body his fate was as uncertain as Rosie’s. Jean Brown, a year younger than Rosie and narrator of the town’s story tells as that her home is irrevocably changed by these events

At school, the normal feeling of things had stopped and the unease had set in. The news of Rosie White was everywhere. It had travelled down the telephone lines and across dinner tables onto the pages of the Gather Region Advocate. It had taken up residence in the minds of students and teachers. It sat in the silence between sentences; in the things that people did not say. Goodwood had never been visited by such collective worry, and we were not familiar with the burden of the unknown.

Given that Throsby is better known as an award winning singer-songwriter it ought not to be surprising that GOODWOOD has a poetic, often lyrical quality to its writing. The repetition of certain phrases or images for example serves a functional purpose in helping get across that there is a kind of rhythm to the town’s life, but it also reminded me of the way a chorus works in music. Overall the writing is quite simple I suppose but I would take issue with those who have labelled it simplistic. To me it felt like Throsby had chosen the right language and tone for this particular story. Language laden with artifice or dense phrases would have been all wrong. And the book is very, very readable. I devoured it in a couple of sittings.

The dedicated fan of traditional crime fiction might be disappointed with GOODWOOD’s lack of procedural elements. Or even its lack of obvious crime given that whether or not anything criminal has taken place is unclear until the very end of the book. But what the book does have is a very careful unpicking of the big and small secrets that people keep. Even people in small towns where everyone knows everything about everyone. Throsby shows what superhuman effort can be needed to tell. Whether it was Jean screwing up the courage to tell the town’s policeman what she had found in the clearing, or permanently frightened Doe Murray who had to try 26 times before she summoned the will to leave her house and make her own report to the same policeman these portraits were outstandingly done. And there is suspense here, partly because the book isn’t following any well-worn path so the seasoned reader’s assumptions about who’s probably done what to whom are likely to be off-base.

Having been underwhelmed recently by crime novels written by people famous in other fields, I didn’t really have huge expectations for GOODWOOD but I was pleasantly surprised by its thoughtful and authentic feel. Its depiction of the town’s mysteries being solved in large part through waiting for people’s secrets to come bubbling to the surface has a real ring of truth to it. As does the picture of the town as a whole – both before and after the disappearances. Top reading indeed.


aww2017-badgeThis is the 11th 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: Allen & Unwin, 2016
ISBN: 9781760293734
Length: 378 pages
Format: paperback
Source of review copy: I bought it

Review: BIG LITTLE LIES, Liane Moriarty

Synopsis (Pan Macmillan Australia)

The internationally bestselling author turns her unique gaze on the dangerous little lies we tell ourselves every day and what really goes on behind closed suburban doors.

‘I guess it started with the mothers.’
‘It was all just a terrible misunderstanding.’
‘I’ll tell you exactly why it happened.’

Pirriwee Public’s annual school Trivia Night has ended in a shocking riot. A parent is dead. Was it murder, a tragic accident… or something else entirely?

Big Little Lies is a funny, heartbreaking, challenging story of ex-husbands and second wives, new friendships, old betrayals and and schoolyard politics.

‘Let me be clear. This is not a circus. This is a murder investigation.’

Winner of the ABIA General Fiction Book of the Year

My Take

When your child goes off to kindy, it isn’t just him or her that joins a new world. The parent(s) join a new world too, populated by novices like themselves, and also by other parents who have confidence that has come from experience generated by older children. And most are unprepared for the rivalry that will be generated as children are classified and their performance compared with that of others. It is a world of stresses, complicated by the fact that most families are hiding things they don’t necessarily want to share.

But nothing that I experienced back in those kindy days led to the death of one of the other parents. This novel is full though of very believable scenarios and I enjoyed every minute of it. The natural audience for this book is probably women who have “been there”, and I guarantee that it will stir memories.

A certain amount of tension is created by the fact that for most of the novel the reader does not know who is going to die, and why. Is the person who caused the death going to escape detection? After the death no-one wants to talk.

Liane Moriarty is an Australian author to watch,

My rating: 4.8

I’ve also read
4.6, THE HUSBAND’S SECRET

Novels to look for (list from Fantastic Fiction)

Review: THE HUSBAND’S SECRET, Liane Moriarty

  • first published 2013, Pan Macmillan Australia
  • ISBN 978-1-74261-394-9
  • 402 pages
  • Author website

Synopsis ( Author website)

At the heart of The Husband’s Secret is a letter that’s not meant to be read…

My Darling Cecilia, if you’re reading this, then I’ve died…Imagine your husband wrote you a letter, to be opened after his death. Imagine, too, that the letter contains his deepest, darkest secret – something with the potential to destroy not just the life you built together, but the lives of others too.

Imagine, then, that you stumble across that letter while your husband is still very much alive…

Cecilia Fitzpatrick has achieved it all – she’s an incredibly successful business woman, a pillar of her small community and a devoted wife and mother. Her life is as orderly and spotless as her home.
But that letter is about to change everything, and not just for her: Rachel and Tess barely know Cecilia – or each other – but they too are about to feel the earth-shattering repercussions of her husband’s secret.

My Take

I have had many people recommend this author to me, and particularly urging me to read  THE HUSBAND’S SECRET and BIG LITTLE LIES which I aim to read sometime soon.

There are 3 intertwined stories in THE HUSBAND’S SECRET. The connections are not obvious at first and I felt initially that I was having to work hard to get the names and the families straight in my head. The main setting is Sydney, Australia, but I didn’t think the setting actually mattered. I could see that the stories would appeal to an American audience too.

I’ve talked with people about whether this is really crime fiction. Certainly a crime was committed and the plot reaches back nearly four decades. But in reality the book is not so much about the crime but about relationships and family. In some ways it is a lot less noir than my usual reading, but there is a strong element of psychological exploration, and the dilemma about what to do with the secret.

So, I’m not going to tell you any more, other than the book was extremely readable, and that this is an author worth following.

My rating: 4.6

About the author

A new-to-me Australian author who has recently become hugely successful
Three Wishes (2003)
The Last Anniversary (2005)
What Alice Forgot (2010)
The Hypnotist’s Love Story (2012)
The Husband’s Secret (2013)
Big Little Lies (2014)
aka Little Lies
Truly Madly Guilty (2016)

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