Review: DEAD AGAIN by Sandi Wallace

DEAD AGAIN is the follow up to 2014’s TELL MY WHY and takes readers back to a deceptively peaceful-looking rural Victoria. At the novel’s outset journalist Georgie Harvey has been commissioned to write a feature on the two-year anniversary of devastating bushfires that killed many people and saw countless homes lost. She begins attempting to draw out individual stories of several survivors but soon starts concentrating her efforts on one family in particular. Meanwhile, in nearby Daylesford, the policeman who Georgie met in the first novel is investigating a series of local burglaries and dealing with a dangerous domestic violence situation.

Although the central setting here is a fictional town it’s clear that the parts of this novel dealing with the bushfires and its survivors is drawing on very real-world experiences of such events. There is a genuine authenticity to the feelings expressed and behaviour exhibited by the survivors. I admire this realism but it is also one of the things that made the novel a difficult one for me, though perhaps not for the expected reason. It made it almost impossible for me to read about Georgie and her behaviour which I found abhorrent. The way she bullies her way into people’s lives – assuming she has a right to do so because there’s a story there – made my skin crawl. When she deliberately engages a child survivor of the bushfires explicitly against the girl’s mother’s request I wanted to report her to whatever authority I could find. I know this says more about me and my hatred of invasive journalism than it does about the book but as a reader I can’t help but drag along my own biases and journalists with questionable ethics are a particular bugbear of mine. I would like to have seen some consideration of the ethical issues associated with Georgie’s journalism, aside from the very casual brush-off she gives the matter herself.

I don’t know if my intense dislike of Georgie’s behaviour overshadowed the rest of my reading experience or whether it would have been the case anyway but I struggled to engage with this novel as a whole. The investigative thread that Georgie teases out from her coverage of the fire survivors is actually an interesting one but the other threads – the ones taking part in policeman John Franklin’s part of Victoria –  never really engaged me. In fact this content seemed to be acting solely as a means of keeping the potential romance between John and Georgie alive. For about half of the book there seems to be no reason at all that we regularly switching between what’s happening in Bullock (the fictional town Georgie is working in) and the day-to-day life of John Franklin other than we know the pair have some kind of ‘connection’.

For me anyway DEAD AGAIN feels like it’s trying to be too many things at once: jumbling police procedural, modern romance and investigative thriller elements in a way that nearly works but doesn’t quite do so. The combination of a journalist and police investigator has potential but here it felt forced and unrealistic which jarred with the more authentic elements of the novel which include many of the minor characters in addition to the parts of the story dealing with bushfire survivors. Georgie’s professional lack of ethics and her ever-present willingness to fling herself into incredibly dangerous situations made her a chore to read about for me and though I often proclaim I don’t need a protagonist to be likeable I do need them to engage me in a way that doesn’t make me want to fling their book at a wall in sheer frustration.


aww2017-badgeThis is the 6th 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: Atlas Productions, 2017
ISBN: 9780995377677
Length: 318 pages
Format: eBook
Source of review copy: Provided by author for honest review

Review: THE UNFORTUNATE VICTIM, Greg Pyers

  • this edition published by Scribe 2017
  • ISBN 978-1-925321-97-5
  • 295 pages
  • Review copy supplied by publisher

Synopsis (Publisher)

Based on a true story…At midnight on 28 December 1864, in the Australian gold-mining town of Daylesford, young newly-wed Maggie Stuart lies dead in her own blood.
Rumour and xenophobia drive speculation over the identity of her killer, and when a suspect is  apprehended, police incompetence and defence counsel negligence bring yet more distortion to the wheels of justice.

In this climate of prejudice and ineptitude, it seems only Detective Otto Berliner is able to keep an objective mind and recognise that something is terribly wrong. He intends to put matters right, though all the odds are against him.

My Take

The Author’s Note says
This story is based on a murder committed in the gold-mining town of Daylesford, Australia in 1864. The names of some characters have been changed, but all the characters herein are based on real people.

In fact many of the names of the characters are not changed.

The first two thirds of the book deal with the murder and the subsequent 3 day trial.  My research shows that the author relied very heavily on the newspaper records of the time, sometimes using them almost verbatim. This part reminded me very much of what Truman Capote called a non-fiction novel.

At first two suspects are jailed for the murder of Maggie Stuart, but
one is eventually released. The other spends 7 months in jail as the
police build a case against him. Most of the evidence is circumstantial
and some vital evidence is totally missing,

Otto Berliner is an inspector in the Victoria Police, on leave, hoping to set himself up in the near future as a private detective. He does not attend the trial, but a friend does, and he takes notes which Berliner later finds useful.

Berliner goes to New Zealand for some time and returns just a week or so before the convicted murderer is due to be executed. He is convinced that the convicted man is innocent, and so from this time, there is a race against time to see if he can discover the murderer and get a stay of exceution.

I think the structure of the novel worked against the building of real tension until the final few pages. However it does present the case against the police well, as being too quick to adopt an easy solution, and too lazy to ask real questions.

My rating: 4.4

About the author
Greg Pyers grew up in the small Victorian town of Daylesford. As a boy,
he read the books of Gerald Durrell, and many years later, worked at
Durrell’s famous Jersey Zoo. Greg became a full-time writer in 1998,
following eight years as an educator in zoos, and several years as a
post-primary schoolteacher. He went on to write 160 natural history
books and three novels for children. Greg Pyers was short listed in the
2005 Children’s Book Council Awards in the non-fiction category. He won a
2004 Whitley Award from the Royal Zoological Society of NSW for Life in a Rock Pool, Gum Tree, Creek, and Desert Dune.
In The Wilderness Society’s 2002 Environment Award For Children’s
Literature, he won a Lifetime Achievement Award for his outstanding
contribution to children’s environmental literature. In 2005, Greg won
another Wilderness Society Award, this time for non-fiction. The Unfortunate Victim is Greg’s first work of adult fiction.

Review: SIGNAL LOSS, Garry Disher

  • This edition from Text Publishing, 2016
  • #7 in the Peninsula Crimes series
  • ISBN 9-781925-355260
  • 320 pages
  • source: my local library

Synopsis (Text Publishing)

A small bushfire, but nasty enough for ice cooks to abandon their lab.
Fatal, too. But when the bodies in the burnt-out Mercedes prove to be a pair of Sydney hitmen, Inspector Hal Challis’s inquiries into a local ice  epidemic take a darker turn. Meanwhile, Ellen Destry, head of the new sex crimes unit, finds herself not only juggling the personalities of her team but hunting a serial rapist who leaves no evidence behind.The seventh instalment in Garry Disher’s celebrated Peninsula Crimes series sets up new challenges, both professional and personal, for Challis and Destry. And Disher delivers with all the suspense and human complexity for which readers love him.

Garry Disher has published almost fifty titles—fiction, children’s books, anthologies, textbooks, the Wyatt thrillers and the Peninsula Crimes series. He has won numerous
awards, including the German Crime Prize (twice) and two Ned Kelly Best Crime novel awards, for Chain of Evidence (2007) and Wyatt (2010). Garry lives on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.

My Take

An impressive police procedural in an Australian rural setting, the Mornington Peninsula, depicting Victoria Police facing modern issues that are facing police the world over: the impact of ice on local communities, sex crimes, theft, and gangs. The plot strands are woven together with human interest stories, and keep the reader connected to the very end.

Within, the Victoria Police faces other issues too: an aging police force, the importance of technology, the use of DNA, competition between various police departments for the “final kill”,  and the possibility of burn out when the job takes on a 24/7 aspect. Disher presents well the aspects of modern life that confront ordinary civilians.

A recommended read.

My rating: 4.5

I’ve also read
4.7, WYATT
4.8, WHISPERING DEATH
4.7, BLOOD MOON
4.2, THE HEAT

Review: THE UNFORTUNATE VICTIM by Greg Pyers

theunfortunatevictimpyersStarting at the end of 1864 and taking place in fledgling gold-mining town of Daylesford, THE UNFORTUNATE VICTIM tells the story of the brutal murder of a newly married young woman and the attempts to catch her killer. As the story unfolds readers realise the book’s title may have a dual meaning; referring both to slain woman Maggie Stuart and the man who becomes the prime suspect in her murder.

We are told that the book is ‘based on a true story’ (the real-life murder of a woman called Margaret Graham) but I’ve no idea how close to the truth this book’s storyline stays as it depicts the somewhat arbitrary identification and subsequent conviction of a travelling labourer for the crime. I’m curious about which aspects of the story might be true but I shan’t say more for fear of spoilers. Here anyway the investigatory and legal proceedings suffer from a lack of evidentiary and procedural rigour but it’s easy to scoff from my 21st Century vantage point. At the time even the notion of using fingerprints as a means of identification was more than a decade in the future, let alone more advanced forensic sciences. What we – and poor Maggie Stuart – are left with is an officialdom consisting primarily of amateurs and a whole lot of guesswork. The bright spot is Detective Otto Berliner. Now working in Melbourne and proposing to become a private enquiry agent due to his dissatisfaction with the colony’s police force, Berliner has previously worked in Daylesford with much success and it is no real surprise when he is called on to assist the local police.

With historical fiction the setting has to feel authentic for the story to be a success and this one does. The social attitudes, the environment, the clothing, the buildings…Pyers makes it easy to imagine oneself in the Daylesford of 150 years ago when it was a far cry from the high-end spa town it is today. And if for a moment you forget what modern creature comforts might have been missing in this era the scenes involving a delayed search in a cesspit will remind you. Rarely I have been more grateful to have been born after the invention of indoor sewerage.

The publicity material for the book describes its central character as charming but I can’t say I found him so. Like many fictional sleuths he is too egotistical for that. I did find him interesting though which is why I was a bit miffed there was relatively little of him in the book. He really only plays a small part in proceedings until about the half-way point and for me that led to the book lacking a little focus. I might not have minded so much but for the setting of my expectations by the cover proclaiming this loudly to be an Otto Berliner investigation (I was muttering under my breath about him needing to show himself). On the up side though this lack of our hero in the early stages of the book does allow lots of time for the suspect pool town’s residents to be introduced in some detail. We also get to meet a local photographer who becomes Berliner’s eyes and ears for a time and I enjoyed this aspect of the book. Tom, his sensible wife and his observant son will make good regulars if this is set to become a series.

My other minor gripe is also to do with the management of expectations in that this book is labelled by its publisher as a ‘cosy crime’ novel. While it does take place in the kind of socially intimate setting that label might suggest it is very definitely not a book that downplays the violence associated with crime. I know someone who only reads cosy crime novels and I cannot imagine her getting past the explicit and extensive description of the brutality experienced by the victim here. Of course there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the content of the book – it’s not gratuitous – but if a readers are led to expect one kind of thing and find another at least some of them won’t be happy.

On reflection most of my very minor complaints about this enjoyable book are more to do with its publisher’s publicity decisions than the book’s content. The book itself is entertaining, the historical setting well realised and the tension – especially during the second half of the book – is quite palpable. I did not expect the resolution (which makes me wonder if it’s close to the truth) and I would happily read a future instalment of the adventures of Otto Berliner.


Publisher: Scribe [2017]
ISBN: 9781925321975
Length: 294 pages
Format: paperback
Source of review copy: advanced reader copy from publisher

Review: THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET by Jock Serong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: DEAD IN THE WATER by Tania Chandler

deadinthewaterchandlerAny Australian my age will surely remember the 70’s advertising campaign for a non-alcoholic mixer called Claytons: the drink you have when you’re not having a drink. To me DEAD IN THE WATER feels like the crime fiction you have when you’re not having crime fiction. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but in this instance I thought it made the book a bit bland; unsure of what it wanted to be. Although there is a crime it doesn’t really drive the story or any of the characters and I didn’t feel that the psychological suspense was moving things along either. In fact there wasn’t much moving along of any kind. To me this novel reads more like literary fiction in that it is primarily an exploration of one human being’s life and the stuff that happens in it is less important than how the subject feels about and reacts to those life events. Except for the last dozen or so pages where there is action a-plenty. Again this is not a bad approach in itself but the issue I had with it in this instance is that I didn’t find the book’s subject – the tragedy-packed life of Brigitte Serra – all that compelling.

The book is Tania Chandler’s second novel to centre on this character. I haven’t read the earlier instalment but didn’t feel at a disadvantage for that, with Chandler providing just enough information about previously described events for me not to feel out of the loop but not, I think, too much that those who have read the earlier novel will be bored by the repetition. But even without me having read them both, I cannot fail to notice that this supposedly average suburban mum has had enough traumatic life events to fill two books (so far) and I struggled somewhat with that fact. I know that all the reading I do requires me to suspend my disbelief but I couldn’t get past the mental hurdle that an average sort of person, even one who makes poor decisions on occasion, is unlikely to encounter all the horrendous things that have happened to Brigitte (who’s only in her 30’s by my reckoning). A car accident that nearly killed her and caused amnesia, being suspected of murder, one dead boyfriend (or maybe he was a fiancé?), one dead husband and a nearly-dead second husband are among the traumas Brigitte has experienced before this book starts. And in this one there’s a family member’s death, another’s attempted suicide and more that I can’t reveal for fear of spoilers. Which is how it came to pass that I never really ‘bought’ her character. And even if I had, the exploration of her dealing with these events was basically to watch her get drunk and wish she hadn’t (that’s Brigitte wishing she hadn’t, not me doing the wishing).

Brigitte is married to Aiden, a former homicide detective who, due to the events depicted in the first book which included him being shot, is now performing more routine police duties in eastern Victoria. They live with Brigitte’s twins from her first marriage and their own daughter Ella on Raymond Island: a small strip of land accessible only from the water in the Gippsland lakes. When a woman’s body is found on the island Aiden is only tangentially involved in the investigation of her death as detectives are sent from Melbourne to take charge but because the community is such a small one everyone is interested in events and in what insider knowledge the Serra family has of the investigation. But they, and we readers, are largely disappointed as there is never much provided in the way of investigatory detail or progress in the case. Instead the book focuses more on how Brigitte and her family are adapting to their new life – I gather some years have passed since the events of the first book – and how Brigitte and Aiden are coping (or not) with all life has thrown at them. For me there are missed opportunities here. For example I thought it pretty obvious what was wrong with Aiden and would like that to have come to light earlier so that the issue could have been explored more thoroughly rather than being hurriedly crammed into the final couple of chapters of the book.

Chandler has written publicly of her uncomfortableness with her writing’s categorisation and heaven knows I have lamented too strict genre labelling. Isn’t a book just a book in the end? Perhaps my hackles rose because it felt a little like the book was making a play for being better than standard crime fiction by not conforming to the tropes of the genre.The most obvious manifestation of this is when Brigitte starts critiquing a crime novel that’s part of the story, written by an old boyfriend of hers. After the third or fourth sneering jibe about the genre’s clichés I couldn’t help but think “pot, meet kettle, it’s not like the ‘young woman in repeated jeopardy’ is uncharted territory.”

Ultimately I found DEAD IN THE WATER equally readable and forgettable. For me the genre elements (what there were of them) were too obvious and, aside from the beautifully captured sense of place, the literary elements of the novel lacking much in the way of insight into the human condition. But of course I read through the eyes of a die-hard fan of the crime genre; perhaps this is a book better suited to those whose preferences lie elsewhere.


AWW2016This is the 14th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge (well technically it’s 13.5 as one book was written by a father/daughter team). For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Scribe [2016]
ISBN: 9781925321593
Length: 283 pages
Format: paperback

Review: DEAD MEN DON’T ORDER FLAKE by Sue Williams

deadmendontorderflakewilliamsIn crime fiction, particularly at the lighter, cosier end of the genre spectrum one of the issues that authors have to deal with is what I’ll call the Cabot Cove Effect. That being that in reality small towns and communities simply do not experience the number and variety of murders worthy of dramatic re-telling that even one book, let alone a series of them, demands. So there has to be something else about the books that makes it possible for readers to suspend disbelief. In my experience a lot of authors completely fail to achieve this which is the main reason I follow so few lighter series (many are started, few are finished). Having now published the second of what I hope will become a longer series of books set in the fictional Victorian town of Rusty Bore, population 147, Sue Williams could give lessons on how to get it right.

DEAD MEN DON’T ORDER FLAKE follows on from MURDER WITH THE LOT but you don’t have to have read the first book in order to enjoy this one. That fact is worth stating explicitly as it’s often difficult to dive into a series at anything other than the beginning so I am impressed when a book stands on its own merits. Furthermore, you could easily go back and read the first book after this one which is even less common. Full marks.

The next element Williams gets right is the tone of the story. It can’t be too serious (because of the aforementioned Cabot Cove Effect) but it can’t be so silly or gimmick-laden that it induces eye rolling in the average reader. Aside from the fact that there’s a higher than credible murder count for a small town, everything else about the story has a ring of truth so it is easy to ignore that one issue and go for the ride. The dead man of this book’s title is Leo Stone, an old flame of series heroine Cass Tuplin. Everyone in town thought Leo was dead. So dead they even held a remembrance ceremony and gave him a headstone. But he’s turned up now very much alive and with gun and/or diamond smuggling skills to his name. Or so the rumour mill goes. Meanwhile Cass is asked by the father of a local reporter to investigate her death. Police – in the form of Cass’ oldest son Dean – say Natalie Kellett was speeding and crashed her car at a notorious black spot. But her father is convinced this isn’t true. Could she have been working on a story important enough to have gotten her killed? Finding out proves to be very entertaining with lots of humour offsetting the dramatic moments.

The characters here are the sorts of people you work with or are related to or are neighbours with. OK maybe you don’t know anyone who owns multiple ferrets and don’t have a potential in-law who makes you buy g-string underwear while it’s on sale but I bet most of the characters display traits you are familiar with. The result is that it’s almost like being told a story about people you know. Sometimes they are annoying – I find Cass a mite too wrapped up in her adult children’s lives for example – but that’s what makes them realistic. And collectively Williams has created a group of people who are interesting and fun.

Based on the number of unfinished ones littering my ‘books to donate’ pile I suspect it sounds a lot easier than it actually is to wrte this kind of book well. Sue Williams has the balance of humour and drama just about perfect and without going over the top on ‘ocker traits’ provides an authentic Australian sensibility for this story. With a dash of nefarious local politics, a mysterious romantic element and terrific minor characters spanning twenty-somethings to the elderly there is something – or someone – for every reader.


AWW2016This is the 13th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth 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: Text [2016]
ISBN: 9781925240948
Length: 281 pages
Format: paperback

Review: THE DRY by Jane Harper

TheDryHarperAudioJane Harper’s THE DRY is well named. The drought-ridden, stiflingly-hot town of Kiewarra and its surrounding farmland dominate the book. Remote. A small population; always someone you know nearby which can be a blessing and a curse. And the weather. Always the weather. Refusing, almost with intent, to give even a hint of relief from heat and dryness and failing to provide the sustenance needed for the farming everyone relies on for their livelihoods. Their lives.

The story opens with an all-too imaginable scene of an apparent murder-suicide of a farming family in this inhospitable place. All dead except for baby Charlotte

First on the scene, the flies swarmed contentedly in the heat as the blood pooled black over tiles and carpet. Outside, washing hung still on the rotary line, bone dry and stiff from the sun. A child’s scooter lay abandoned on the stepping stone path. Just one human heart beat within a kilometre radius of the farm.

We are drawn into the story of this place via Aaron Falk. Kiewarra has dominated his life too. He was born there but left as a teenager. Forced out. Literally. After one of his friends had died. Officially she committed suicide but many locals think Aaron played a role in her death. Only something as dramatic as his best friend Luke Hadler’s funeral brings him back 20 years later, after he’s made a life for himself as a Federal police officer in Melbourne. Well that and a veiled threat. Still Aaron plans to be in and out of town pretty quickly but Luke’s parents have other ideas. They don’t believe their son killed his wife, their son and himself. They want Aaron to prove it. Need him to prove it.

A lot of crime novels rely on abnormalities to keep readers’ attention. Serial killers with macabre fantasies. Impossibly convoluted crimes. Implausibly brilliant and/or quirky detectives. THE DRY has none of that. Even that horrendous weather is par for the course in the driest continent on the planet. Yet even without gimmicks and quirks, the story is completely gripping. There is such a palpable sense of the hidden here. Some people’s secrets are innocuous – merely an attempt to wrestle some privacy from life in the fish bowl that small town living can be. Others are embarrassing. Others are truly awful. Criminal. Harper does a brilliant job of keeping us guessing about which is which right through the novel.

THE DRY is a very modern tale of Australian life that happens to have a crime or two in it. There’s no criminal mastermind at work. Just ordinary people reacting to what they experience. What they think they know. Aaron feeling unable to walk away, wanting to know the truth about his old friend Luke. Once and for all. Luke’s parents wanting to feel like they can look people they’ve known all their lives in the eye again. The local policeman wondering if the murder suicide is really staged or does he just want it to be something unusual. Random locals believing the version of that long ago death that has become folklore. Amidst the powerful backdrop of place these people’s stories could get swamped but Harper brings them all vividly and realistically to life and makes the reader desperate to know what has brought each of them to the point at which we’ve met them.

It would be more remarkable that this is a debut novel – because it is about as flawless as they come – except that Harper is a long-time journalist. So storytelling is clearly not new for her. Even so, whatever she produces next will have a lot to live up to. I for one can’t wait.

My experience of this truly excellent book was further enhanced via a fabulous narration of the audio version by local voice artist Steve Shanahan. His voice changes for different characters are perfect, his cadence and pacing are natural and he seems to be enjoying the story himself (this is not always the case). 


AWW2016This is the 11th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth 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: This edition Wavesound Audio (original edition Pan Macmillan) [2012]
Narrator: Steve Shanahan
ASIN: B01GSHH17S
Length: 9 hours 37 minutes
Format: audio book

Review: THE DRY, Jane Harper

  • format: Kindle (Amazon)
  • File Size: 3534 KB
  • Print Length: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Macmillan Australia (May 31, 2016)
  • Publication Date: May 31, 2016
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B01B40JHRQ

Synopsis  (Amazon)

WHO REALLY KILLED THE HADLER FAMILY?Luke Hadler turns a gun on his wife and child, then himself. The farming community of Kiewarra is facing life and death choices daily. If one of their own broke under the strain, well …

When Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk returns to Kiewarra for the funerals, he is
loath to confront the people who rejected him twenty years earlier. But when his investigative skills are called on, the facts of the Hadler case start to make him doubt this murder-suicide charge.

And as Falk probes deeper into the killings, old wounds are reopened. For Falk
and his childhood friend Luke shared a secret … A secret Falk thought long-buried … A secret which Luke’s death starts to bring to the surface …

Winner of the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript

My Take

Drought in Australia takes its toll in many ways and many believe that Luke Hadler has just snapped under the pressure. When Aaron Falk comes to the town for the funerals, he intends to get away as quickly as possible. But Luke’s parents ask him to try to work out what triggered the murder/suicides, and then Falk meets a local policeman who is having a hard job accepting that Luke Hadler killed his family.

Aaron Falk and his father left the rural Victorian country town after the death of one of Aaron’s friends. The final verdict was that Ellie had actually committed suicide, filling her shoes and pockets with stones, and drowning herself in a local swimming hole. Aaron and his father were questioned in connection with her death and then hounded out of town by Ellie’s father. Now, twenty years on, the old rumours resurface and many townspeople treat Aaron with hostility and suspicion.

This is a really well constructed novel, with a number of credible red herrings, and then a final solution that really comes out of left field.

A good read.

My rating: 4.7

About the author:

Jane Harper has worked as a print journalist for thirteen years both in
Australia and the UK. She lives in Melbourne and writes for the Herald Sun, among other publications. Winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, The Dry is her first novel with rights sold to over twenty territories.

Review: COMFORT ZONE by Lindsay Tanner

ComfortZoneTannerThese days I can count on one hand the number of politicians of any political persuasion I admire but former federal Finance Minister and ALP stalwart Lindsay Tanner makes the cut. Which explains why I was prompted to select his first foray into fiction writing for my book club to read this month. Something I now feel the urge to apologise for. I thought I didn’t have any expectations of the book because I didn’t know anything of the story before selecting it but realise now I had expectations of Tanner. He was a thoughtful politician and has demonstrated a capacity for nuanced communication of difficult issues in his public life and I anticipated that skill would be evident in his fiction writing. Alas…

Set in Melbourne with much of the action taking place within the boundaries of the inner city electorate Tanner served for seven years, COMFORT ZONE is primarily the story of Jack Van Duyn. Jack is a loser. If you forget for a moment that Jack is a loser you will be reminded. Either he will say it himself, someone will say it of him or his many failings will be repeated. I ran out of sticky notes in identifying all the times the book mentions Jack’s schmuck status but here are a few

Jack Van Duyn didn’t exactly cut an impressive figure. He was quite tall, but a gently protruding potbelly was accentuated by Australia’s least imposing set of shoulders.

and

Underneath Jack’s crusty exterior lay a dank, stagnant pool of loneliness that was slowly consuming him.

and

Jack’s world was full of pessimism, low expectations and failure. Missing out was normal. People like him were always at the end of the queue.

I won’t bore you with the dozens more similar quotes I could include. I know I was meant to be enchanted by the fact that over the course of the book Jack confounds his loser status by behaving against type but this transformation would have been a lot more intriguing if any level of subtlety had been applied to it.

Jack is a cabbie. One day as he is about to pick up a fare he notices two young African boys being assaulted by young men. On his own Jack would probably have done nothing but his would-be-passenger urges Jack to join him in rescuing the boys. The situation is resolved between our two heroes and a couple of police constables and that should have been the end of it. But Jack becomes smitten with the boys’ mother, single Somali mum Farhia Mohammed, and when he finds a book Farhia must have dropped seizes the opportunity to reconnect with her. Jack subsequently becomes involved in his passenger’s botched drug deal, a fight within the Somali community and soon has both ASIO and mysterious drug kingpins on his tail.

Alas that summary makes the story sound more interesting than it actually was. Although it’s a quick and short read at 240 pages it doesn’t reach any dramatic or comedic heights, is entirely predictable and almost entirely unbelievable. That wouldn’t have mattered quite so much if the attendant social commentary had been engaging but that too was laid on with an over-sized trowel rather than the artist’s brush I might have hoped for. To save you the trouble of finding our for yourself what it boils down to is this: people, even people who are different from us, are generally OK if you take the time to get to know them.

Groan.

I was going to say that if COMFORT ZONE had been written by someone else my reaction to it might have been different as I wouldn’t have had prior expectations of its author. But I am pretty confident the book would never have been published without ‘former federal government minister’ attached to the author’s name. So I think I was justified in having an expectation that the book would use Tanner’s relatively rare experiences to offer genuine insight into the complexities of modern inner city life rather than the thinly veiled lament about Green voters spoiling a once wondrous place (for non Australians following along Tanner’s former seat has been in the hands of the Australian Greens since 2010). When combined with overly stereotypical characterisations and some truly clunky dialogue I really could give a one word review: disappointing.

It seems my co-host here at Fair Dinkum Crime and fellow book club member liked the book more than I did so perhaps I won’t have to grovel too much about my choice

Publisher: Scribe [2016]
ISBN: 9781925321029
Length: 240 pages
Format: paperback