Review: AND FIRE CAME DOWN, Emma Viskic

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

 Synopsis (Echo Publishing)

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

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

My Take

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

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

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

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

My Rating: 4.3

I’ve also read
4.3, RESURRECTION BAY

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

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

Review: FORCE OF NATURE by Jane Harper

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Review: A DANGEROUS LANGUAGE by Sulari Gentill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

I have reviewed this book’s predecessors:

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


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


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

Review: GOODWOOD, Holly Throsby

Synopsis (publisher)

A delightful debut novel of secrets and small town obsessions from Australian musician and songwriter, Holly Throsby.
It wasn’t just one person who went missing, it was two people. Two very different people. They were there, and then they were gone, as if through a crack in the sky. After that, in a small town like Goodwood, where we had what Nan called ‘a high density of acquaintanceship’, everything stopped. Or at least it felt that way. The normal feeling of things stopped.

Goodwood is a small town where everyone knows everything about everyone. It’s a place where it’s impossible to keep a secret.

In 1992, when Jean Brown is seventeen, a terrible thing happens. Two terrible things. Rosie White, the coolest girl in town, vanishes overnight. One week later, Goodwood’s most popular resident, Bart McDonald, sets off on a fishing trip and never comes home.

People die in Goodwood, of course, but never like this. They don’t just disappear.

As the intensity of speculation about the fates of Rosie and Bart heightens, Jean, who is keeping secrets of her own, and the rest of Goodwood are left reeling.

Rich in character and complexity, its humour both droll and tender, Goodwood is a compelling ride into a small community, torn apart by dark rumours and mystery.

My Take
An interesting novel just on the edge of crime fiction. The reader is never sure whether a crime has taken place or not. I found it a read that you had to take slowly just so that you wouldn’t miss anything important.
We see life in the small town of Goodwood in rural Victoria through the eyes of Jean Brown, in her final year of high school. Rosie White, a year older than Jean, is the first to disappear. Her mother goes to wake her one Sunday morning and her bed is empty and her window wide open. Rumours fly thick and fast and the town is divided in opinion on whether she has run away or whether she has been taken, and is even perhaps dead.
The town residents largely regard the town as a safe haven, somewhere where crimes can’t occur, where young people can largely roam without fear of attack. In fact a number of the residents including Jean’s mother have returned to Goodwood after a time away. It is a small town where everybody knows everybody-else, and most “nasty” characters are identified and avoided.
Jeanie doesn’t always understand what she has observed and she is distracted by the arrival of a new girl in town.
When a second person disappears, it seems that something is seriously wrong. The town has turned into a place of danger.
A lovely read, lots of humour, and still enough mystery to keep this crime fiction addict engaged.

My rating: 4.4

About the author
Holly Throsby is a songwriter, musician and novelist from Sydney, Australia. She has released four critically acclaimed solo albums, a collection of original children’s songs, and an album as part of the band, Seeker Lover Keeper. Goodwood is Holly’s debut novel.

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