Review: THE BANK MANAGER, Roger Monk

  • first published by the Horizon Publishing Group 2016
  • ISBN 13: 978-1-922234-573
  • 337 pages
  • source: my local library
  • paperback also available from Amazon

Synopsis (Publisher)

Detective Sergeant Brian Shaw is transferred  to a country town.

Just an ordinary, average Australian country town where nothing ever happens — except blackmail, fornication, embezzlement, revenge, avarice, brutality, snobbery, rape … and murder.

Like any other ordinary, average Australian country town.

My Take

We first met DS Brian Shaw in Roger Monk’s first crime fiction book, THE BANK INSPECTOR.
I felt his character emerged rather more clearly in THE BANK MANAGER.

The year is 1950. Superintendent Matthews of  the South Australian Police Headquarters decides to try stationing detectives in different regions in the state. This will mean when a serious crime occurs a detective will not have to be sent out from Adelaide, he will already be more or less on the spot.
Brian Shaw’s boss Inspector Williams breaks the news to him that he will be reporting to the Midway police station on Yorke Peninsula as officer in charge of all detective functions.

Shaw does not have very long to settle in. The day after he arrives the manager of the Midway branch of the Great Southern Bank disappears on his way back from visiting a local agency. His car mysteriously turns up in his garage overnight but there is no sign of Frank Anderson.

I very much enjoyed this carefully plotted story. There is a good sense of South Australian country life just after World War Two, and some interesting characters.  Brian Shaw is seen by some families as an eligible bachelor, and receives a number of social invitations which gives the reader a good idea of the structure of this country town.

Unfortunately there is no sign of an e-book, but South Australians at least can easily get a copy of both titles through their local library. I look forward to the next in this series.

My rating: 4.8

I’ve also read 4.8, THE BANK INSPECTOR

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

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

A Rowland Sinclair teaser

On Friday an email I received made me grin like an idiot. This was a little embarrassing as I was in a  work meeting and surreptitiously checking my personal emails on my phone. No one in the meeting could have assumed the meeting was making me smile (it was a very dull, bureaucratic meeting of the kind that public servants everywhere get dragged into far too regularly) and no one could have missed the smile either. So now they all know I wasn’t paying attention. But I don’t care because the email alerted me to the existence of a new Rowland Sinclair story from Sulari Gentill. Woot. Squee. And other inappropriate terms for a non teenager to express.

theprodigalsongentillIt wasn’t the latest novel in the series which I have been eagerly anticipating since closing the cover on the previous one but I’ll take what I can get. In this instance it’s a novella which acts as a prequel to the current series. And it’s available now. For free. For everyone. Even you. As well as the story it contains some of Sulari Gentill’s paintings inspired by the story and setting. It’s called THE PRODIGAL SON and it takes place in 1928, about three years before A FEW RIGHT THINKING MEN which is the first novel of the series. You can go download it now.

afewrightthinkingmenaudioAlas I have already downloaded and devoured the 104 page novella – which depicts among other things how Rowland gets together with his trusted friends Edna, Milton and Clyde and involved a rather heart-stopping kidnapping – and will now have to wait until September next year for new news of Rowly and his friends. Sigh. This made me a bit sad so I did what any good fan would do, bought the first book in a different format to read again (and it’s fair enough as someone to whom I have loaned my hard copy of this book never gave it back). The publicity material for the novella alerted me to the fact that A FEW RIGHT THINKING MEN is now available as an audio book narrated by Rupert Degas, an English voice over artist who currently lives here in Australia. I started listening while doing some gardening last night and it’s delightful.

If you have for some inexplicable reason not yet embarked upon this series now is the perfect time to start. You can sample what is to come via the free novella and then will have seven wonderful novels ready and waiting for you. The series features Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair, an artist from a wealthy family, his three staunch friends and Rowly’s extended, and sometimes exasperated family. Although on one level the books are at the lighter end of the spectrum and are often dead funny they do explore some difficult social themes, not least of which is the era’s growth of right-wing fanaticism which feels particularly pertinent in these troubled times. I love highlighting this series as an example of crime fiction that tackles hard subjects without resorting to extreme violence and endless despair. If you need to hear a bit more about the books before diving in check out the review links below or read an essay about the series that appeared at Newton Review of Books earlier this year

gentillseries

 

Review: ONLY DAUGHTER by Anna Snoekstra

onlydaughtersnoekstraI wasn’t surprised to read that Anna Snoekstra’s debut novel ONLY DAUGHTER has already been picked up by Hollywood. To me it read more like a movie script than a novel and whether you think that is a compliment or not will probably determine whether or not you’ll want to read it. For me it was quick and readable but never really delivered on its intriguing premise.

A young woman is caught shoplifting. To avoid being fingerprinted – when the truth about her past would come to light – she tells police she is Rebecca Winter. She’d seen a TV show about Winter a few months earlier: a teenage girl who had disappeared from her Canberra suburb a decade earlier. The young woman looked uncannily like Bec. At least enough like her to pretend for a few hours until she can escape police clutches. Only she doesn’t escape. Instead she goes home with Bec’s family. Because she really misses having a family.

We never learn the young woman’s real name so I’ll call her Pretend Bec. About half of the book is told from her perspective in 2014 in the days after she is ‘found’. Her parents, twin brothers and best friend all seem to accept that she is really Bec. Anything she doesn’t know she either fakes or pretends not to remember. Pretend Bec is enjoying having a family, especially a mother who looks after her. We don’t learn much about whatever it is that Pretend Bec is running away from but we do know her real mother has not been in the picture for some time. The other half of the book is real Bec’s story unfolding in 2003 in the days leading up to her disappearance. She is a fairly typical teenage girl with a best friend, a crush on an older boy at work and a couple of secrets that could lead to an unpleasant demise. Snoekstra pulls off this narrative structure well and the two threads are easy to keep track of while offering a good way to build up tension.

The rest of the book was less successful for me. This is mostly because I never really bought the situation I was meant to suspend my disbelief for. I could accept that the people who knew Bec would accept her reappearance – at least for a while – because the power of wanting such a thing must be fierce. But the way officialdom handled the event never rang true. For example the act Pretend Bec used to get out of providing DNA (which would have immediately proven her a liar) is completely implausible, as is the broader way police (represented by a lone detective) are portrayed as handling the reappearance. Snoekstra had already given herself a tougher than normal job of maintaining suspense by showing readers that Pretend Bec wasn’t the real missing girl; adding a laughably incompetent police and a strangely standoffish media presence just made it all the more difficult. Not to mention a complete lack of social media which for events taking place in 2014 just added to the lack of credibility for me.

The other element that didn’t really work for me were the characters. Real Bec was decently drawn and her teenage friendship with Lizzie has a genuine feel to it. But there are limits to my interest in the inner life of 16-year old girls. Especially ones interested in clothes, makeup, shoplifting and an older boy who turns out not to be prince charming. Yawn. Pretend Bec just annoyed me. Partially because I am not the world’s biggest fan of unreliable narrators but mostly because her inner life was even less interesting than Real Bec’s and I never got to the point where I cared much if she got found out or would meet the same fate as her doppelganger. The rest of the characters are pretty one-dimensional and I cannot possibly be the only reader who saw the end coming – including who’d done what – from a mile away. The red herrings – such as they were – felt way too forced and the culprit too obvious.

As always, other opinions are available and I can imagine that if you are not a nearly-50 grump then you might get more from this novel than I did.


AWW2016This is book 16.5 that I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge (one book was written by a father daughter team so I’m only counting it as a half). For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Harlequin Enterprises [2016]
ISBN/ASIN: 9781489210814
Length: 191 pages
Format: eBook (ePub)

Review: TELL THE TRUTH, SHAME THE DEVIL by Melina Marchetta

tellthetruthshamethedevilI was intrigued to see that Melina Marchetta had written a crime novel for adults because she’s bucking a trend. These days it seems nearly all the crime writers I know of are moving away from writing for adults towards the presumably more lucrative YA market whereas Marchetta, who has won a string of local and international awards for her YA novels, has gone in the other direction. I knew nothing about the book before diving in other than that it was for adults and at least vaguely a crime novel.

Perhaps not surprisingly given her previous work TELL THE TRUTH, SHAME THE DEVIL does feature more teenagers than the average book for adults but the story’s main character is Bashir “Bish” Ortley, a senior desk-based officer with the Metropolitan Police in the UK currently on suspension for reasons I won’t go into here. When the book opens Bish is at home teetering on the edge of a personal abyss when he learns that there has been an explosion on a tourist bus full of teenagers in Normandy. Bish’s daughter Bee is on such a trip and he is immediately galvanized into action. He and his mother soon arrive at the Calais campground where the explosion took place and discover death, barely controlled chaos and a whole lot of fear. It soon becomes known that one of the teens on the bus is the daughter of a notorious terrorist, a woman who confessed more than a decade earlier to a bombing in England which killed 23 people. Violette LeBrac is at once a ‘person of interest’ but she manages to disappear from the campground before much official questioning can take place. Bish, being currently unemployed and having a personal stake in matters, becomes semi-officially involved in the subsequent hunt for Violette and the younger boy who disappears with her.

This is one helluva story. It does rely on some potentially unlikely coincidences – it reminded me of Kate Atkinson novels in that way – but Marchetta’s skill at weaving all the complex strands of narrative together allows the reader to believe it all. This overall sense of credibility is aided by the many real-world elements incorporated into the storyline such as the role social media plays in most lives these days and the ever-present tension between society’s demands for punishment and revenge and the fact that most individuals have a basic humanity to them. And then there’s the fact that it’s a damned fascinating story and perfectly paced to boot. Where so many thriller writers go wrong (for me) is that they never let their characters, or their readers, catch their breath. TELL THE TRUTH, SHAME THE DEVIL is full of suspense (it kept me awake way too long on a week night because I had to know what happened) but there are pauses and light moments and characters have time for some introspection even while chaos unfolds around them.

As a nearly 50 year old woman I’m not all that interested in stories which only show the world from teenagers’ eyes so have been a bit bemused by the recent explosion in YA popularity among adults and was a little wary when I realised so much of this book would focus on teens. But Marchetta has done a great job of allowing us to see things from all her characters’ perspectives. The dialogue in particular is spot on and the subtle differences between adults talking to each other, teens talking to adults and teens talking to each other shows both where the adult and teen worlds are similar and where they’re wildly different. It’s a real highlight of the book. In fact the characterisations as a whole are a highlight. Whether it is Bish himself or Violette or her mother – whom Bish is forced to visit in prison to gain what insights she’s prepared to share that might help him to locate Violette – or any of the more minor characters they are all very believable and compelling.

In short, I loved TELL THE TRUTH, SHAME THE DEVIL. It’s got action, suspense, humour, sadness and enough hope to ensure the reader is not left feeling suicidal at the end. It has a very ‘of the moment’ sensibility in that it tackles very topical issues such as the role of social media in the modern world and the complex way we collectively deal with horrendous crimes such as terrorism, but all of this is done intelligently so that the book won’t feel out of date in a year’s time. Highly recommended.


AWW2016This is the 15th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge (well technically it’s 14.5 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: Penguin [2016]
ISBN: 9780670079100
Length: 405 pages
Format: paperback

Review: THE WRONG HAND by Jane Jago

thewronghandjagoI suppose it was inevitable that the real-life 1990’s kidnap, torture and murder of 2 year-old James Bulger by two 11 year-old boys would become the subject of exploration by writers and other artists. Evil acts are hard enough to understand, let alone evil acts perpetrated by children, and surely one of the purposes of art is to expose such incomprehensible things to scrutiny if not explanation. Although she doesn’t make specific reference to the case there are enough similarities to it in THE WRONG HAND that Jane Jago has clearly spent more than a little time contemplating the horrendous events and their fallout on everyone involved. The result, to her credit, is a thoughtful, sometimes confronting but never sensationalist, depiction of the aftermath of horror on those left behind and at least the start of a conversation about the broader responsibility we all – as members of a shared society – have in dealing sensibly, and perhaps even compassionately, with all those involved in such events.

Although it has at its heart a kidnapping and murder similar to the Bulger case THE WRONG HAND doesn’t provide prurient details of these events. The book is not really concerned with what happened. Instead it is primarily concerned with what happens afterwards, and, to a lesser extent, what went before. In chapters told from multiple perspectives the bulk of the book takes place 15 years after the death of 3 year old Benjamin, although there are some passages set at the time of the murder and a few at other moments in between. At each stage we meet people who are largely sympathetic. There are the boy’s parents, Rachel and Matthew, as well as the lead detective from the investigation and a journalist who has covered the story from the beginning. Essentially the book offers us character studies of these people and shows us the different ways each copes, or doesn’t, with Benjamin’s death and the discovery that he was murdered by two boys not that much older than him. Not surprisingly Rachel and Matthew separate. Rachel is re-married and has two children who she physically struggles to let out of her sight. Matthew on the other hand is still fuelled by anger and a burning desire for revenge so has built up a network of informants and others who offer ‘information’ about possible sightings of his son’s killers since they were released from prison.

In some ways this is all standard fare, even if done well, but where Jago has been brave is to incorporate the perspectives of other, less sympathetic people involved in and impacted by the murder. This includes the parents and siblings of the two perpetrators who are hounded and in some cases haunted by their connection to the horrors. And it includes the two perpetrators themselves who, for the bulk of the book, have been released from juvenile detention and are living under their new identities which have been provided for them along with some ongoing monitoring and counselling. At times this aspect of the book is confronting. As adults both men struggle with their pasts and it’s so very easy to believe they deserve all the inner turmoil that comes their way. Until Jago reminds us that they were so very young when they did what they did and neither of them had an ideal home environment. Ought they live in torment forever? The question of how long people should be held accountable for things they do as children permeates the book, as does the exploration of what options society has for dealing with child perpetrators of violent crimes. Jago doesn’t offer concrete solutions – I doubt that was ever her intention – but rather prompts the reader to really contemplate these complex issues with more thoughtfulness and consideration than sound bites and social media outrage allows in the modern era.

Although it is this aspect of the book – this exploration of an almost impossible to contemplate social issue – that has been uppermost in my mind since I finished it I must say the book is also a great work of fiction. The story is always compelling, even when it is recounting events that the reader knows will not end well, and the characters are all sensitively drawn, credible and engaging. I particularly admire that Jago was able to make the two perpetrators come to life as something more than cardboard cutout evildoers. She doesn’t make excuses for them or portray them flatteringly but neither does she demonise them. That cannot have been an easy thing to achieve.

My only criticism of the book is its almost total lack of a sense of place. It’s just about possible for a local to tell the story is taking place in Australia (I couldn’t tell you what state though) but it seems like there has been a deliberate attempt to have this be seen as a story that could be taking place anywhere the reader is familiar with. I suppose I can understand this but at times I think that detracted a little from the otherwise very authentic sensibility the book has (especially as the edition I read used some very jarring American terms like ‘downtown’ and ‘subway’ which are simply not used here in the same way they would be in the US). However this is a relatively minor complaint and overall I was thoroughly impressed with Jago’s ethically sound and well-considered handling of a truly difficult subject.


AWW2016This is the 15th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge (well technically it’s 14.5 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: Penguin [2016]
ISBN: 978405920421
Length: 362 pages
Format: paperback

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