A double dip into historical crime fiction by Aussie women

My reading mojo took a holiday in November (because this) but the books which got me back in the saddle were the latest instalments of two of my favourite series by Australian women crime writers. The present-day world, even in fictional form, proved too darned depressing lately but visiting these bygone eras evocatively brought to life was just what I needed.

adonationofmurderyoungThe 5th instalment of Felicity Young’s series set in that awkward period that isn’t quite within the Edwardian era but is before the start of WWI is A DONATION OF MURDER. Perhaps not surprisingly given that it’s 1914 and talk of war is everywhere, the book is a little darker than its predecessors. But just as good.

Here Dr Dorothy ‘Dody’ McCleland is performing a routine autopsy when her subject wakes up! Dody feels somehow responsible for the woman’s plight and takes her home for the night after she reveals that escaping a man was what led her to be picked up as a frozen dead body from the street. But, naturally enough, things are not what they seem Dody is exposed to a seamier side of London life than she’s used to. While all this is going on Dody’s lover, Chief Inspector Matthew Pike, is wrapped up in a case involving brutal burglaries and also has to worry about betrayal from within his own force.

I love the way the two lead characters of this series are developing both individually and as a couple (they are a couple even if they have to hide their relationship from many people). They are both realising that compromises have to be made if they are to be together more formally and the way they both approach this notion is well drawn as they display the conflicting feelings that compromise brings with it.

As is always the case with this series readers are introduced to an aspect of life in the era which is fascinating and troubling all at once. Here we see the operation of a criminal gang and the lack of value gang leaders place on the lives of those that work for them.

And, of course, it’s a ripper of a yarn.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

givethedevilhisdueaudioBy rights I should have discussed the 7th instalment of Sulari Gentill’s wonderful series set in 1930’s Australia when I read the print version last year. But as I didn’t do so at the time I feel it’s not breaking the rules to discuss GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE now that I’ve listened to an audio version narrated wonderfully by transplanted English actor Rupert Degas (note to publishers…you’ve done the first and last instalments as audiobooks, can I have the other five books in the series now please?)

The series hero, Rowland Sinclair, is to drive his much-loved S-Class Mercedes in a celebrity race for charity at Sydney’s Maroubra speedway (known in the book and in real life as a “killer track”) but he’s barely driven a practice lap before a journalist who interviewed him about the race is found murdered. One of Rowland’s best friends and housemates comes under suspicion of the murder so the whole gang must once again put their sleuthing skills into action.

There really is nothing I don’t love about this series – the characters, the cameos by real people from history, the humour – but I was particularly struck this time by how much history can teach us (should we choose to learn). One of the recurring themes it explores is the rise of fascism in the 1930’s and what steps can be taken by those who are fearful of it to get others to see what is so troubling. Here Rowly elects to put on an exhibition of paintings inspired by his trip to Germany and the brutality he saw and experienced there (detailed in PAVING THE NEW ROAD). This puts him at odds with his brother and many people in the community who just can’t see that things are as bad as Rowly and his friends know them to be. This element of the novel feels eerily (and sadly) relevant to what’s going on in the world today.

Rowly has a pretty rough time of it in this instalment – both physically and emotionally. There’s a truly poignant passage in which he discovers that one of his artistic heroes is anti semitic and this really puts poor Rowly in a spin but I love the way Gentill depicts this and shows his friends helping him to deal with it.

And, of course, it too is a ripper yarn.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

What both these books and the series they represent have in common is that they are terrific examples of the historical crime genre. They offer interesting insights into their respective eras, compelling storylines, really well drawn characters who have foibles alongside their nicer traits and a view of the world that is hopeful without ignoring life’s harsher realities. Read ’em both, you won’t regret it.


AWW2016I’m counting these as book 18.5 and 19.5 that I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge (one book was written by a father daughter team so I’m only counting it as a half). For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.

Review: VANISHING POINT by Pat Flower

For this month’s Crimes of the Century read I dived into little-known Australian author Pat Flower’s 1975 novel VANISHING POINT which means the book also counts towards my Australian Women Writers Challenge obligations.

vanishingpointflowerThe edition of VANISHING POINT I read was published in the 1990’s as the first of a local publisher’s series of publications aiming to breathe new life into forgotten Australian crime stories. A noble aim indeed (and many of the later instalments are wonderful reads) but I’m finding it hard to believe it set the series off with a bang. If I had to describe the book in a single word it would be languid, which doesn’t sit well with the blurb’s claims of it being a ‘claustrophobic thriller’. Claustrophobic yes; thrilling not so much.

The book’s structure appears to take shape from its author’s other life as a stage and screen writer, having three distinct acts. In the first act Sydney couple Geraldine and Noel take a driving and camping holiday to Far North Queensland with some acquaintances. The trip is not a success. In the second act the pair are back in Sydney and attempting to get life back to normal. The final act returns us all to the monotony of driving and camping in the humid north. There are less than a handful of dramatic incidents in all three acts combined. This doesn’t make the book terrible – as a portrait of one human’s madness it’s quite exquisite – but it is a bit slow and I can’t imagine it would attract a wide audience.

VANISHING POINT is less a story and more a study of Geraldine’s seriously skewed inner life. Geraldine doesn’t really do anything. She doesn’t work, she has no kids, she doesn’t belong to groups or do charity work or have any friends. At home she lies by the pool all day – not even a book in her hand – and on the camping trips she sits and stares and thinks and keeps herself as distant as possible from her travelling companions. The only thing she actively does is obsess, mostly about her husband. She wants always to be near him, if not touching him then with him. She has a jealous hatred of anyone else who spends time with him – business partner, friend, possible lover – and she smothers him. Of course she doesn’t see it as smothering but even through the lens of Geraldine’s view of the world – hardly an unbiased one – we can see that Noel is suffering. Geraldine is disdainful of almost everyone else she comes across. She can barely remember people’s names they are so insignificant. Even the numerous men she assumes to be in love with her have a sort of shimmering, semi-transparent quality to them.

In an Afterword this edition’s editors quote the author as having said

…Why murder? I’m absorbed in character, not in murder. In ordinary people a bit round the bend. I like to follow the effects on my characters of heredity, environment and circumstance, and reveal in action, reaction and interaction the instability which might in real life go unnoticed but in my books is fatal. For my crackpots murder is the only way out.

And in VANISHING POINT she does exactly this. Well almost. I’d have liked to know a little more about Geraldine’s past…to glean some more about why her psyche was so damaged. There is a hint of it (don’t blink, you’ll miss it) but it doesn’t explain everything. Although perhaps that’s the point? Sometimes people are just ‘crackpots’ and there really isn’t a rational explanation for their behaviour? However true that may be it’s not a notion that I’m comfortable with which perhaps explains why I struggled with the book in parts. My fault not the author’s then.

Because the book is so much about Geraldine’s inner life there really isn’t much to set it in 1975 versus any other time in history. There’s no hint of the tumultuous 70’s taking place outside Geraldine’s head (one character wearing a kaftan is the only concrete reference to the decade I noticed). The only thought that struck me was that, being a book about an obsessive, controlling woman who poses a danger to her domestic partner, the book might struggle to get published today? I don’t know this to be true of course, it’s just a thought, but it seems to me that these days stories about obsession and control have to put the male in the dangerous role. Has that particular pendulum swung irreversibly?

VANISHING POINT is well written and does exactly what the author set out to do. I found it a bit slow going but admit that’s likely down to my liking for more of a balance between action and introspection. And my discomfort over the novel’s premise – that sometimes irrational, horrendous behaviour might have no explanation – can’t really be considered a criticism of the book.


AWW2016This is book 17.5 that I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge (one book was written by a father daughter team so I’m only counting it as a half). For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: This edition Wakefield Press 1993, original edition 1975
ISBN: 1862542929
Length: 200 pages
Format: Paperback

Review: 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

2016 Davitt Awards Short(ish) Lists

SistersInCrimeLogoSisters in Crime Australia has announced the shortlists for this year’s Davitt Awards, celebrating the best in crime writing by Australian women. We’ve only read some titles from the Adult and Debut categories here at Fair Dinkum but we congratulate all the nominees and look forward to learning who wins all the awards on August 27.

Adult novels (6)
– Anne Buist, Medea’s Curse: Natalie King, Forensic Psychiatrist (Text Publishing) (Kerrie’s review, Bernadette’s review)
– Candice Fox, Fall (Penguin Random House)
– Sulari Gentill, Give the Devil His Due (Pantera Press)
– Bronwyn Parry, Storm Clouds (Hachette Australia)
– J. M. Peace, Time to Run (Pan Macmillan Australia) (Bernadette’s review, Kerrie’s review)
– Emma Viskic, Resurrection Bay (Echo Publishing) (Bernadette’s review)

I will admit to voting for one of the above titles in the Reader’s Choice category of the Davitt Awards (all members of Sisters in Crime are eligible to cast one vote in that category). It may or may not be one of the titles I’ve reviewed.

Young Adult Novels (4)
– Kathryn Barker, In the Skin of a Monster (Allen & Unwin)
– Fleur Ferris, Risk (Penguin Random House)
– Ellie Marney, Every Move (Allen & Unwin)
– Maureen McCarthy, Stay with Me (Allen & Unwin)

Children’s Novels (3)
– Susan Green, Verity Sparks and the Scarlet Hand (Walker Press)
– Catherine Jinks, Theophilus Grey and the Demon Thief (Allen & Unwin)
– R. A. Spratt, Friday Barnes 2: Under Suspicion (Penguin Random House)

Non-Fiction (6)
– Carol Baxter, Black Widow (Allen & Unwin)
– Cheryl Critchley and Helen McGrath, Why Did They Do It? (Pan Macmillan Australia)
– Kate Kyriacou, The Sting (Echo Publishing)
– Alecia Simmonds, Wildman (Affirm Press)
– Sue Smetherst, Behind Closed Doors (Simon & Schuster)
– Sofija Stefanovic, You’re Just Too Good to Be True (Penguin Random House)

Debut (9)
– Kathryn Barker, In the Skin of a Monster (Allen & Unwin)
– Anne Buist, Medea’s Curse: Natalie King, Forensic Psychiatrist (Text Publishing) (Kerrie’s review, Bernadette’s review)
– Tania Chandler, Please Don’t Leave Me Here (Scribe)
– Caroline de Costa, Double Madness (Margaret River Press) (Bernadette’s review)
– Fleur Ferris, Risk (Penguin Random House)
– J. M. Green, Good Money (Scribe) (Bernadette’s review, Kerrie’s review)
– J. M. Peace, Time to Run (Pan Macmillan Australia) (Bernadette’s review, Kerrie’s review)
– Ann Turner, The Lost Swimmer (Simon & Schuster) (Bernadette’s review, Kerrie’s review)
– Emma Viskic, Resurrection Bay (Echo Publishing) (Bernadette’s review)

Review: NOW YOU SEE ME by Jean Bedford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Review: AN ISOLATED INCIDENT by Emily Maguire

AnIsolatedIncidentMaguireIf I tell you AN ISOLATED INCIDENT is about the death of a beautiful young, female aged care worker in a small country town you’ll think you know at least a little about where the book will go. But you don’t. the book subverts just about every stereotype and trope of the genre. Brilliantly.

What I found most noticeable about AN ISOLATED INCIDENT is what isn’t there.

Firstly the killer is not present at all in this book. I’m not talking about whether the identity of the killer is or isn’t revealed but the book is not about that person. That bloke (because let’s be frank when a young woman is brutally murdered the odds are astronomically high that her killer will be male) doesn’t get italicised passages from his point of view or consideration of his motivations. Or Excuses. The why of the crime is present only in the subtext: men kill women, all too bloody frequently, because they can.

Another traditional element missing from the book is the police perspective. Of course there are police officers and various plot points in which one or more of them is central but we do not spend any time seeing things from their point of view and we do not know if any of them are haunted by the death and the subsequent investigation. This is not their story either.

In a way the book isn’t even about Bella Michaels – the young woman who has been murdered.

Instead the book is about the aftermath of her death, primarily about the people who are affected by it. The most important of these people is Bella’s older sister Chris who experiences an almost unsurvivable grief. Not ‘just’ the grief that comes with a loved one dying horrifically and much, much too early. But the dual complications that come with the knowledge that someone caused that death and is still going about their lives and that because Bella’s death is so public other people – most of whom didn’t even know Bella – feel some kind of ownership of her. And her death. Chris’ descent into a form of madness as she grasps the enormity of her new reality is one of the most compelling characterisations I have ever read. As a divorced barmaid and amateur prostitute Chris is an atypical heroine but I defy even the most uncharitable of readers not to feel entirely sympathetic towards her.

One of the people who never knew Bella but who is affected by her death is May Norman. Suffering an ignoble relationship breakup she heads to the fictional town of Strathdee – ostensibly half-way between Sydney and Melbourne – to put some distance between herself and her lover as well as to take on her first big crime reporting assignment. It’s what she’s always wanted. Isn’t it? Initially May is a typically dogged yet somewhat insensitive journalist but finds herself increasingly invested in ensuring that the truth of Bella’s life and the impact of her death on those who loved her is meaningfully presented to the world.

Maguire lets Chris narrate most of this story, honestly and directly (she is even allowed to break the literary equivalent of the fourth wall occasionally) which helps the reader to develop a real understanding of all that Chris is going through. Though there is humour too as evidenced by Chris’ physical description of her sister

Bella was, if I’m being honest, Strathdee-pretty. I was always telling her she could be a model if she wanted, and I still think that was true, but it’d modelling in the Kmart catalogue not Vogue or anything. I’m not putting her down. Like I said, she was the most beautiful thing anyone around here had ever seen in the flesh, but she was five foot nothing in high heels and had a size 10 arse on a size 6 body.

But it is through Chris’ response to the public appropriation of Bella’s death that we start to really see how the situation is impacting on Chris. When there is a ‘march for Bella’ in Sydney – some six hours drive away from where she lived and died – Chris is angry

…Look, for the record I believe they were sad and scared. But that march was about them, for them. That’s fine. Whatever gets you through this life. But they shouldn’t have pretended it was for Bella. How could it have been? They had no memories of her to celebrate, no way of just what it was the world lost when she died. And the coverage that thing got, well, it made people – all the goddam compassionate, sad people out there – feel like something had been done, some kind of justice. It made a lot of those nice ladies and men marching through Sydney feel better about what had happened and that was the opposite of what was needed. We needed rage and heartbreak, we needed the whole country to be unable to sleep, to eat, to move on with their lives until the men who did this were found. Instead we got warm feelings about community and sweet quotes about paying tribute. They got peace and we – Bella and me – got jack-fucking-shit.

There is more. Much more about the way in which these kinds of deaths are reported by the media and picked over by the rest of us.

Another subversion of the genre is in the book’s approach to violence. We know Bella’s death was violent but whatever brutalities she endured are not recounted. Chris knows what they are – they infuse her thoughts – but she doesn’t pass them on. And even when she looks at leaked photographs of Bella’s body posted online we don’t learn the details from May either. Chris knows it’s what people want – details and the gorier the better – but Maguire is determined we won’t have them.

I’ve only scratched the surface of AN ISOLATED INCIDENT both in this review and in my own thinking. I suppose that is as it should be given the book subverts just about every aspect of the crime genre while forcing readers to consider their own responses to real world incidents of the type it depicts. Being confronted in this way should not be easily forgotten. So if you like your reading thought-provoking and don’t mind keeping company with fictional people long after you’ve closed the back cover of their stories then I highly recommend AN ISOLATED INCIDENT.


AWW2016This is the 8th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challange check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Pan Macmillan [2016]
ISBN: 9781743538579
Length: 343 pages
Format: paperback

Review: RUNNING AGAINST THE TIDE by Amanda Ortlepp

RunningAgainstTheTiedOrtleppAlthough set in a fictitious town Amanda Ortlepp’s RUNNING AGAINST THE TIDE takes place in a very recognisable rural South Australia. The small Eyre Peninsula town of Mallee Bay is dominated by the oyster farming industry, local tourism and a sense of community (or the horror of everyone knowing everyone else’s business if you’re reading the book with my a city person’s eyes). Remembering the place fondly from her childhood holidays Erin Travers relocates there with her sons Mike and Ryan when her Sydney life collapses. Mike soon has a job with a neighbour’s oyster farming business and Erin starts to set down new roots with a win in the local art competition and a love interest but youngest son Ryan struggles to fit in at all. When increasingly worrying things start to go wrong for the Travers’ and others in the town suspicions fall easily. But not everybody is what they seem to be.

I am a city girl through and through and would need motivation along the lines of an impending annihilation of all large metropolises to force a move to somewhere as remote as Mallee Bay so could easily have found this book a struggle. Instead though I was quite intrigued by Erin’s story and the way Ortlepp tells it. What went wrong with her marriage? Why take the boys so far from their father? How much does everyone in her life know about all this? Does the town’s resident Lothario have sinister intent with respect to Erin? Is she seeing dead people? And what about the boys? Is each as he appears is one or other of them hiding secrets? Ortlepp does a great job of making the reader question or suspect everything and everyone in the tradition of the best suspense novels.

The setting is an evocative and authentic one. I spent my share of childhood holidays in a town called Coffin Bay which is on the same peninsula as Ortlepp’s fictional creation and I recognised many of the qualities she depicts. We get a sense of the town’s geography, including its heavy reliance on the sea for what it contributes to the local economy, and the people who make up the community. There are several nicely drawn characters who collectively remind us all that we should not rush to judgement based on first impressions. Of course this is in part to keep readers guessing about who to trust but there’s some natural and engaging character development too.

Strictly speaking RUNNING AGAINST THE TIDE is a suspense novel rather than pure crime fiction but it is very readable and does set the heart beating quickly when things get dangerous for multiple characters. I always know I am completely hooked when I have an internal struggle between wanting to read to the end yet wanting to put the book down in case something horrid happens to someone I have come to care about. I suppose it’s the literary equivalent of watching a thrilling movie with your hands partly covering your eyes and it’s a great feeling.


AWW2016This is the 7th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Simon & Schuster [2016]
ISBN: 9781925030631
Length: 359 pages
Format: paperback

Review: ALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS by Aoife Clifford

AllThesePerfectStrangers27050_fALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS is Pen Shepherd’s story. Or stories. She’s the ultimate in unreliable narrators is Pen and so the narrative has an appropriately elastic relationship with truthiness. Pen is young – 18 or 19 for the main narrative – and is primarily telling the stories of the deaths which occurred during her first few months as a law student. Pen is only able to attend the University because she is a survivor (of what we don’t know at the outset) and secured a scholarship based at least in part on having survived whatever it is. She tells that story too eventually. If that is not enough mystery for you we don’t even know where in Australia Pen is – she comes from ‘a small town’ and goes to University in ‘a city’.

I struggled to really engage with this book. I very much wanted to but couldn’t. Part of the problem was one of it failing to manage my expectations. Within the first half-dozen pages I was told that Pen has led a dramatic life, especially for one so young. The fact (if not the details) of a home town mystery that has made everyone hate her and multiple deaths at university are all announced up front, demanding attention. So I wanted to start learning about these events straight away. I did not want to have small details parceled out to me as you might lollies to a toddler. Especially as the parceling out came amidst a swag of ‘young people getting drunk and being horrible to each other’ narrative that, frankly, bored me. This is the part that I’m prepared to accept is my problem: the drunken, self-absorbed goings-on of teens didn’t interest me when I was 19 myself and it holds even less appeal 30 years later. I am too old for this book?

I think perhaps other people appreciate the use of unreliable narrators more than I do too. The issue is not that I didn’t like Pen (though I didn’t) but that I had no investment in her and she is the book. Whether she turned out to be a killer or a victim, whether she lived or died. whether she lied or told the truth, whether she was found out or got away with whatever it was she had done…I couldn’t seem to care. Mostly because I didn’t feel like we got much of a glimpse into why Pen was the way she was. There are hints that there is something dark and traumatic in her background – even before the thing that occurred in her home town that made everybody hate her – but these aren’t fleshed out in any meaningful way. Without something to explain Pen’s actions and behaviour she’s just…not interesting.

I can appreciate that the writing is good and Clifford has pulled together a complicated structure that mixes the present and past with genuine skill that many authors with far more output under their belts would be jealous of. But a book that chooses the first person voice and an unreliable one at that has to ensure that voice connects with the reader in some way and that just didn’t happen for me on this occasion. I am, as is often the case, a minority voice and you are sure to find plenty of rave reviews like this one if you are keen to find a different opinion about this debut novel.


AWW2016This is the 6th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Simon & Schuster [2016]
ISBN: 9781925310726
Length: 392 pages
Format: paperback

Review: MURDER IN MT MARTHA by Janice Simpson

MurderInMtMarthaSimpsonMURDER IN MT MARTHA engagingly blurs the line between crime fact and crime fiction. Taking as its source material the still unsolved 1953 murder of teenager Shirley Collins, the book weaves a compelling “what if…” scenario. Simpson is not claiming to have solved the case here and has taken pains to change names and otherwise make it clear that her story is a fictional one, but using some details of the real case and other contemporary snippets gives the book a realistic feel.

The story unfolds in two parallel threads. In 1953 we meet the murderer just after he has committed his crime and is in the process of covering it up. Over the course of the novel we learn more about his exploits as well as finding out what happens to him in later life. In the present day we meet Arthur Boyle, an elderly man who is sharing his life history with Nick Szabo, a young student, for an oral history project. His reflections on his life include remembering the shocking murder of a teenage girl at Mt Martha, a crime which was so unusual then as to warrant months of coverage in the press and much speculation in the community. Together Nick and Arthur uncover his family connection to the murder.

I’m normally wary of narratives told from the killer’s point of view but this one does not glamourise or sensationalise the man or his repulsive deeds. It doesn’t even try to justify them, merely offer an account – a very believable account – of how and why he did the things he did. The modern day thread is good too, though for me slightly less engaging due to its reliance on a string of coincidences. Some parts of this element of the story felt a little too forced to me, as if the author was setting us up for future installments of a series featuring Nick Szabo though I have no idea if this is actually Simpson’s plan or not. I just felt like we were getting a lot of character elements that could only really be teased out in further books. But Nick is an interesting character and it’s hard not to like a young man who loves his grandmother so openly and affectionately.

MURDER IN MT MARTHA  is a terrific debut novel; engaging in its own right and full of promise of good things to come from Janice Simpson, whether in the same series or not. It straddles the line between true crime and crime fiction with great aplomb and will satisfy fans of both.


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


Publisher: Hybrid Publishers [2016]
ISBN: 9781925272161
Length: 293 pages
Format: paperback

Review: GHOST GIRLS by Cath Ferla

GhostGirlsFerlaGHOST GIRLS is not a novel to read on an empty stomach. Its forays into the Asian restaurants and noodle bars of Sydney – their tastes and smells all evocatively described – will have your mouth-watering too much to concentrate. That’s the upside of the book’s authentic sensibility. The downside of that realism is that the reader can’t pretend the novel’s depiction of abused and exploited foreign students isn’t something going on right under our noses.My office is in the midst of several campuses teeming with foreign students and the best restaurants nearby are those which serve this clientele so as soon as I’d started reading GHOST GIRLS I couldn’t help but look at these kids (I’m old, to me they are all kids) with the worry that something like the book’s events could be happening to some of them.

Our journey into the world is via Sophie Sandilands: a young teacher of English to foreign students. She is the daughter of an Australian PI, now dead, and his Chinese wife who disappeared without trace many years ago. And that isn’t the only tragedy in Sophie’s background. So when one of her students commits suicide and some students are revealed not to be who they purport to be Sophie feels obligated to find out more.

What she uncovers is horrific. Not so much in a bloody way (though there is a little of that) but more in a “this kind of stuff could be going on next door and I wouldn’t know about it” way. Many of the students are under pressure from home to perform at almost impossible levels yet they struggle to make enough to live on doing the kinds of jobs available to them. Some of them make unwise if more lucrative choices and some have even that – the choice – taken out of their hands. It is confronting and heart-breaking all at the same time.

Sophie is a nuanced character who I enjoyed getting to know – not least because her love for good food and nice tea offered some much needed relief from the necessarily sombre narrative. She is tenacious and caring and if she sometimes does things that put her in jeopardy her reasoning is always sound within the context of her personal story. Other characters are equally well drawn, though not all are as delightful. The people who exploit the students only do so because of demand. And the man who represents that demand here – a middle-aged husband and father to a young girl who all-too slowly comes to realise the kind of ripple effect his base desires have – is awkwardly credible too. Perhaps because I’d already started looking at the students I see every day with fresh eyes I couldn’t help but also look at the men around me with the same new awareness. Which of you is like him?

As with all the best crime fiction GHOST GIRLS is first a ripping yarn and its exploration of modern life does nothing to undermine that. It’s lack of easy answers to the complex issues it explores is fitting: there aren’t easy answers to be had. I am impressed that this is a debut novel for Cath Ferla – it seems too assured both thematically and stylistically for that – and can’t wait to see what she delivers next.


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


Publisher: Echo [2016]
ISBN: 9781760401177
Length: 280 pages
Format: paperback