Review: THE TWISTED KNOT by J.M. Peace

Having been very impressed with J.M. Peace’s debut novel A TIME TO RUN, I approached THE TWISTED KNOT with that mixture of anticipation and worry that always surrounds second books. Happily, the worry was misplaced.

Somewhat paradoxically one of the things that I enjoyed most about this book is that it is not all that similar to its predecessor. The author’s talent is still on show and the central character from the first, police constable Sammi Willis, is also at the heart of this one but there is never any signs of this becoming the first in a line of clones that can often, understandably but annoyingly, follow a successful debut. This is different in pacing, the kind of story it tells and in its overall sensibility. It’s still very, very good though; no worrying necessary.

Here Sammi is still recovering from the events depicted in the first novel. Physically she’s OK but not quite mentally ready to return to full duties yet so she’s working on the front counter of the police station in the rural Queensland town of Angel’s Crossing. Which is where she first learns that townspeople are angry. A man accused of being a pedophile in the town some years ago is apparently ‘at it’ again. He was not convicted last time and locals are determined that this time there will be justice, even if they have to deliver it themselves. All Sammi and her colleagues have to go on is unsubstantiated rumours, no victim has come forward. And Sammi’s superior officers make themselves scarce rather than face the angry mob that confronts Sammi. What are they hiding?

It’s difficult to talk about the many fine attributes of this book without spoiling its plot but I will say the story is a ripper. It’s not the same kind of intense, frightening story the first book told but it’s equally compelling and suspenseful. Here there are layers of secrets being kept by many locals and the way these are revealed keeps readers guessing right to the end. There’s more complexity here too because it’s not quite so clear in depicting who is and who isn’t doing the right thing. Because there’s what’s legal and then there’s what’s right and they’re not always the same thing. At least not for some of the residents of Angel’s Crossing. It’s quite thought-provoking at times in the way it makes the reader contemplate what they might do when faced with some of the scenarios depicted in the book.

Peace is a serving police officer (using a pseudonym) so it’s not surprising that the way the various aspects of police work and ‘the life’ are shown have a real ring of authenticity to them. The different types of personality attracted to the work are on show as are the variety of elements of the job. Although they do exist it’s not all car chases and shoot outs and Peace does well in showing the whole job without slowing the book down or making it dull. She also does well at showing the limitations of the legal system and the frustrations that result for both officers and the public.

The character development is well done too. Sammi’s struggles to overcome the mental issues which arose after she was chased by a serial killer are problematic but no so debilitating they threaten to destroy her. It must be a difficult balance to achieve in trying to depict such a thing sensitively and realistically. There are a few hurdles in her personal life too but these are also shown in a believable, balanced way. The townspeople who are impacted by the possible resurgence of the pedophile activity are also well drawn. Their anger and desire to take matters into their own hands are entirely credible.

All in all then another terrific read from J.M. Peace. I am especially pleased when authors try new things and take some risks with their storytelling. Even if it doesn’t always work I’d rather this than a clone any day. But, in this instance at least, Peace’s change of pace and tone work very well, leaving me keen to see what she does next.


aww2017-badgeThis is the 5th book I’ve read and reviewed for the sixth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Pan Macmillian, 2016
ISBN: 9781743538678
Length: 303 pages
Format: paperback
Source of review copy: I bought it

Review: THE UNMOURNED by Meg Keneally and Tom Keneally

Robert Church is the man whose murder sets off the second adventure of Hugh Monsarrat, newly freed convict and clerk to the governor’s secretary in the still young colony of New South Wales, and the woman who is ostensibly his housekeeper but really his best friend, Hannah Mulrooney. As Superintendent of the Parramatta women’s prison (known as the Female Factory) Church took full advantage of his position’s power by starving, abusing and sexually assaulting the prisoners as well as siphoning off whatever he could to line his own pockets. Literally no one, not even his beleaguered wife, mourns his death and it would be easy for the case to be quickly dealt with if not for the fact that the prime suspect appears, at least to Monsarrat, to potentially be innocent. But everyone else, including his own boss, believes Grace O’Leary, an outspoken leader among the female convicts, guilty of the crime. Monsarrat, ably assisted by Mrs Mulrooney, has only a few days and a limited amount of official tolerance for his shenanigans, to conclude his investigation.

It is always with some trepidation I approach a book I am really hoping to like because, as happened last month, it can be disappointing. But Meg and Tom Keneally did not let me down with this second instalment of their historical crime series set in colonial Australia. Although I enjoyed this novel’s predecessor, last year’s THE SOLDIER’S CURSE, very much I thought this one even better. The story here is more complex and so ultimately a more satisfying tale to unravel. Given the murder victim’s reputation there is no shortage of suspects and even if they aren’t involved in the crime many of them have secrets they’d prefer to keep hidden. Trying to ascertain which of the many secrets provided a motivation for murder keeps our amateur sleuths, and this reader, guessing until the very end.

Even Mrs Mulrooney has something to hide and its revelation provides a turning point in her relationship with Monsarrat, though not in the way the person who reveals the secret anticipates. These two characters and their relationship – something of a surrogate mother/son one I suppose – is another highlight of the novel. Monsarrat is forced to confront his core beliefs as he comes against situations in which his own freedom, something he values very deeply, is threatened if he continues down a certain path. It’s not immediately obvious which choice he will make and it’s hard to blame someone for wanting to avoid a third foray into fairly brutal penal life so there is real tension in seeing this thread unfold over the course of the story. Mrs Mulrooney continues to grow in confidence as she writes her first letters to her son, thanks to Monsarrat’s teaching. Her observations about the difficulties involved in learning to read and write offer an excellent insight into her practical and astute character

“…I would have to say that the letters won’t behave themselves. They keep insisting on doing different things in different words. There is no logic to it, no organisation. If I ran a kitchen the way the English language runs itself, it would be in ruins.”

Despite these problems Mrs Mulrooney in turn becomes a writing teacher as well as a friend to some of the inhabitants of the Female Factory. What we learn of her personal history, including her connection to the events which occurred at Vinegar Hill in 1798 only endears her further to Monsarrat (and readers).

Once again the Keneally duo has wrapped a terrific story around a fascinating and credible depiction of life in Parramatta in 1825. The physical aspects of the setting are vividly brought to life as are the psychological and emotional elements that must surely eventuate in a place where most people are either criminals (or ex-criminals) or their captors. The power imbalances and opportunities for abuse and ill-treatment seem endless and it’s almost a miracle that some people, like Grace O’Leary, retain their humanity in the face of it all.

I can wholeheartedly recommend THE UNMOURNED to fans of historical crime fiction but would even suggest it to those who’ve not tried this sub genre before. The book has humour, a touch of romance, and intelligently explores our social and political history while introducing memorable characters and telling a ripper yarn. What more could you want?


aww2017-badgeThis is book 4 I’ve read and reviewed for the sixth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Penguin Random House [2017]
ISBN: 9780857989390
Length: 321 pages
Format: paperback
sOURCE: I bought it

Review: CRIMSON LAKE by Candice Fox

I’m not sure if it’s a standalone novel or the start of a new series but either way Candice Fox’s CRIMSON LAKE is determined to be memorable. Every one of its 389 pages is packed with people committing crimes, investigating crimes or trying to prove their own innocence of crimes they’ve been accused of.

Most of the story is told from Ted Conkaffey’s point of view. When we meet him Ted is living a kind of half-life after having spent 8 months on remand for the rape and attempted murder of a young girl. His case was dropped for lack of evidence not because there is any other viable suspect and the charges can be reactivated at any time. Just about everyone – including Ted’s former colleagues in the police force, his ex wife and the general public – believe him guilty despite his consistent claims of innocence. So Ted has made his way to far north Queensland and gone to ground. Crimson Lake is the sort of place where people can and do hide from their pasts. But even this place may not be up to the task of hiding from determined vigilantes (some of whom wear a uniform) a man the whole world thinks of as a guilty-but-not-convicted paedophile.

Ted is put in contact with Amanda Pharrell, the region’s lone private investigator. Amanda is afraid of cars, loves to speak in rhymes and spent 10 years in prison for the murder of a fellow teenager. She is investigating the disappearance of celebrated local author Jack Scully who, it seems, may have been taken by a crocodile. His wife wants proof that he’s really dead and that he didn’t commit suicide.

The pair form a friendship of sorts as they look into the author’s deranged fans and secret life for clues to his disappearance. The two outsiders develop a genuine, if prickly, care for each other but their interactions are charged with too much dark humour to stray into mushy territory. Which is all for the best in my opinion and this relationship is one of the book’s strengths. Other characters – good guys and bad ones – are also well drawn.

Although very complicated (seriously I’ve only skimmed a portion of the book’s happenings here) the disparate strands of storyline are not difficult to follow and for those who like their crime fiction packed with action and surprising twists look no further. The book stretched the bounds of credibility at times for me as so many elements of what happened to Ted, Amanda and Jack were the result of the kinds of extremes of human behaviour that I struggled to believe would all coalesce around such a small group of people in such a small place. But the book is an old-fashioned romp of a tale about people I had grown to care about and I will freely admit to staying up way past my bedtime to find out how CRIMSON LAKE was all going to end. Next-day drowsiness is the sign of a superior reading experience.


aww2017-badgeThis is the 3rd book I’ve read and reviewed for the sixth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Penguin [2017]
ISBN: 9780143781905
Length: 389 pages
Format: paperback
Source of review copy: Borrowed from the library