• Books and reading

    Casual crime? ‘Liars’ by James O’Loghlin

    As an ABC Radio listener for many years, I was quite familiar with presenter James O’Loghlin’s voice and his wry humour. This is the first book of his I’ve read, and I will be returning for more. Liars is a great read.

    Set on the NSW Central Coast, where several of my family members and friends live, the story plays out in what is somewhat familiar territory for me (though it was slightly unsettling to read about the local drug dealer in Woy Woy – perhaps based on similar real-life characters?)

    One of the central characters is Barbara, a middle aged handywoman who is recovering from the shock of her husband walking out after many years of marriage. She finds herself drawn to two recent deaths – startling in a small quiet coastal town – which the Homicide team feel have been solved, but Barb is not so sure.

    Also not sure is Sebastian, the local cop. Detectives have pointed to his old school friend, Joe, a recovering drug addict, as the perpetrator of one of the deaths. Then Joe himself is found dead and it’s ruled a suicide, the result of guilt. Seb just can’t see Joe, for all his faults, as a murderer.

    Barb and Seb team up and begin their own, off the books, unauthorised investigation. Joe and Seb were part of a tight-knit group in high school and the years immediately following. One of those six friends was killed seven years ago, and although that (unsolved) murder was judged likely to have been one of several committed by a serial killer, it begins to look like Sally’s death, too, is somehow connected to these more recent ones. But how?

    Each of the five remaining friends has something to hide, and as Barb and Seb dig deeper, there are more complications waiting to confound them. Liars is a very appropriate title for this story.

    The first section of the novel is told almost completely through text messages, emails and other documents by and between the five friends. Later, we hear snippets of recordings of interviews done by Joe, canvassing people’s memories of the time leading up to Sally’s death. It’s a clever technique to illustrate the differences in what people remember, and the way recollections are often flawed, or even deliberately obfuscated.

    The aspect of the story that I found most alarming was the almost casual way in which some killings were carried out. There are paid ‘hits’ of course, but also murders committed not because of a deep desire to kill, but simply as a means to an end, a way to solve a problem. The murderer does not see themself as a ‘psycho’, as someone who loves killing. They kill because they can’t see an alternative solution.

    The novel is well paced, the characters and setting realistic, and the plot kept me guessing until the end. I enjoyed Liars very much; and I’m happy to add James O’Loghlin to my list of good Aussie crime writers.

    Liars is published by Echo Publishing Australia in July 2024.
    Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for an advanced review copy.

  • Books and reading

    For all cat lovers: ‘Mickey’ by Helen Brown

    When I received this book to review, I wasn’t sure if it was a good fit. After all, I’m not what you’d call a cat person. I don’t dislike cats, but I don’t always gravitate towards them as true ‘cat people’ do. (A certain Queensland based fluffy Birman gentleman cat might be the exception here.)

    I needn’t have worried. Mickey is certainly about a cat – a stray tiger-striped kitten with extra toes who entered the author’s life in 1960’s New Zealand – but as the book’s subtitle suggests, it’s much more than a ‘cat story.’

    Mickey becomes The cat who helped me through times of change by being a silent yet steadfast companion through the author’s early teen years, in an era of enormous personal, family, and social and political changes.

    The author has woven the story of her relationship with Mickey, into the broader fabric of her rather eccentric family life, the idiosyncrasies of her neighbourhood and small town community, and her growing awareness of the wider world around her.

    As a child of the 1960’s in a small rural community, I resonated with some of the descriptions in the book. Helen’s mum, for example, sewing and knitting garments for her family, as a cost saving measure but also a way to show her love for them. The agony of embarrassment at being fitted for a first bra. The sense of loss as older sibling grow up or move away. The ‘hollow art of waiting’ in a world in which it was impossible to communicate with each other at the tap of a screen. The unease generated by living in the nuclear age, thinly veiled but still apparent amongst adults. And of course, a war being fought somewhere in the world, reflected on TV screens and in the papers – in this case, the war in Vietnam which took away New Zealander and Australian young men at the very beginning of their adult lives.

    The author describes these and more, with the most memorable scenes being those featuring her unconventional family: her father’s visions for the future development of natural gas as an energy source, her mother’s obsession with the local musical theatre productions, her older brother’s fascination with taxidermy. They are characters drawn beautifully and with great affection.

    But of course Mickey the cat is the star of the book, and here the author’s deep love for and intuitive understanding of cats shines:

    Felines don’t give a hiss about the materialistic obsessions that make people miserable. They live in the gaps, observing energies between themselves and other beings, offering affection when it suits them… A feline is never fully tamed. Maintaining its connection to the wild, it refuses to be bossed around or trained to sit like a dog. The cat is seldom open to bribery. When it offers trust, the gift is more precious than the first camellia of spring.

    Mickey p91

    I am pretty certain that cat lovers will adore this book. But even cat-neutral people, like me, will enjoy its gentle telling of a coming-of-age story and its depictions of a world that is, in many essential ways, no longer with us.

    Mickey is published by HarperCollins Publishers Australia in May 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    ‘Women & Children’ by Tony Birch

    Australian First nations author Tony Birch’s 2023 novel Women & Children was shortlisted for the 2024 Australian Book Industry Awards – Literary Fiction Book of the Year.

    Set in the mid 1960’s it concerns a young boy, Joe Cluny, whose main preoccupation is his tendency to court trouble with the nuns at his Catholic school. He lives in a working class suburb with his single mum and older sister. They are a tight-knit family with the usual money problems and squabbles of families in his neighbourhood.

    When his mum’s sister Oona appears at their door, Joe’s world view has to adjust to a new reality – that of violence perpetrated on women by the men in their lives, and the way doors slam when they seek help.

    Joe comes to understand that there are many types of men, including Oona’s violent boyfriend and his own, mostly absent, father. There is the priest who won’t help Oona. But there is also his grandfather Charlie, and Charlie’s friend Ranji, both of whom offer a kind of companionable time-out from the troubles and mysteries of the adult world.

    As Joe tries to understand the complexities of his society and the way that secrets can damage, he has to leave part of his childhood behind.

    This reads like a very personal sort of novel, which the author acknowledges in his note at the end:

    Women & Children is a work of fiction. It is not the story of my own family, but a story motivated by our family’s refusal to accept silence as an option in our lives.

    Women & Children loc 208 of 210 (eBook)

    One of the novel’s strengths is its spare use of language and the way it conjures young Joe’s world, largely seen through his eyes.

    Another is the bond and strength of the female characters: Joe’s mum Marion, Oona, and his sister Ruby, all demonstrate a particular quality of spirit, hints that they will survive, perhaps even thrive, despite the obstacles lined up against them.

    Children who have the kinds of troubling experiences that Joe has had, need allies. Charlie and Ranji are good examples of how adults can provide alternative experiences so crucial for kids to understand that violence does not have to be part of relationships.

    This novel tells a simple story that is both very old and completely current. I wish it didn’t feel so timely, but it deals with a theme that, sadly, seems to be ever present. Uncovering the silences and secrets around violence and what it does to people is an essential step to stopping it.

    Women & Children was published by UQP in 2023.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Budding children’s author: Adrian So and his chapter book for younger readers

    When fourteen year old Adrian So contacted me to ask if I’d be willing to review his soon-to-be-released chapter book for young readers, I was intrigued and impressed by his willingness to put himself and his work out there. Writing is a solitary task, though a team will usually be involved at getting a work from manuscript to publication and beyond, and Adrian’s story is being published in August by US based Monarch Educational Services.

    The Groundworld Heroes (Book One) concerns the adventures of Benjamin, part of the digging team in Soiland, whose quiet world is about to be violently disrupted by human intrusion from above. The citizens of Soiland – moles like Benjamin, plus aardvarks, shrews, gophers, badgers and other underground dwellers – become refugees from humans and their mechanical digger which threatens to cave in the entirety of Soiland.

    Told from the viewpoints of Benjamin and Mr Hare, the President of Soiland, the narrative follows the hapless refugees as they flee to nearby Puddleland, where they must try to convince the King and Queen that they are seeking help, not territory.

    There are many ups and downs and adventures as Benjamin tries to rescue his friend Connor from the humans, and convince the rodent royals that the only way they can fend off the human enemy is if they stick together.

    The Groundworld Heroes is a fast-paced, sometimes madcap adventure story perfect for young readers who are ready for chapter books.

    As it is Book One, I imagine it will be followed by another in the series, and it’s a terrific start of what I’m sure will be a successful writing career for Adrian So. It will be published by Monarch Educational Services, LLS, in August 2024.
    My thanks to the author and publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    What price beauty? ‘The Beauties’ by Lauren Chater

    The ‘beauties’ in the title of this new historical fiction by Australian author Lauren Chater, were elegant women of the court of Charles II of England. Chosen by the Duchess of York for their looks, grace and, of course, position in the pecking order of Restoration-era nobility, the ‘Windsor Beauties’ portraits adorned palace walls and now hang in Hampton Court.

    Several characters’ stories weave across each other in this narrative.

    Emilia is a young wife whose husband’s lands and title have been stripped from the family due to her brother-in-law choosing the ‘wrong’ side to support during the English Civil Wars. Seeking the King’s favour in order to have the family’s position reinstated, she comes to the uncomfortable realisation that the surest way is to use her beauty – by striking a bargain with the King himself, agreeing to become his mistress in return for his forgiveness for her husband’s family.

    First, though, her portrait will be painted to join the other Windsor Beauties.

    Henry is the ambitious artist who sees this commission as a way to a secure future and favour from the royal family.

    In the process of painting Emilia’s portrait, Henry realises that the road to fame is not straightforward, especially as his elusive and troubled sitter tries to delay the completion of his project for as long as she possibly can.

    Anne is a young lady-in-waiting to the Princess Anne, the King’s niece (and later Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch.) She experiences the rivalry, malicious gossip and betrayal that is the royal court. She, too, has her portrait painted – in different circumstances and with very different results than Emilia – and it changes the trajectory of her life.

    The Beauties encompasses many of the tumultuous events of mid-seventeenth century England: the Civil Wars that tore communities and families apart; the frippery and indulgence of Charles II and his court; the reinvigoration of London’s theatre scene after the oppression of the Republic and Puritans; the constraints of the roles assigned to women; the devastation and ugliness of the dreaded plague that tore mercilessly through homes and towns.

    Towards the end of the novel, Anne expresses one of its strongest themes, when she muses:

    I was a duchess now, not a frightened lady-in-waiting. Not a girl, waiting for her life to begin. What if I could do that for others? Help them find their power, the courage to go on? I thought about the women I knew – mothers, sisters, daughters, mistresses, wives. Did they know how strong they were, that those roles, assigned by society, failed to define them? Did they ever see themselves in all their wonderful complexity? Did anyone ever hold up a mirror to show them how well they were doing, how far they’d come, how much they’d grown?…Why shouldn’t women see themselves as they truly were – strong, powerful, intelligent? Instead of gazing outwards, I wanted them to look within, identifying the unique skills and accomplishments that would allow them to endure the trials every woman must face.

    The Beauties eBook loc 350 of 384

    The Beauties is published by Simon & Schuster in April 2024.

    My thanks to the publishers and to NetGalley for an advanced reading copy to review.

  • Books and reading

    Did you know that in Victorian times, the fear of grave-robbers disturbing the final resting place of a loved one led to a brisk sale in ‘mortsafes’, an iron frame anchored over graves to secure them? And that there was an equally brisk, and to modern eyes very disturbing, trade in the bones and other body parts of non-Europeans, smuggled about the globe and ending up in private collections, museums and scientific institutions?

    These are some of the snippets I learned by reading Black Silk and Sympathy.

    I love Deborah Challinor’s historical fiction for this reason. She weaves into her stories fascinating insights about the places and periods in which her novels are set – in this case, London and Sydney in the 1860’s. Specifically, it is the world of Victorian undertakers: not usually a topic for a novel, especially one with a female protagonist, but all the more reason to enjoy it.

    Tatiana at seventeen has been recently orphaned and makes a decision to leave London – and England – and try her luck in the colony of New South Wales. She is offered work as an undertaker’s assistant by Titus Crowe. It’s an unusual offer, but Crowe is an astute businessman and recognises the attraction of a ‘woman’s touch’ to grieving clients. Echoes of today’s women-operated funeral businesses, I suppose, but truly ground breaking in Victorian-era Sydney.

    When Titus dies, Tatty is determined to keep running the business on her own terms. Not unheard of, but unusual for the time, especially in the competitive world of the funeral industry.

    Unfortunately for Tatty, the competition is even fiercer than she’d thought, and one rival in particular will stop at nothing to limit her success.

    Being a businesswoman in this town, and particularly in your industry, will not be without its challenges. And you will be the only female undertaker in Sydney. To my knowledge there are seven other local undertaking firms apart from yours, all chasing the same profit to be made from funerals. Be prepared.

    Black Silk and Sympathy p167

    She is a formidable adversary though, and through quick thinking and a willingness to take risks, Tatty and her business endure.

    Previous books I’d read by this author include the Convict Girls series, and it took me a while to realise that several characters, who felt vaguely familiar, were from those novels, albeit several decades on. It’s always nice to meet old friends from earlier books again.

    The author’s background as an historian and researcher show in her impeccable details of the period, including fascinating insights into Victorian mourning customs and funeral practices, and the restrictions on women owning anything of their own once they married. The laws of the time certainly stacked the odds against women having anything like independence; yet there were women like Tatty who did not let that stand in their way. Thankfully we can now read stories about such women and the circumstances in which they lived.

    Tatty is a heroine to relate to and I hope to meet her again in the next book of the series.

    Black Silk and Sympathy is published by HarperCollins Publishers in April 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Simple delights: ‘Happy All Over’ by Emma Quay

    Author and illustrator Emma Quay (of Rudie Nudie fame) is back with another romp with things that make us happy.

    In this delightful new book she has her little ones taking pleasure in the simplest things of everyday life:

    A star.
    The floor.
    Shapes at the door.
    Finding there are five
    When you thought
    there were four.

    Happy All Over

    The illustrations, of family scenes, pets, babies and toddlers, books and gardens, are exuberant and lively; perfect for the story.

    Happy All Over was published in April 2024 by HarperCollins Children’s Books.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Jake Jackson is a former London detective who has retired to live outside a small rural village. He is still troubled by unsolved cases from his past, and he is pulled into an informal investigation involving a supposed suicide, a snatched child, and a murdered man.

    Before long the stakes are raised to a frightening level, threatening his new partner and her little girl, as well as several people who have helped Jake find answers.

    This is Book 2 in a new series by London based author Stig Abell. The premise of an ex-detective being unable to leave his former job behind completely, is not a new one. However in this case it is given an extra fillip by the place Jake now inhabits and the lifestyle he has chosen.

    His new home is called ‘Little Sky’ and its surroundings are an important part of the novel. The setting and even the weather have a presence, by turns calming and peaceful, foreboding, or threatening. There are immersive descriptions that take the reader right into Jake’s chosen home:

    The storm abates, and he wraps up and goes outside, his feet damply bare in old wellies. The world in its aching iciness is still, as if all has been frozen and fixed into place. He can feel the expanse of the lake rather than see it, the silent night cloaking him softly like dark silk. The air is fresh in his lungs, the bitter cold somewhat cleansing.

    Death in a Lonely Place p75

    Jake has left the crowds and hubbub of the city behind, re-entering it only with reluctance. His house is isolated, almost completely ‘off grid’ in terms of communication with others. His routines include exercise (runs followed by winter swims in his private lake), healthy food, idyllic nights by the fire, reading his beloved detective and thriller novels. He is content.

    Yet when trouble comes calling he does not hesitate to respond, though he has long discussions about the wisdom of re-entering a criminal world both with himself and his partner, Livia, who is anxious about trouble imposing itself on them, especially as she is sole parent to a little girl.

    Livia and daughter Diana are more than just the ‘love interest’ and child; they are drawn into the action to a certain extent, which puts some strain on the relationship, with Livia also needing to make decisions about the right thing to do.

    Jake is an attractive character, too. He has his own preoccupations but no fatal flaw such as alcoholism, so often seen in the detective genre – probably with good reason, given the things that they see and the crimes they have to deal with. Instead, Jake’s ‘problem’ is a tendency to take responsibility, such as his feeling that he has let down the families of the victims of crimes he was unable to solve.

    With the help of several others, he uncovers a criminal conspiracy that is happening right under his nose. The nature of this conspiracy is particularly distasteful and distressing, actually. I left the novel thinking -hoping – that it is just fiction, that such crimes would not actually take place or find willing participants in today’s world. Probably very naive of me, but I do prefer to leave some crimes in the world of make believe, and I can still enjoy a good detective novel even when they include such abhorrent behaviour.

    And I did enjoy this novel. The plotting is tight, there is a good pace (without page after page dedicated to – yawn! – drawn out fight scenes), and the characters around Jake are, mostly, people I could warm to.

    But most of all I loved the way the author brought Jake and his home to life for me: snowy fields, woolen jumpers, frozen streams, and hot coffee by the fire.

    Now that I have met Jake I’ll no doubt look up Book 1; Death under a Little Sky, to read more about how he came to be in this beautiful part of the country.

    Death in a Lonely Place is published by Hemlock Press, an imprint of HarperCollins, in April 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Simply wonderful: the work of author/illustrator Freya Blackwood

    A few years ago I was fortunate to see an exhibition of works by award-winning children’s book author and illustrator Freya Blackwood. She has illustrated books by such leading authors as Libby Gleeson, Margaret Wild, Nick Bland, Jan Ormerod, Danny Parker and Mem Fox. See more about Freya and her work here.

    If you follow my blog posts, you’ll know that I adore children’s literature and in particular, picture books. There is something magical about the combination of carefully chosen words and intuitive illustrations that bring a story to full, vivid life. Each component are integral, essential: one does not work without the other.

    With The Garden of Broken Things, Ms Blackwood has created both words and pictures. It tells of little Sadie, who investigates the garden of Number 9 Ardent Street, an old house avoided by the other children because it has

    windows like sad eyes, and

    Thick like cobwebs,
    the tangled vines concealed
    things from another time,
    revealed things twisted and bent,
    seized and rusted;
    things that had come to a final halt.

    The Garden of Broken Things

    Sadie discovers an old woman there, sitting slumped on a garden bench. Rather than running away, Sadie stays to chat, telling the woman about her friends, her school lessons, her pets. By the time she has to go home, she has made a new friend, and the garden of broken things becomes, once again, a wild and beautiful playground for the local children.

    It’s a simple, sweet story about stopping to look and to listen, and how friends can appear in the most unlikely places. The soft evocative illustrations add so much to the book’s beauty and depth.

    The Garden of Broken Things is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Legacy of war: ‘Hungry Ghosts’ by CJ Barker

    English-born Australian writer CJ Barker has created a novel that delivers profound truths about war and about the ways in which trauma’s effects on lives and relationships can endure.

    The protagonists are working class Vic and Ruth, whose experiences in WWII inform their relationships and life trajectories for ever.

    First we meet Vic’s father Frank, a veteran of the first World War, described as a quiet reserved man who keeps to himself. He deals with the unwelcome memories of his war years by turning to alcohol and work. Young Vic witnesses his father’s drunken episodes and times when ‘volcanos of rage’ rip through the house. Then Frank deserts his family to wander the countryside, a vagabond. He leaves a gift for his son – an old camera rescued from a rubbish heap. That camera is to become a salvation of sorts, but it also adds to Vic’s later grief and despair.

    After his mother is killed in a bombing raid, Vic goes to live with his aunt Amelia, an unorthodox, modern woman who introduces him to photography as an art form. When war starts he joins the RAAF and hopes to be a pilot; instead he becomes a bomb aimer: a role that requires him to lie flat in the nose of the plane, directing the pilot to the target, then release the bombs at the right moment. On each mission, the crew expect to die.

    Meanwhile, Ruth grows up in a poor neighbourhood in East London. She dreams of getting an education and a proper job that would allow her entry to the bigger world that beckons. But the best her world offers is a shorthand course and a secretarial job.

    Then the war begins and she endures the Blitz along with her neighbours, crowded into air raid shelters at night. She volunteers for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force where her clerical skills are put to use. She has ambitions beyond what’s expected for women at the time – she aims for work interpreting arial photographs taken by Allied reconnaissance planes, roles mainly given to university educated women, as are officer positions.

    The inequalities and unfairness of their society are painfully apparent to both Vic and Ruth, even as they serve their country and what they believe is the greater good.

    At RAF Medmenham base in Buckinghamshire she and Vic meet. Their attraction to each other outlasts the war and while they must endure their own wartime tragedies separately, they eventually marry on VE Day. Their child, James, is born and Ruth must give up her job and become a full-time wife and mother, something she’d never planned.

    It isn’t long before the lasting effects of the war begin to impact on the little family. Vic has found work as a professional photographer and his career is promising. But his inner torment and lingering mental and spiritual injuries find expression in the same way he’d seen with his father – alcoholism. Vic becomes a distant father, often cruel, and little James grows up under the shadow of two generations of war-induced suffering.

    So a third generation enters a world dominated by conflict.

    James begins study at Cambridge University – an opportunity denied his parents, but he questions its relevance in the face of the protests, drug use, anti-war sentiment and counter-culture of the sixties and early seventies. His father is lost to him – not even widespread praise for Vic’s stark photographs of the conflict in Vietnam can convince James that his father is anything but a useless, cowardly waste of a life.

    There is a resolution – imperfect as these often are, but one which allows us to feel more hopeful for James’s future.

    The settings and characters of the story are beautifully realised; the details of wartime in Britain conjure the darkness of that time, the reality that whether civilian or military, you could die at any moment. The hope that some held for a better world afterward:

    For him, England, or at least East Anglia, had become a giant aircraft carrier littered with runways and rubble. He was familiar with the Nissen huts and landing strips of his base. He was intimate with the night sky over Germany and the tracer bullets that sped towards him like a stream of malicious fireflies. His homeland, though, felt like another country, alien to his memories, like a long-lost relative with whom he hoped to be reunited, only to find that they had grown apart during the missing years. And yet this ashen graveyard – this England – this was the place where he hoped that justice would spout like crocuses in spring.

    Hungry Ghosts p99 /30% (ebook)

    Hungry Ghosts is a beautiful, engrossing novel about all the hurts that humans can inflict on each other; and also about resilience and vulnerability:

    Over and over, a question arose in his mind, like a bad dream, or a Zen riddle: after we have seen the horror, how do we go on?

    Hungry Ghosts p227/67% (ebook)

    You can read a guest post by the author on the blog Whispering Stories, in which he discusses the genesis of the book and describes it as a ‘letter of understanding and forgiveness to my (now deceased) parents.’

    Hungry Ghosts is published by The Book Guild in March 2024.
    My thanks to the author for a review copy.