• 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

    Sibling trouble: ‘My Father’s Suitcase’ by Mary Garden

    I reviewed NZ-born Mary Garden’s biography of her aviator father, Oscar Garden, back in 2021. In it, she referred to the unsettled, troubled family in which she grew up.

    My Father’s Suitcase takes this several steps further. It opens with a physical attack on Mary, apparently out of the blue, by her younger sister Anna when they were both in their fifties. We know immediately that things are still not right in the Garden family.

    This time the narrative centers on an all-too-common but often overlooked issue: sibling abuse. Another manifestation of the troubling problem of family violence, it has not received the (thankfully increasing) attention that has been directed at intimate partner abuse. But Mary’s story makes clear that the lasting effects of family violence, no matter who is perpetrated by, can be debilitating.

    It also raises questions about family inheritances. Are genetics primarily responsible for mental ill health in families? Did a legacy of instability, depression and anxiety originate from Oscar’s bipolar disorder, his emotional repressiveness and oppressive behaviour towards his wife and, to varying degrees, their children?

    All of the hallmarks of abuse are outlined in this book: the unpredictability of violent outbursts, gaslighting, a failure to intervene appropriately by those who should do so, scapegoating. And for the victim of the abuse? Shame, depression, guilt.

    Having had my own experience of someone who (I’m now certain) suffered from an undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and experiencing many of the hallmarks of an abusive relationship, I felt a great deal of sympathy for the author while reading this book.

    There were moments when I was shocked at her own responses to the situations she found herself in, but by her own admission, she too was acting out of a desperate and unstable mental state, the result of an intergenerational trauma that was then (in the mid-twentieth century) unrecognised and rarely, if ever, discussed.

    Although much of this story took place in her birthplace of New Zealand, there are striking similarities between that country and Australia in the decades she describes. Conservative, relatively isolated nations, with little understanding and even fewer resources to help people deal with trauma or depression. Mental health services that by the 1990’s relied on programs in the community, leaving many sufferers isolated and uncared for, and their families increasingly desperate. A rejection by the post-war ‘baby boomer’ generation of the values and choices of their elders; a turn towards Eastern spirituality and/or counter culture in a search for something different. Tumultuous times indeed.

    This memoir shares questions in common with memoir writing generally: Whose truth is being told? What version of events and people do we receive? Family disputes are always messy and usually damaging. Does it help to air them in public?

    I would often answer ‘no’ to this question. But this memoir offers more than one’s person response to events. In her brutal ‘warts and all’ honesty, the author has highlighted some important and timely issues that we all need to understand. And she certainly is not painting an image of herself as a passive victim, acknowledging and questioning as she does her own behaviour and the family legacy of such:

    Even though somewhere deep down I knew I was making a fool of myself and behaving erratically, I kept going. In that I was like my father. People had thought he was mad, too, when he flew from England to Australia in his second-hand Gypsy Moth. He did not give up. It was a miracle his little plane did not break down on his 19-day flight. He was determined to survive. Luck was on his shoulder. Luck was on mine also.

    My Father’s Suitcase p204

    When her sister publishes a book about their father’s career hot on the heels of Mary’s own, very successful biography, it raises issues of plagiarism and copyright law, complicated matters which teams of lawyers deal with regularly. Even so, it made me wonder how much plagiarism goes undetected in published works.

    This candid account of the ‘weird, crazy Gardens’ is a gripping story that finishes on a hopeful note: of recovery, of different choices leading to better health and a happier life. As such it offers some insight into what people can do to move on from the legacy of mental ill health and family abuse.

    My Father’s Suitcase is published by Justitia Books in May 2024. My thanks to the author 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.

  • 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,  History

    Fitting end to trilogy: ‘The Settlement’ by Jock Serong

    The Settlement is the conclusion to a trilogy of historical fiction novels by award-winning Aussie author Jock Serong. Set in early colonial times in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) the three books tell the uncomfortable story of the violence of the colonial project, the evil manifested by those involved, and the defiance of the island’s First Nations.

    I can’t recommend the first (Preservation) and second (The Burning Island) highly enough. If you enjoy both historical and crime fiction these novels are for you.

    The Settlement again moves forward in time to the 1830’s, where we meet the real-life George Augustus Robinson, the evangelistic character who took it upon himself to try to solve the problem of spiraling conflict between First Nations people and the settlers in Van Diemen’s Land.

    The so-called ‘Black Line’ – a very expensive and (for the British authorities at least) completely unsuccessful attempt to corral and capture Aboriginal people to eliminate the problem, had been a failure. Robinson convinced the authorities to allow him to locate and meet with the leaders of the groups posing a threat to white settlement, with the aim of convincing them to quit their homelands and move to a settlement on an island in the northeast.

    So the ill-fated and eponymous settlement of ‘Wybalenna’ on Flinders Island was established.

    The narrative moves between key characters: Robinson himself, and other historical figures including leading First Nations figure Mannalargenna, among others; and fictional characters such as two Aboriginal orphans, Whelk and Pipi. A sympathetic, if powerless and conflicted character is the settlement’s Storekeeper, who wrestles with his conscience and his own personal issues throughout the novel.

    Robinson himself, now called the settlement’s Commandant, also struggles with the morality of his actions, but always manages to hide behind his religious beliefs and expediency, with an eye to his future position and legacy. He becomes an illustration of the moral blankness at the heart of colonisation.

    The chilling character of the Catechist is a remake, of sorts, of the evil figures from the first two books. I heard the author in an interview describe this recurring / reincarnated character as embodying the evils of colonialism and the violence inherent in it. Or, as described in this novel, as an embodiment of the place, the hands and face of an otherwise formless despair. (p108)

    The scenes involving the death and funeral of Mannalargenna are almost unbearable, lifted only by the strength and dignity of the man’s spirit even as his body fails, and beautifully conveyed:

    Mannalargenna cared little for displays of suffering. He continued to use the grease on his skin and the ochre in the short tufts of his hair, in defiance of the Commandant’s wishes. He persisted in adorning himself in other ways, and in speaking language. Far from rendering him an alien in their midst, it made aliens of his captors. Like a holed and smoking ship of war, he would slide beneath the waves imperious.

    The Settlement p174-175

    Jock Serong has again woven a dark story around the equally dark bones of historical fact. He has cemented his place as one of my favourite Australian contemporary authors.

    The Settlement was published by Text Publishing in August 2023.

  • Books and reading

    When the past bites: ‘Tipping Point’ by Dinuka McKenzie

    I’m now a definite fan of Kate Miles, the central character in this third novel by Aussie author Dinuka McKenzie featuring this determined, but very human, police detective. You can read my thoughts about Taken, book 2 in the series.

    Once again Kate is on her home turf in the fictional town of Esserton, in the NSW Northern Rivers region. She is still juggling her very demanding job with two young children while trying to be more present for them and her husband Geoff. Not an easy task.

    In this story, her birth family and its complications feature heavily and place more demands on Kate. Her brother Luke, long estranged from their father, returns to Esserton for the funeral of one of his two closest friends during their school years. A few days later, the third in their old friendship trio is found dead.

    Luke has many other issues he is trying (not very successfully) to deal with, and it’s not surprising when the shadow of suspicion falls on him.

    While Kate attempts to convince Luke to help himself, things begin to spiral out of control. Her impartiality and professionalism is brought into question as another death in the town rocks the community.

    Events from Luke and his dead friends’ pasts become inextricably linked with these tragedies, in ways the characters struggle to understand.

    The novel nicely meets the requirements of a page-turner, but as always for me it’s the characters who are the most important, especially Kate and her family. She is entirely believable and relatable and I found myself cheering for her the whole way through.

    She knew that Geoff would love her to give up the police force for a profession that placed less strain on their family life and removed his constant worries about her welfare and safety. But that would mean throwing away all the years of slog, the slow and patient climbing, dealing with all the bullshit and dick swinging and bureaucracy to prove her worth. It felt like so much of her life and identity were tied up in proving herself against those jeering voices that told her it was her skin colour, her gender and her father’s influence and not her ability that had got her there. To give it up now felt nigh-on impossible.

    The Tipping Point p99

    The Tipping Point was published by HarperCollins Books in January 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  Writing

    Insights on writing and indie publishing: Interview with Aussie writer HR Kemp

    Recently I read and reviewed a contemporary thriller/crime novel by Aussie writer HR Kemp, who has chosen to publish independently. You can read my thoughts on Deadly Secrets here and check out the author’s website here.

    I was interested to know about the author’s writing inspirations and processes and also, insights and learnings about the world of independent publishing.

    I hope you enjoy the interview.


    Q. What was the inspiration for the story; where do you get your ideas for your writing?

    I’ve always been drawn to mystery stories. As a child, I started reading Enid Blyton and (my parents would be horrified to know) I found some Raymond Chandler books and read them from cover to cover (they didn’t do me any harm – at least I don’t think so.) As an adult, I’m attracted to complex thrillers that have social justice themes, like John le Carre and Peter Temple.

    It seems only natural that that’s what I like to write.

    I didn’t take creative writing seriously until late in life. I didn’t see it as a legitimate career ambition; instead, I immersed myself in the sciences – something that could earn a living.

    When I retired, I found discarded notes, novel plot ideas, scraps of dialogue, character ideas, and scene descriptions, sitting in the bottom drawer of my desk at home. I call them my brain leaks. They weren’t part of one story but had one thing in common. They were story ideas provoked by real issues that concerned me e.g. the fate of whistleblowers, climate change denialism, domestic violence, drug trafficking, government scandals, and the dehumanisation of asylum seekers.

    For years, I mulled over a complex novel plot idea, inspired by what I saw happening around me. I’d play with these social and political issues (mostly involving controversial events or scandals) and ask ‘What if’ questions like; what if – the politicians weren’t honest – had their own agenda – were using the policy to manipulate people – and so on? My collection of plot ideas grew into a compelling outline that was plausible and big enough for a whole novel.

    I drew on my Public Service experience, news reports, my travels, general life experience, conversations with experts and friends, and non-fiction books. My research led me to ‘Dirty Money: The True Cost of Australia’s Mineral Boom’ by investigative journalist, Matthew Benns, and all of these contributed to the different layers of the story.

    Once I started writing, the plot expanded and took interesting twists which sometimes surprised me too. It is after all a work of fiction.

    My storylines are built around the theme of perpetual vigilance and finding the courage to fight huge odds to do what’s right. I’m drawn to writing in the Crime genre because justice prevails.

    I try to build in plenty of intrigue, suspense, and adventure in my stories although they are also described as page-turners and slow burn.

    Q. Place features in this novel, including Paris but especially Adelaide. How did you create the settings for the action of the story?

    I find the setting is an important component of a scene. It can affect the mood and feel of the action.

    I used both Adelaide and Sydney as the Australian locations because I know them well, so when I’m writing a scene it’s easy for me to identify the location that best fits the mood or adds interest.

    One of the scenes in Deadly Secrets is set in a hotel in the east end of town. I was having lunch there with my husband when I noticed an area with a sofa and a TV mounted on the wall. I could imagine my characters sitting there discussing a very important development and it seemed just right. This location made it into Deadly Secrets.

    Of course, Adelaide readers tell me that they love reading a story set here. It’s not something they see often.

    My international settings have a similar story.

    I have travelled to Paris many times, it’s my favourite city, and on one visit I witnessed a demonstration (and another in Brussels that same trip). The feel and sight of that demonstration sprung to mind when I started writing Deadly Secrets. It was the perfect way to start Shelley’s journey, especially remembering the French fervour and passion during that protest. It was both scary and inspiring which made it a big challenge to capture the sense of chaos and action in my scene.

    I write a travel diary for every trip with pages of notes per day. I love diving into those memories to pull out a location, be it a special café or place, to use for my chapters. The Café Procope in Paris is one of my favourites and I found a way to incorporate it into Shelley’s story too.

    Luckily, I also take copious photos (I even surprise myself with how many) and they give me visual cues for my descriptions. You can see some of the travel photos that inspired story scenes in the photo gallery on my website.

    Q. Were any of your characters inspired by real people?

    None of my characters are actual people that I know. I’d find it too limiting especially because I’d feel compelled to make the character act true to the way the real person would.

    I do draw on real people, it’s just that my fictional characters are a combination of traits and mannerisms I’ve seen in real life and I put them together in a different and unique way to create my fictional personas.

    It’s easy to find the traits to create my main characters as everyday people. I don’t like to write the traditional thriller heroes of FBI or CIA agents, Police Officers, or law enforcement professionals. My characters have ordinary jobs and lead everyday lives. The fun part is writing how they will react when they uncover an extraordinary situation/issue and are challenged, at great personal risk, to do what’s right. That’s where research and imagination have to help.

    I admire whistleblowers and read about real-life heroes. I also research scandals and difficult events for insights into how different people cope and manage life-threatening situations. This kind of research and reading helps me to craft realistic characters and to conceive their reactions.

    I sat through an entire criminal trial from the early Voir Dire stage (reviewing what evidence would be accepted at trial) to the selection of the jury to the hearing through to the final verdict, and filled a notebook with all kinds of detail. It not only provided context for the story I was writing but gave me examples for my characters as well.

    Q. What are some of the challenges and benefits of publishing your work independently? Can you briefly discuss the key learnings about the process for you?

    Being an indie author has been a big learning curve, but I’ve loved every minute of it (well, maybe not every minute, but almost). There were certainly challenges. Self-publishing is not for the faint-hearted.

    At my age, technology is almost like a foreign language, and self-publishing means I’ve had to learn a lot. Whether it’s been loading books onto retailers’ sites, building a website, using paid ads, or using social media, it’s taken time and energy to learn. There’s a lot of work involved in developing an author platform and promotion and marketing, and it’s all new to me. Although there are courses and helpful websites, I still had to work through them. (It’s not only self-published authors who need this, most traditionally published authors have to market and promote themselves too.)

    The launch of my debut novel, Deadly Secrets, was a massive learning process. I’d contemplated holding a launch party then suddenly along came Covid and lockdowns and it was no longer an option. Then while I was trying to get my head around what I needed to do, bushfires raged through my daughter’s property (their house was safe), and my husband was diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent an operation (luckily it was caught early). As you can imagine, it was a very stressful time. Perhaps one of the things I learned was that not everything had to be perfect from the start.

    It’s great seeing my ebook, paperback, and/or audiobook online and on shelves. I can’t always control the price though (at launch, online retailers listed the Deadly Secrets paperback at $56 – no one would be buying my book at that price. I couldn’t do anything about it and it took a stressful several weeks for the price to drop to the one I’d set.) At the moment, I’m still waiting for Audible to load my audiobook even though it’s available from other retailers.

    I’m a natural networker. Giving author talks, interacting with readers at markets, and generally talking books to anyone who’ll listen, is a joy. It’s hard work to organise these myself, but they are definitely worthwhile. I’m keen to talk to book clubs if they are reading one of my books too.

    As a self-published author, it’s hard to get my books into bookshops around the country. You won’t find my books in the airport, they don’t stock indie-published books. That said, the local bookstores have been a great support and stock (and sell) my books on consignment.

    One of the biggest ongoing challenges in self-publishing is getting reviews. It’s a big part of online retailers’ algorithms, especially Amazon, and they help to make the book more visible. Thank you to the readers who take the time to post a review, it helps a book to be discovered by those who’d enjoy it.

    Despite the hard work, frustrations, and complications, I’m glad I self-published. The feedback from readers makes me glad I put my books out there.

    One of the most important things I’ve learned from this adventure is that I can achieve more than I thought. Also, I’ve learned that I don’t have to do it all, I can buy in expertise when needed.

    I love that I have creative control. I’ve paid professionals to edit the manuscript, design a cover, and format the book for eBook and print versions. These professionals have expertise that I happily draw on, but I get to decide the final look and feel of my book. It’s also been a pleasure to connect with the broader writing community. They have offered important support and help along the way. Organisations like ASA (Australian Society of Authors) and ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) are a great resource and support.

    I’m still learning how to balance all the different roles and tasks of self-publishing. I love doing courses and learning but this needs to be in addition to making time for marketing/promotion and writing the next book. I don’t always get that mix right and of course, there’s never enough time.

    Q. Hints about your next project? 

    I have two projects (but it’s four books) that are competing for my attention.

    I’ve started what will be a 3 (or maybe 4) book series. The main characters are Zelda, a 65-year-old woman, and her neighbour Candy (a 20-something young woman), both live in Adelaide. Again they are amateur sleuths who stumble upon a complex crime/conspiracy, actually, it will be 3 or 4 different crimes, one for each book.

    It’s taken me a little time to get into this project but once I realised it was three separate stories instead of one book, it fell into place. The first book is set in South America and Adelaide, that’s if I don’t change my mind about which story will be book 1. I’ve done that once already.

    The other story has been very patient. It has been sitting in the back of my mind since before Deadly Secrets was written. It is a standalone dual timeline story with one timeline set in Vichy France. It needs a lot of research before I can start, but it has me hooked.


    My thanks to HR Kemp for this fascinating glimpse into the world of writing and of independent publishing.

    Do check out the books currently available at the author’s website.

  • Books and reading

    Deep questions: ‘What Happened to Nina?’ by Dervla McTiernan

    Irish-born Australian author Dervla McTiernan writes gripping crime fiction with well drawn characters and vivid settings. What Happened to Nina? is set in a snowy Vermont winter, and centres around the main character, twenty year old Nina.

    The prologue tells us much of what we need to know about the story. Nina lives with her mum, stepfather and younger sister Grace. She has a boyfriend, Simon Jordan, and they both love rock climbing.

    One weekend they go away to stay at Simon’s family holiday cabin to climb and spend time together. Only one of the pair returns from that weekend away.

    So, what did happen to Nina?

    The narrative takes the reader into the aftermath of crime: the devastation wreaked on a victim and their family, as well as on the perpetrator’s. To a certain extent, the novel keeps us guessing, as both Nina and Simon’s families have different versions of the events that played out that weekend.

    In essence, it is a story of the awful acts that people can commit, and the lies they can tell to avoid responsibility. As readers we are invited to step into the shoes of the main people involved: Nina’s parents and sister, and Simon, his mother and father. How do you move on from tragedy? How can justice be best served? What lengths would a parent go to, to protect their child?

    It also touches on the power of social media to work both for and against victims of crime and their loved ones.

    It’s the kind of crime fiction I enjoy, raising deep questions about human behaviour and asking the reader to reflect on those questions. I found it compelling, the characters believable and in some respects, the events all too familiar.

    What Happened to Nina? is published by HarperCollins in March 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for an advance review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    He put Australia on the map: ‘Flinders’ by Grantlee Kieza

    Imagine being proposed to by letter, then marrying in a small and hasty ceremony, acting on your new husband’s assurances that you would be joining him on his next voyage on a British naval ship; only to learn that you would not, in fact, be granted permission to do so. You bid a sad farewell to your beloved, having been married a matter of weeks. Off he sails, to explore and chart a vast southern continent on the other side of the globe.

    You do not see your husband again for nearly a decade.

    This is what happened to Ann Chappelle, who married Matthew Flinders in Lincolnshire, England, in 1801. To say that her new husband was impulsive and careless, as Kieza describes him, is an understatement. However it is also true that he was a man of his age, ambitious, curious about the world, passionate about science and the sea, keen to venture into the unknown. And there is no question that he adored his wife.

    Reading this detailed and vivid account of the life of an extraordinary figure of Australia’s early colonial history, I discovered some personal links with my own family history. One is that he came from the same part of England from where my paternal ancestors migrated in the mid-1800s, the marshy fens of Lincolnshire. His lifelong mentor, the botanist Joseph Banks, was also born there.

    From an early age Matthew wanted more than a small life in a small village, working as a physician like his father. He was attracted to the sea and inspired by the adventures of Captain James Cook and Banks on the Endeavour, and he joined the navy when he was sixteen.

    He first served under another famous figure, William Bligh, experiencing terrifying battles against the French, voyages to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji, through the treacherous reefs of the Torres Strait, to Jamaica and then back to England. In most of those places there were encounters with the original inhabitants, as well as astonishing new sights, sounds, smells and foods, and Matthew developed his charting skills which would become such an important part of his work. It is hard to overstate how much these experiences would have affected a youngster from a small, quiet corner of England.

    He was to have command of his own ships of exploration: most famously the tiny Tom Thumb, on which (along with surgeon George Bass) he explored areas around the Sydney settlement and beyond. Later they circumnavigated Tasmania and proved it was an island, separate from the mainland of ‘Terra Australis.’

    Subsequent voyages took him to parts of the continent still relatively remote today: up the Queensland coast to the furthest reaches of Cape York Peninsula and the islands of the Torres Strait, across the Gulf of Carpentaria to Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, and around the southern coastline of the continent. On these voyages he was accompanied by the famous Trim, the black-and-white cat who became Matthew’s beloved and loyal companion for many years.

    He experienced shipwreck, sickness, injury, thirst and near starvation. None of these deterred his passion for life at sea and for exploration.

    Everywhere he ventured he created charts and kept detailed notes of his observations. It’s difficult for us in today’s connected world to understand that to Europeans at that time, ‘Terra Australis’ was largely a mystery – thousands of kilometers of coastline and a vast interior which was – what? Desert? An inland sea? A network of rivers? No Europeans knew.

    Another significant feature of Matthew’s experiences was the help given to him and his crews by the indigenous people they encountered. Interactions included warning shots from muskets and some occasions that came close to outright armed conflict; but many times the British mariners had help in the form of fresh water, guidance through difficult country, or exchanges of European goods for food.

    Indeed, it is significant that one of the first times the word ‘Australians’ was used, it was to describe First Nations people near what is now called Port Lincoln in South Australia.

    And what of Ann, his wife in far-away Lincolnshire?

    The couple exchanged letters, full of longing and (on Ann’s part at least) occasional exasperation. The wives of British sea captains had to resign themselves to long periods of separation, though for Ann, this was further prolonged, when on his homeward voyage in 1803, Matthew put in to the French-controlled island of Mauritius for emergency repairs and reprovisioning, only to be placed under guard as a potential British spy. Because news from Europe took so long to reach British colonial outposts, Britain and France were again at war, but Matthew had not known of it.

    He was to spend seven long years in captivity of varying degrees of discomfort, before finally being released in 1810.

    He and Ann were at last reunited and set up house together, Ann giving birth to a daughter at the relatively old age (for a first-time mother in the 1800s) of nearly forty-one. Matthew’s health, though, was badly affected by his trials at sea. And sadly, he had to battle with the Admiralty to be given the pay owing him while he’d been imprisoned by the French, and for due recognition for his work in mapping Australia.

    Matthew Flinders died in 1814 from renal failure following years of kidney and bladder problems. He was only forty years old.

    He led an extraordinary life, voyaging through seas and territories previously unknown to Europeans, experiencing many dangers and hardships. He adopted the name Australia for the southern continent he spent so much of his time exploring and he urged the authorities to do likewise.

    The aspect of Flinders’ personality that I most admire, though, is that he was a man whose greatest wish was that his work, his charts and discoveries, would be used for the benefit of science and the greater knowledge of humanity in general, not for warfare or domination. In this, of course, he was disappointed, but he lived his life in the service and pursuit of knowledge.

    Flinders is a finely researched and well-written account of a fascinating figure of Australian colonial history, the man who – quite literally – put Australia on the map.

    Flinders was published by HarperCollins in November 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Questioning truth: ‘Reckless’ by Marele Day

    I fell into this book, in the sense of immediately feeling comfortable and keen to read on. The opening pages are like an invitation to come into the author’s lounge room, have a cup of tea and hear her stories.

    This memoir is a collection of stories from author Marele Day’s life, from a childhood of treatments and operations for wandering eye; first romantic relationship and crippling grief when her love is killed in a car accident; to spur-of-the-moment (reckless?) decisions made, which lead her in very unexpected and sometimes unwelcome situations.

    We can probably all look back to our youth and wonder at some of the choices we made then. In this book, the author shares her own What was I thinking? moments. Prominent among them is a voyage by catamaran from Darwin to Sri Lanka, with a skipper and crew mates she had only just met. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as the route covers territory known for pirates, and with few places to safely refuel and replenish supplies, they end up in danger on more than one occasion.

    Why did she do it? There was the sense of invincibility that comes with young adulthood. There was a need to do something very different, to break out from the grief that threatened to imprison her after her lover’s shocking death.  And there was a need to be Elsewhere, to Go with the flow.

    The trip, in spite (or because of) its dangers and hardships, resulted in a friendship with Jean Kay, the catamaran’s owner; a connection which lasted thirty years and crossed continents and oceans. On that fateful voyage together in the 1980s, she realises that there is a lot about Jean that is mysterious, contradictory, or hidden from view.

    Later, she decides to dig deeper into his life, in particular one episode in his chequered career: a heist that saw Jean and three accomplices steal millions from an account owned by one of France’s richest businessmen.

    After that, Jean spent years on the run from authorities, living and travelling under an assumed name. In tracing the events surrounding the robbery, Marele begins to doubt what she thinks she knows about her friend and his past.

    In the process she must interrogate her own experiences, beliefs and values.

    The pages of this book held many moments of recognition for me. The foolishness of our younger selves; moments of quiet rebellion (Jean’s school photo conjured a memory of myself aged 17, annoyed by the photographer’s instructions to students to fold hands the same way, deliberately crossing my hands the ‘wrong’ way in my lap.) The need for regular doses of solitude and quiet. A shared appreciation of words and their power:

    Some words were so potent they could only be whispered, matchsticks that ignited fires. I had no idea what a divorce was, but if Aunty Marjorie was getting one it must have been something special. When I whispered the word to the hydrangea bushes near my grandmother’s front steps, it conjured up a mighty wind. I felt the way God must have felt creating the world. All God had to do was say the word and it was so.

    Reckless p86

    My beliefs about an afterlife are also similar:

    The only certainty I feel on these long walks is this: that our bodies, our ashes, are returned to the earth, to nurture new life. All of us, every living creature, becomes part of the ongoing whole. This is enough.

    Reckless p307

    Reckless is a very readable mix of true-crime investigative writing, personal memoir, and philosophy. It’s like an afternoon spent in the company of an engaging friend who has lived an interesting life and met some memorable people, and is a gifted storyteller into the bargain.

    Reckless was published by Ultimo Press in May 2023.