I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the strap line for this new novel by Australian author Pamela Hart, is a beauty:
‘Renovations are hell – and that’s before you find a body beneath the floorboards.’
It neatly ties in two irresistible motifs for many readers: a who-done-it mystery and real estate / renovations – the last still endlessly fascinating for residents of Sydney, which is where the story is set.
Ms Hart is the author of many novels for children and adults covering several genres, including historical fiction, fantasy and non-fiction. This is her first foray into contemporary crime and I look forward to reading more about Poppy McGowan, who is an engaging, wryly humoured heroine with an interesting job (researcher for kids’ programs with ABC TV). Digging Up Dirt the first of what promises to be a series featuring Poppy.
She owns the house in Sydney’s inner west which is undergoing renovations at the start of the novel. To begin with she is dealing with a possible heritage order, due to the discovery of animal bones of potential historical significance, which has brought building work to a halt. Poppy’s previous job was in a museum so she is appropriately respectful of heritage issues… but she’s also worried that her renovations might be put on hold indefinitely while investigations into the bones continue.
Those concerns are compounded the following day, though, as investigations of altogether another kind are required – a murder enquiry, after the body of the archaeologist brought in to look at the bones is discovered in the same pit where the animal bones were discovered. Poppy begins her own bit of investigating, keen to see the matter brought to a close quickly so that her little house can be lived in sooner rather than later.
Political and religious organisations are involved because the murdered woman had been vying for pre-selection as a candidate for the Australian Family Party, a right-wing conservative organisation with strong ties to the Radiant Joy Church (possibly a thinly disguised version of an evangelical church frequented by a certain prime minister?) As Poppy digs deeper she realises that more than one person who knew the victim had a motive for wanting her gone.
Digging Up Dirt is essentially a light read, with elements of romantic comedy in the mix, though it does touch on some serious topics such as homophobia, sexism and the theft of Indigenous cultural materials. Poppy is smart and also acerbic at times, which makes for some apt barbs in the direction of politicians, and entitled, white, conservative and prosperous men – and women.
The great thing about sexism is that men who think women are stupider than they are truly believe it. So they are very, very reluctant to acknowledge that a woman may not be stupid. Thus far, I’d played to their expectations of a young woman who wasn’t really a reporter, and their own mindset predisposed them to believe I wasn’t a threat.Digging Up Dirt p147
Sydney based readers will enjoy the strong sense of the city’s environs invoked. I enjoyed reading about Poppy and can visualise this story made into a film or TV series. I’m sure I will be meeting Poppy again in the future.
Digging Up Dirt is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises in June 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.
This novel by Western Australian Noongar author Kim Scott was published in 2017 and won a swag of awards including the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Award and the Indigenous Writer’s Prize, and shortlisted for many others including the 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award.
It is a novel about reconciliation between black and white Australia, specifically between a group of Noongar people who come together to try to lay to rest the ghosts of those who died in a corner of south western WA at the hands of white settlers in the nineteenth century. The property where the massacre happened is near the fictional town of Kokanarup, but the historical events are based on atrocities that actually took place.
In the novel, Dan Horton is an elderly widower who runs the farm on which the massacres occurred. His ancestors were complicit in the murders and he is keen to offer a hand of friendship to the descendants of those who died. He gets involved in planning for a Peace Park in town and invites the Noongar people to visit his property, as a well meaning act of reconciliation between his family and the families of those who were wronged.
Dan learns that Tilly, a high school student, will be joining the visitors and his hearts lifts. Tilly was fostered by Dan and his wife Janet when she was a baby, when her Noongar father was incarcerated and her non indigenous mother unable to cope for a time. Dan has fond memories of that time and longs to see Tilly again. But the visit does not go as he’d planned and hoped for.
The visitors gather at a local caravan park for a ‘culture camp’, during which several elders teach some of the Noongar language, culture and ceremony. The camp also serves as an informal ‘rehab’ for those needing time and space to have a break from alcohol or drug addiction. We follow Tilly as she observes people going about the various activities. She feels like an outsider, having only fairly recently met her father (before he died and was still in prison) and her Noongar extended family, who nevertheless welcome her with a loving embrace. The reader is given hints, small glimpses via flashbacks or partial memories, of Tilly’s own trauma at the hands of a depraved and cruel white man, as she tries to reconcile her own past and the connections between her black and white heritages.
The novel has moments of humour and characters that are recognisable though never caricatures. There are some cringe-worthy moments, including the well meaning but completely uninformed (and non-indigenous) Aboriginal support person at Tilly’s school, for example.
The core of the novel is how the language and culture of the Noongar people, hold the disparate group together. Kim Scott explores how language can be a strength that people can draw on in difficult times, to make sense of their experiences and histories, and to forge a way forward into the future.
It’s language brings things properly alive.Taboo p197
This novel does not shirk from the difficult parts of Aboriginal and white shared histories. It also does not shy away from the betrayals and cruelties that people can inflict on each other. It does offer hope, that with goodwill we can move to a better future.
Here’s a short YouTube video of Kim Scott reading from the opening of Taboo. It includes these beautiful sentences:
…we are hardly alone in having been clumsy, and having stumbled and struggled to properly breathe and speak and find our place again. But we were never hungry for human flesh, or revenge of any kind. Our people gave up on that payback stuff a long time ago.Kim Scott from Taboo
Taboo was published in 2017 by Picador
The opening of this book puts the reader slap bang into the intrigue and action. There is a brief prologue where we are given a hint of the mystery at the centre of the novel: who is Amira’s family? To whom does she owe loyalty? Then we are thrust into the action: an assassination being carried out by the protagonist, Amira. She is very good at her work. But here is another puzzle: why is she killing a wealthy European businessman in his garden greenhouse?
We are quickly introduced to the reason. Amira, adopted as an infant to parents who lead the Authenticity Movement, has been raised to be one of the Movement’s Warriors, who carry out assassinations of people considered to be ‘infected.’ It becomes clear that what this means is that they are people who have benefited from the capitalist system, accumulating huge wealth, power and advantage. The Movement aims to instigate a global revolution against the capitalist system.
Here is the catch, and the conflict at the heart of the novel – Amira is beginning to doubt that the methods used by the Movement are justified by its lofty goals. She also starts looking for clues about her birth family. By questioning the Movement and her place in it, she puts herself and others in danger.
I don’t read much in the thriller genre, but I do enjoy well written crime fiction, especially if there is an intelligent female protagonist and a strong emphasis on character. Cutting the Cord has both, and the narrative is told through tight, snappy sentences and some evocative descriptive language. The tension escalates as all the threads of Amira’s complicated life meet in a pulse raising climax.
I would have liked more explanation of the Authenticity Movement. It read to me as a type of closed quasi-religious cult in which members are brainwashed and cowed by the powerful leader, Amira’s adoptive father. There were aspects that were familiar from stories of other cults – alternating abuse and favoritism, violence and love welded together in powerful ways. I think I needed to see more about where the Movement’s manifesto came from and the reasons why it’s leader chose acts of terrorism to achieve his aims. This may have helped me to suspend disbelief more easily.
What I did enjoy was Amira’s journey, as she moves towards discovering who she really is, in all ways:
She closes her eyes. Cramped tears threaten to tumble. Thoughts scramble around in her mind. She is coming to understand that: slaves have brains and there is so much more to the world than she has been taught. But how can she move on from the past when it stains the present?Cutting the Cord p171
This is a moment familiar to most of us – when we begin to peek through the curtains of childhood or our upbringing to see the wide world outside, and begin to wonder about what we think we know and what we have yet to understand. This is exactly the challenge Amira faces in Cutting the Cord – but with much higher stakes.
Cutting the Cord is the debut novel by Natasha Molt and published by Impact Press (an imprint of Ventura Press) in May 2020.
Thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
Tara Moss is a Australian-Canadian author of many bestselling books, including the non fiction titles Speaking Out and The Fictional Woman, and her crime fiction and paranormal series. She is also a journalist, former model, documentary maker and presenter. In 2015 she was a recipient of an Edna Ryan Award for her significant contribution to feminist debate, speaking out for women and children. Oh, and she is UNICEF national ambassador for child survival. Probably all this keeps her pretty busy.
Luckily for lovers of crime and historical fiction, she has found time to begin a new series that is a happy marriage of the two. Dead Man Switch (published 2019 by Harper Collins) is the first in the Billie Walker series and features a terrific new female protagonist. Billie is a ‘PI’ (Private Inquiry agent) who returns to Sydney at the end of WWII to re-open her deceased father’s agency. She is stylish and courageous and, I was happy to note, compassionate.
Her experiences as a journalist, following the events of the war in Europe, have left her with some difficult memories and current challenges, not least of which is her photographer husband, Jack, who disappeared on a mission towards the end of the war and has been missing since. Also, Billie needs to make a living, which she does by taking on cases for people needing evidence of spousal infidelity in order to get a divorce – hardly satisfying work. So when she is approached by a woman to find her missing 17 year old son, Billie jumps at the chance of getting her teeth into a challenging case.
And challenging it proves to be. The sinister tentacles of the murderous Nazis have found their way to Australia and Billie gets caught up in a much bigger and nastier plot than she could have expected.
The author weaves a whole lot of history into the fabric of her story. Social history (the return of women to the home after having done important jobs during the war, changing fashions, the lingering effects of wartime rationing), events of the war (the shocking cruelties of the Nazi concentration camps), the inhumane treatment of Aboriginal people during the period, and attitudes to women, are all encapsulated in a vivid portrayal of post war Australia and the world.
I was especially thrilled when the action moved to my own territory: the Blue Mountains including Katoomba, Mt Victoria, Colo, Bilpin (where I grew up) and Richmond. It’s not often I read about these places in contemporary fiction, so that was fun!
The plot has enough twists to keep a reader turning the page, and some interesting and likeable characters: Sam (Billie’s assistant), her mother Eva and Eva’s ‘ladies’ maid/companion’, women police officers (very unusual at that time), and a courageous young Aboriginal woman who I hope to see more of in future books in the series.
Dead Man Switch introduces a new player in the Australian historical crime genre. It’s a little noir, though Billie is certainly no Sam Spade – thank goodness. She’s very human and relatable even while up to her stylish hat in adventure. I’m looking forward to the next in the series.
You can find out more about Tara Moss and her books here:
If you enjoy an author who never seems to write the same book twice, I can recommend the works of Jock Serong, a Victorian based author who has to date published four books. I have read three of these so far and I can honestly say that the only thing they have in common is the quality of the story telling.
Quota, Serong’s first book, also published in 2016, is the one I’ve yet to read. It won the Australian Crime Writers Association’s Award for best debut novel (and it’s next on my TBR list.) In the same year, The Rules of Backyard Cricket appeared, which (while there are certainly criminal elements within the story and some of its characters) is also a meditation on the role of sport in Australian society and, more especially, Australian masculinity. Then in 2017 came On the Java Ridge, a stark and heart-breaking look at the ‘problems’ posed by asylum seekers for our politicians, for our moral compass as a nation, and for those who are at the front line of the tragedies that play out in the lives of those who seek safety from trauma and brutality. Lastly, Preservation, published in 2018, is a retelling of a true historical story, with the flavour of a psychological thriller. Four novels, no two alike, but all the work of a writer in superb control of his craft.
So, to The rules of backyard cricket. This is the story of two boys, Darren Keefe and his older brother Wally, raised in the hard-scrabble inner west Melbourne suburb of Footscray in the 1970’s by a tough and loving single mum. The novel opens with Darren reflecting on his life and on the series of choices and events that led to where we first meet him – in the boot of a car, bound, gagged, and with a bullet in his knee. Immediately, we think this will be a crime novel, right?
Yes…except that so much of the story involves the brothers’ lives in the world of sport, specifically cricket. While they start their cricketing trajectories together in their scruffy childhood backyard, their paths diverge: Wally (the older, driven, disciplined and focused brother) becomes the captain of the Australian test team, while Darren (the younger, charming larrikin) experiences early success but due to some spectacularly bad choices, ends up with his cricket career in tatters. And yet, Darren goes on to become something of a media celebrity and commentator, proving that even very bad behaviour can be forgiven by the public in certain arenas of life – and in Australia, sport is most definitely one of those arenas. Here’s a quote from the book:
“Sport goes to the heart of everything. If you can reach inside it and f**k with its innards, you’re actually messing with society . . . Bigger than drugs. Bigger than hookers and porn, because people shy away, they can smell the desperation. But the same people will go on consuming sport long after they know it’s rotten to the core. They’re insatiable.”From ‘The rules of backyard cricket’ by Jock Serong.
We know that Darren ends up in a sticky situation, though. Each chapter opens with a reminder of this, zooming back to focus on Darren in that car boot as he ruminates on all the actions and events that put him there. We watch as his life becomes a train wreck, and Darren is sufficiently self aware to offer a critique of his choices and behaviours, so that we feel as if we are offered an insider’s view of it all.
In a Goodreads interview, Serong offers this:
On one hand “the book is about men and Australiana and sport, but on the other is … about family and brothers and in a subtle way it’s a story about women.https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30271762-the-rules-of-backyard-cricket
I wanted to think critically about men and sport and how those men behave in the public arena, to look at how it is that happens and why as a society do we encourage it. ”
This novel works on so many levels: as crime fiction, as an analysis of important themes in our society, as a tender reflection on family and as a thriller – I did not see the twist at the end coming!