• 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

    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

    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

    A very modern whodunit: ‘That Night in the Library’ by Eva Jurczyk

    I’m always a bit of a sucker when I see a book about libraries or even with the word library in the title. And I enjoy a good ‘whodunit’ and crime novels.

    So of course I had to read this one, by Polish born Canadian writer Eva Jurczyk.

    Set in the rare book library of a university, the cast of characters are seven students who gather for a night of (unspecified) ritual and drugs on the night before their graduation. Some of the seven know each other, having studied or worked together, others are almost strangers.

    Why these seven?

    They’ve been hand-picked by the event organiser, Davey, keen to try out a ritual from the ancient Greeks said to banish the fear of death. As these youngsters are on the cusp of their real adult lives and unknown futures, it seems as good a time as any to try something new.

    But within minutes of dropping the acid tabs, one of them drops dead – seemingly poisoned. And then the lights go out, plunging their basement venue into darkness.

    Fear and suspicion immediately overtake the six survivors, each of whom has their own insecurities and problems or preoccupations.

    As with any good whodunit, the death toll climbs, and so does their paranoia.

    That Night in the Library is a little like a cross between Lord of the Flies and Cluedo, with a very modern take on the ‘locked room’ mystery trope. It’s both fun and compelling as the possible murderer and their motive keeps shifting.

    I didn’t completely buy the resolution, however I was very happy to suspend my judgement in order to enjoy a fast-paced mystery with believable young characters. And as always, I did love the library setting.

    That Night in the Library is published by Sourcebooks/ Poisoned Pen Press in June 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for an advance review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Unlikely connections: ‘The Star on the Grave’ by Linda Margolin Royal

    Did you know that six thousand Jewish refugees were saved from murder at the hands of Nazis during WWII by escaping Europe via Japan? And that they were able to do so by the actions of a brave and committed Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, who in defiance of his government’s express orders, wrote transit visas for desperate people trying to flee from Lithuania.

    He was helped in this by an official from the Netherlands, who supplied documents allowing refugees to travel through the Dutch colony of Curacao, and from there to Japan. From Japan, individuals and families found refuge in countries such as the USA and Australia.

    I had never heard of either of these individuals, whose courageous and compassionate actions have been lost in the stories of that terrible war. And the connection between Japan, Poland, Lithuania and Australia seems unlikely, doesn’t it?

    The Jews whose lives they saved included the author’s own family: her father and grandparents fled Poland to Lithuania, and were amongst those who owed their lives to Sugihara and the Dutch man Jan Zwartendijk. Rachael wrote this book, her first novel, to tell their story and that of the men who saved them.

    In the novel, the main character Rachel is a young nurse who lives with her widowed father and has a close relationship with her Polish grandmother, Felka, whom she adores. It is Sydney in 1968. Rachel has been brought up as a Christian, attended a Catholic school, and is engaged to marry Yanni, a doctor at the hospital where she works.

    When she tells Felka that she must convert to Yanni’s religion of Greek Orthodoxy on their marriage, her grandmother’s reaction is bewildering and confusing. Then Felka announces her plan to attend a reunion of friends in Japan, and asks Rachel to accompany her. She is puzzled. What is this ‘reunion’, and why Japan?

    When she is told the truth of her family, she is incredulous. Her father and grandparents were among those able to get out of Europe because of Mr Sugihara. And they are Jewish. The trip to Japan is for survivors to meet with Mr Sugihara, to thank him for their lives.

    Rachel’s shock and sense of betrayal at having been lied to her entire life are profound. Slowly, she begins to understand the reasons why her father and Felka did what they did: to protect her, so that she would never know the hatred and anti-Semitism that they had experienced.

    She travels to Japan with Felka and there, hearing the stories of the other people saved by Sugihara, she grapples with the questions of who she is and what the revelation of being Jewish means: does it bring a heritage of suffering and loss, or of family, tradition and deep connection? Or all of those things?

    And how has the trauma experienced by her surviving family members manifested in their personalities, their relationships and approaches to life?

    These are all deep, deep questions she must face, and all at once. It is difficult and painful. Through travelling to Japan with Felka, listening to the people she meets there, and reappraising her own beliefs, Rachel finds some acceptance and a strong desire to learn more.

    Initially, I thought Rachel’s ignorance of the events of WWII, the Nazi persecutions and concentration camps, the murders and unspeakable cruelties, was somewhat disingenuous. But I reminded myself that Rachel had come to adulthood barely twenty years after the war. She was taught the minimum details of the conflict at school, and not knowing of her personal connection to those events, did not seek to learn more. And many, many survivors, refugees and veterans, were reluctant to talk about their experiences, preferring to try to forget, to move on with life.

    The Star on the Grave is a moving story of one family, fictionalised but inspired by her own, in a surprising and little-known chapter of that global conflict. I found it absorbing, and I hope to read future works by Ms Margolin Royal.

    The Star on the Grave is published by Affirm Press in January 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Realities of Renaissance royalty: ‘Young Queens’ by Leah Redmond Chang (audiobook version)

    Can you imagine being a 14-year-old girl, sent to a foreign country to marry a prince who you have never met? On your wedding night, your father-in-law stays in the marital bedroom, to ensure that the marriage is consummated.

    Such were the realities of life for Renaissance royals.

    In Young Queens, Leah Redmond Chang tells the intertwined stories of three very different women living among the great powers of Renaissance Europe in France, Spain, and Scotland.

    It begins with orphaned eleven year old Catherine de’ Medici hiding in a convent from soldiers intent on capturing her and thus seizing power in Florence. She is later married to the French king; after his death, she becomes the power behind the throne as the Queen Mother, at a time when France is convulsed by religious wars and civil unrest.

    Her daughter, Elizabeth de Valois, is sent to be the teenage bride of King Philip of Spain, a widower and much older than his new young queen. Despite an unpromising start, Elizabeth grows into her role, but tragically dies in childbirth, still only in her early twenties.

    Connected to both Catherine and Elizabeth through the complicated marital arrangements of royal families, young Mary, Queen of Scots, grows up at the French court as the promised bride of the young Dauphin.

    This is a meticulously researched and beautifully told story of the fluidity and pitfalls of the role of queen and how it always differed from that of a king. A king’s role generally lasted a lifetime. For a queen, the role could change over her lifetime, depending on whether she was Queen Regnant, Queen Consort, or Queen Mother.

    In Renaissance times, princesses and queens inhabited bodies which were traded between families and across borders for the purposes of dynastic continuity, international treaties and alliances. These women lived in jeweled cages: surrounded by luxuries, riches, fine gowns and servants, they rarely had choice over their own bodies and futures. They were essentially bargaining chips to further the power and security of their family or nation.

    The three queens of the book had lives that were dependent on the shifts and turns of the political landscapes of Europe. Accidents played a role, too, twists of fate such as the death of one king or the birth of another.

    Against that backdrop, the author illuminates the three queens as women with personalities, strengths and foibles that also played a part in the trajectory of their lives. They were not merely blank slates for men to draw dynastic futures upon. They wielded varying degrees of power, both personal and political, in the ways available to them and with varying degrees of success. Their power took a different shape than that of their men, but it was power nonetheless.

    There is poignancy in many of the letters and missives explored, especially those from Catherine to her daughter Elizabeth, worrying and fretting over her daughter’s uncertain health and her failure to fall pregnant with a Spanish heir. (As an aside, I am very glad not to be a Renaissance European princess with fertility problems, as apparently a common ‘remedy’ for this was a monthly dose of donkey urine!)

    I enjoyed the narration by Olivia Dowd; her voice is clear and authoritative, with appropriate expression and emphasis; she also has excellent pronunciation of the many French, Spanish and Scottish names in the text.

    I found this audio-book engrossing and very informative; a real insight into the lives of women who lived in a world and at a time far removed from my own.

    Young Queens is published in August 2023 by Bloomsbury Publishing, and audio-book by RB Media Recorded Books.
    My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy.