Book review: The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner

When I mentioned to a friend I had just read a great Helen Garner novella, they said they were conflicted because they love her writing, but couldn’t stand the person. Tongue in cheek, I said I didn’t know her personally so couldn’t comment on her character but thought her writing was beautiful. It was an interaction that sums Garner up quite well…both the woman and her work seem to attract controversy and elicit strong feelings.

‘Course I care. I always care. But there’s no point in making a song and dance about it, like that night he stayed here. Know something? There’s only one thing that’ll bring ’em back, and that’s indifference. The one thing you can’t fake.’
‘But you are faking it.’
‘At the moment I might be. But as soon as it stops being faked and starts being real, he’ll turn up. Rule number one of modern life.’

Beyond the personal satisfaction gained through the creative process of writing, we write with the hope that we will entertain, inspire, broaden horizons, challenge, or provoke, all outcomes which require the elicitation of emotions. It lends me to wonder then, whether Garner is not the personification of success if both the woman and her work can excite such polarised views.

The Children’s Bach (1984), Garners third published work, invites us into the 1980’s Melbourne suburban household of loving middle aged couple Athena and Dexter Fox who are united by their children, Billy who has autism and their a bright articulate son called Arthur. At its heart it is the story of a stable and caring couple’s life being interrupted by a the introduction of a disruptive influence. For Anthea (who is a bit suffocated by her own domesticity) and Dexter, it is the introduction into their orbit of Dexter’s old friend Elizabeth, her bohemian lover Philip and sister Vicki that fuel unrest.

‘She’s a frump,’ thought Elizabeth with relief; but Athena stepped forward and held out her hand, and Elizabeth saw the cleverly mended sleeve of her jumper and was suddenly not so sure.

Among the turmoil of relations between the adult characters, it is Billy who represents the manifestation of the parts of ourselves that are inaccessibility to others.

‘I used to be romantic about him,’ said Athena. ‘I used to think there was some kind of wild, good little creature trapped inside him, and I tried to communicate with that. But now I know there’s . . .’ (she knocked her forehead with her knuckles) ‘ . . .nobody home.’

Family, morals, ideals, and naivety are pitted against hedonism, freedom and independence. The Children’s Bach has been mooted as one of the best novels of the twentieth century and Garner is certainly a master of domestic drama, of female desire and the complexity of love and relationships. The point of view moves rapidly between the characters, and music, in which each of the actors finds a kind of solace, echoes through the book and lends a rhythm to Garners exquisite, precise, efficiently crafted, intimate and lyrical prose.

The novella was turned into an opera by Andrew Schultz as part of the Canberra International Music Festival in 2008. If we still have an arts sector post COVID-19 and the show is ever re-staged, I’ll definitely go and see it.

Book review: Missing Pieces by Caroline de Costa

Indigenous cop Cass Diamond is asked to help with an unusual missing person search. Wealthy businessman Andrew Todd died in 2012 and left directions in his will to search for a child, Yasmin Munoz, who went missing from a picnic spot near Cairns in 1992.

Whilst poking around, Cass discovers that in 1990 Todd’s daughter-in-law to be went missing from a Brisbane party thrown for her engagement. At the time police believed there was no link between the two events, but Cass has a hunch. The search leads Cass to a farm on the Atherton Tablelands and she becomes the victim of a kidnapping herself along with two other women.

Missing Pieces published by Wild Dingo Press, is the second novel in a series by Caroline de Costa and was shortlisted in the 2016 Davitt Awards. Set in Queensland it is great to see a strong, shrewd and feisty Aboriginal woman as the protagonist. Many twists and turns are woven through the story and it touches on a range of themes including single motherhood, politics, race and the environment.

For readers with a social conscience who like police procedurals.

Book review: Prey by LA Larkin

Olivia Wolfe is a larger than life, tough, gritty, tattooed, and heavily pierced investigative journalist in pursuit of a story after a corrupt British Cabinet Minister dies in strange circumstances. Wolfe ignores warnings to drop the story and the chase takes her to South Africa to a wildlife reserve set up to protect rhino’s from poachers.

On the isolated wildlife reserve Wolfe realises the sadistic psychopathic killer responsible for a number of bizzare and grisly murders has started to pursue her.

What follows is an action packed, fast-paced and gruesome tale of illegal poaching, the international trade in rhino horns, and money laundering by large corporations. The assassin wants to make Wolfe his most spectacular victim yet and leaves a trail of destruction in his pursuit. He is his own worst enemy though, as he likes to show off his handy work on the internet.

Wolfe is angry that the assasin killed her friend so rather than run she becomes unrelenting in her pursuit of the killer, and her mission to bringing justice to the people who hired him. I found the character of Wolfe had echoes of Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo.

Prey, published by Clan Destine Press, has a bit of the ’90’s espionage novel about it, brimming with corrupt officials, dodgy businessmen, and a network of online sadists running the illegal wildlife trade. Larkin takes her research seriously and spent time volunteering on patrol at wildlife reserves in Africa to prepare for writing the novel.

The short chapters set a cracking pace with plenty of twists and subplots. If you like action thriller suspense novels and a bit of gratuitous violence, I recommend you read the first in the series to begin with. I started with Prey which is book #2 in the series and it took me a while to get into as I didn’t get the references to Devour, the first in the series.

If you prefer gentler pursuits Larkin also writes cosy mysteries with a dog detective called Monty under the name of Louisa Bennet.

Lockdown life, the new world order

I adapted quickly to the new world order, and confess that other than missing my family and dearest friends, I have been quite content living the homebody arrangement the COVID crisis invited (though I would prefer the lifestyle without the crisis). The biggest challenge during lockdown has been that my writing time has been haphazard. When I physically go to work, the commute provides a perfect window of structured time for writing and instilling a new routine has presented some challenges around work commitments and life chores.

I have been working on my writing, if not my manuscript. You might call it legitimate procrastination activities. Everybody is online now, and there has been a plethora of offerings for writers. Here’s a few I’ve participated in to stay in touch with creativity during lockdown:

  • Sisters In Crime set up a YouTube channel and have been running a regular Murder Mondays discussion with crime writers as well as moving their other offerings online.
  • Yarra Valley Writers Festival is a new event local to me this year that didn’t let a little lockdown hold it back. They went online and presented some terrific session with a range of Australian writers.
  • I have continued to enjoy write club with crime writer extraordinaire Candice Fox on Facebook. While I haven’t taken part in her live Wednesday morning sessions due to work commitments, I have been replaying write club during my free time each week for some inspiration, to hear what she has to say, and do a bit of writing to the sound of Candice tapping away on her computer. I’ve always liked Candice’s writing – big bold characters and a unique Australian voice, and write club has been a lovely way to get to know the person a bit. I’m now quite taken with both the woman and her writing and she’s very generous with her time and knowledge. This week a comment that really resonated was: ‘Sometimes you don’t feel like it…just set yourself up to do it and try, and don’t give yourself a hard time if it doesn’t happen…’ (her advice worked, I wrote this post whilst watching a replay of her write club this week).
The Tempest, Tasmania Museum and Art Gallery
  • I’m a bit of a writing workshop junkie, and have been doing the Australian Writers Centre Crime and Thriller Writing with LA Larkin via Zoom for the last four weeks. AWC has a solid track record of producing excellent writers course and this one has not disappointed. Courses are a great way to keep your brain connected to your creative projects when you are struggling to actually write – particularly when they set homework as this course does.
  • Despite the global COVID tragedy, lockdown has resulted in some terrific creative opportunities for writers, including ones we may not have had access to otherwise. Newcastle Noir went on line this year and I also bought a ticket to Thriller Fest in New York City, which would not have been possible if they were not forced to go online.

As the world slowly reverts back to something more like it was before COVID, I hope that the online writing opportunities continue to some degree, particularly for those we might not get to otherwise.

Main image: Lockdown, Clunes, Victoria

Dames of Crime: Josephine Tey

It’s a while since I’ve written a dames or crime post. This one is about the mysterious Scottish author and playwright Elizabeth Mackintosh (1987-1952) also known as Gordon Daviot and Josephine Tey.

The period between the First and Second World Wars was the golden-age of crime fiction, when the Detection Club, a dining society for mystery writers was frequented by authors such as Agatha Christie, Ngaio March and Dorothy L. Sayers. Rules emerged for mystery writing that were later codified into the ‘Ten Commandments’ by British writer Ronald Knox. They included beginning with a body and ending with a reveal of the killer.

It’s an odd thing but when you tell someone the true facts of a mythical tale they are indignant not with the teller but with you. They don’t want to have their ideas upset. It rouses some vague uneasiness in them, I think, and they resent it. So they reject it and refuse to think about it.

The Daughter of Time

Tey was never a member of the Detection Club and she was a breaker of rules when it came to writing mysteries. Her characters did not conform to the usual profiles of the day. Five of Tey’s mystery novels star Alan Grant, a Scotland Yard Inspector and one of the first police protagonists to appear in crime fiction, an ordinary hard working fallible man. The Daughter of Time was voted the greatest mystery of all in 1990 by The British Crime Writers’ Association. In this novel, from a hospital bed, Grant solves the mystery of whether King Richard III of England murdered his nephews.

Tey was interested in exploring the psychology of her characters and the dark side of humanity, she wrote eight mystery novels and showed a fascination for identities and how a persons public face can contradict their true natures. Herself a lone wolf, Tey was said to have three distinct personas to accompany her three names. She did not give interviews, there are few photographs of her in existence, and she never married. The absence of information has led many to examine her novels for insight into the author.

‘She wasn’t fond of being interviewed. And she used to tell a different story each time. When someone pointed out that that wasn’t what she had said last time, she said: “But that’s so dull! I’ve thought of a much better one.” No one ever knew where they were with her. Temperament, they called it, of course.

A Shilling for Candles

Tey’s early and later life was spent in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, with a stint as a physical education teacher in England in between, an occupation that provided fodder for her 1946 novel Miss Pym Disposes. As a playwright she went by the name of Gordon Daviot, producing a dozen one-act plays and the same number of full length plays. Richard of Bordeaux (1932) had some success in London’s West End running for 14 months and starring John Gielgud.

Someone had said that if you thought about the unthinkable long enough it became quite reasonable.

Brat Farrar

Author Nicola Upson, who initially planned to write a briography of Tey, eventually decided that the intensely private, elusive author was more suited to fiction and made Tey the amateur detective in her 2008 novel An Expert in Murder, as well as in subsequent books in the series. It was not until 2015 that a biography, Josephine Tey: A Life, was written by Jennifer Morag Henderson.

Bibliography

Inspector Grant Novels

  • The Man in the Queue (1929)
  • A Shilling for Candles (1936)
  • The Franchise Affair (1948)
  • To Love and Be Wise (1950)
  • The Daughter of Time (1951)
  • The Singing Sands (1952)

Standalone novels

  • Kif: An Unvarnished History 1929
  • The Expensive Halo 1931
  • Miss Pym Disposes 1946
  • Brat Farrar 1949
  • The Privateer 1952

Biography

  • Claverhouse (1937)

Plays

  • Richard of Bordeaux (1932)
  • The Laughing Woman (1934)
  • Queen of Scots (1934)
  • The Stars Bow Down (1939)
  • Cornelia (1946)
  • The Little Dry Thorn (1946)
  • Rahab (1947)
  • Leith Sands (1947)
  • Valerius (1948)
  • The Balwhinnie Bomb (1949)
  • Sara (1951)
  • Barnharrow (1954, One-act)
  • Dickon (1955)

Book Review: Blackwater by Conn Iggulden

UNESCO initiative World Book and Copyright Day is an annual event to celebrate our love affair with the book, and to encourage people to read. It takes place on April 23, a date that also marks the death of William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote), and Peruvian writer Inca Garcliaso de la Vega. Quick Reads is a World Book Day initiative that aims to engage adults who are not habitual readers with the joy of books by providing bite sized fast paced novellas of not more than 128 pages (15-20,000 words).

I stood in the water and thought about drowning. It’s strange how the sea is always calmer at night. I’ve walked along Brighton beach a hundred times on cold days and the waves are always there, sliding over and over each other. In the dark the water is smooth and black, with just a hiss of noise as it vanishes into the pebbles. You can’t hear it in the day, over gulls and cars and screaming children, but at night the sea whispers, calling you in.

Blackwater by Conn Iggulden is a psychological thriller from Quick Reads 2006. Iggulden is best known for historical fiction including the Emperor series about Julius Ceasar and the Conqueror series about the Mongols of the Asian Steppes.

Protagonist Davey is one of life’s victim. He has a love/hate relationship with the two people he is closest to in life – his brother and his wife. Hw was tormented by his sociopathic brother throughout childhood, and is married to a woman who has spent their entire marriage sleeping with other men. He has always just put up with it, but when his wife sleeps with a local gangster who becomes so obsessed with her he sends his thug around to encourage Davey to leave his wife by breaking his fingers, Davey decides he has had enough and calls on his brother for help.

If you like a quick thrill, Darkwater is seven chapters of dark masculine suspense with an unexpected twist at the end.

Book Review: The Good People by Hannah Kent

On finer days I have been labouring in the garden. Weeding, digging post holes, planting seedlings. Last weekend I spent three hours digging a hole, which I refilled with compost in preparation for planting passionfruit vines in spring. I also moved the compost bin and its foundation 1.5 meters to the left because it was being crowded by the lime tree. I did not see any fairies, but I did end the day physically satisfied with my work, and covered in mud.

The world isn’t ours,’ he said once. ‘It belongs to itself, and that is why it is beautiful.

Whilst I toiled, I listened to The Good People by Hannah Kent, also author of Burial Rites. The Good People is a fairly grim tale set in a 19th century Irish village governed by folklore, superstition, curses and changelings. Where the mischief of the Good People (fairies) is treated with rituals and herbal remedies.

At the start of the novel, the husband of the main protagonist, Nora, drops dead for no apparent reason. She hides her disabled grandson out of shame when the villagers come to her dirt floored cabin for the mourning. The visitors include Nance, an old hag, who turns up to offer her keening services along with herbal remedies for all manner of ailments.

How hidden the heart, Nance thought. How frightened we are of being known, and yet how desperately we long for it.

The death is the first in a series of unexplained happenings, signs that something is not right, and the villagers start to look for explanations in peoples failure to follow correct rituals, or for doing something to upset the Good People. Nora’s disabled grandson Micheal, who cannot walk or talk, becomes the object of blame for the towns ailments. The townspeople come to believe Micheal must be a changeling, the real boy stolen by the Good People. Nora turns to Nance and her remedies for help to restore her grandson to himself.

Some folks are born different, Nance. They are born on the outside of things, with skin a little a thinner, eyes a little keener to what goes unnoticed by most. Their hearts swallow more blood than ordinary hearts; the river runs differently for them.

The new village priest wants to rid the ignorant peasants of their pagan beliefs and does not approve of Nance’s hocus pocus, and he starts to turn the town against her. The two women and Mary, the young maid who helps care for Micheal, form an uneasy outcasts alliance of sorts and set about finding a remedy for Micheal’s state, believing success will restore the communities faith in them. I listened with increasing horror as the poor boy was tortured, knowing that he had become a vehicle for a goal the three woman could not achieve.

Nora had always believed herself to be a good woman. A kind woman. But perhaps, she thought, we are good only when life makes it easy for us to be so. Maybe the heart hardens when good fortune is not there to soften it.

I remember hearing Kent interviewed about the The Good People some time ago. She said the novel was inspired from a story she read in an old British newspaper. In the paper she came across an article about a woman called Anne Roach who was accused of committing a serious crime. She called herself a female doctress, and said she could not be held responsible for the crime because she was only trying to cure someone who was fairy struck, to banish a changeling.

The language and prose in The Good People is evocative, conjuring long forgotten Irish hinterlands, mud, poverty and the credulous belief systems infusing the village and rendering the villagers helpless to their own misfortunes. It’s gothic writing at its best, bringing to light the terrifying reality of being different, or being a woman undefined by a man in the early 1800’s, and of how grief and otherness can undo us.

Book review: Darkness for Light by Emma Viskic

Who doesn’t love a good crime novel set in their home town?

Caleb Zelic is getting his shit together. He’s in therapy. He’s reconciling with his pregnant wife. He’s building relationships in the deaf community. He’s making good decisions.

A mysterious new client, Martin Amon, wants to meet Caleb urgently at Collingwood Children’s Farm. Caleb finds Amon’s body, bullet to the back of the head, bled out amongst the chickens.

Federal cop, Imogen Blain, chases Caleb down in the street. She’s wants him to help her find Frankie, Caleb’s old business partner, whom he wants nothing to do with. Frankie was an unreliable, lying addict. Caleb thinks Imogen might be a rogue cop. When he refuses to help her, Imogen threatens him with a blackmail he’s afraid could stick, so he goes looking for Frankie. Seems, the not so good decisions of Caleb’s past won’t leave him alone.

The yachts in the marina were lifting on a choppy swell, their masts tickling a presto beat. Across the bay, the city towers glinted against a leaden sky. Nobody on the foreshore now, just a lone man fishing from the retaining wall, rainproof jacket zipped to the neck. No threat – he’d been here the past hour. Caleb glanced in his bucket as they passed: two small fish gaped desperately, their eyes dull silver coins.

Darkness for Light is the third thriller in the Caleb Zelic series, and like its predecessors it’s crawling with narrative tension and plot twists. From the tension caused by Caleb’s disability – he’s deaf but struggles to accept this himself, and missing lots of information he’s commonly misunderstood, often resulting in him getting entangled in dangerous situations. Then there’s the tension in his relationship – his wife has had previous miscarriages and he thinks the success of this pregnancy will make or break their relationship. To his love-hate relationship with his old business partner, Frankie who he’s never sure he can trust, but is bound to by their shared history. Viskic’s clipped writing style and generous sprinkle of short sentences give the reader a regular jolt, just in case you weren’t paying attention, and of course there are the complex series of alarming and often violent events that unfold from the twisty plot.

Relief from the carnage and story tension is provided in the moments when Caleb reflects on his love for his wife and family, his occasional meetings with Henry his therapist for a session at Queen Victoria Market, and the dry humour. Henry pokes and prods Caleb’s brain, exploring his neurosis while sniff testing melons and buy in potatoes.

Henry pressed his nose to another rockmelon. The man had clearly been a labrador in a previous life: the same floppy gold hair and outward geniality, same ability to grip his prey in unyielding jaws. Caleb usually went home from thier sessions feeling like his brain had been gently shaken loose. They’d been at it twenty minutes now and he already had a low-grade headache.

Viskic came out of the blocks firing with her first novel in the series. Resurrection Bay won the 2016 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction, three Davitt Awards, a shortlist place for the UK Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger and New Blood awards, and the iBooks Australia’s Crime Novel of the Year award. Book two, And Fire Came Down won the 2018 Davitt Award for Best Novel, so it will be interesting to see what accolades Darkness for Light attracts.

Seminal moments

There are seminal moments in life – those experiences that leave indelible impressions on our psyche. They can be positive or negative but they impact us in ways that mobilise us emotionally, spiritually or physically, cause us to sit up and take notice, inject a sense of urgency, and they can reverberate throughout our lives. Such experiences can pop up unexpectedly and may provide inspiration for our writing practice. Recently I was reminded of a couple of such moments from many years ago. This time of isolation lends itself to a bit of reflection, so I thought I’d write them down…

When you’re eighteen, with all the attitude that the age embodies – you’ve just finished high school, the thing you love most is horses, you find people perplexing, you’re itchin’ to move out of home and someone you know calls you and offers the opportunity of a lifetime, you jump right? Right. So I did.

I packed up all my stuff and moved. Two hundred and thirty kilometres from Melbourne, the last five up a deserted dirt road into the foothills of the Avon Wilderness. Our electricity was generated by the sun, or an old diesel generator that often needed to be started by winding an oily crank handle until your shoulders ached. Warmth was throw from wood fires glowing with timber you chopped yourself. Cooking relied on a wood heated slow combustion oven that meant if you wanted a roast you had to put it on at two in the afternoon to be ready for dinner. When water ran out – it ran out.

Autumn Sunrise

At the time, the place was considered so isolated that when we kept having trouble with the phone line, the Telstra repair guy showed us how to fix the problem ourselves and left us spare parts so he didn’t have to come back again. When an intruder came in the night banging on windows we got the rifle out and fired into the night to frighten them off.

We were two teenage women with drive, a can do outlook, a protective guard dog, and an endless wilderness to play in. It was magical, spectacular, dangerous country that offered boundless adventures that we embraced it with the zest of youth. I learnt to wrangle cattle, fix fences, shoe horses, run a business, farm, fight fires and engage with people from all walks of life.

The property was my friends family farm, in one of the most beautiful places in the country, with mountains as far as you could see. We ran a business taking tourists trekking on horseback though the mountains. Our guests were all sorts – from over confident schools kids, to families, to an unusual wealthy men’s group who left their wives at home and came away with their sons and one lone woman in a caravan, who they referred to as the ‘company secretary’. Her secretarial duties seemed to be in demand at all times of day and night.

My girls own adventure gave me a love of the Australian bush and carried me into young adulthood. I fell in love with the place where I now live, and have done for twenty years because something about it reminded me of that farm. The location provided inspiration for my second manuscript, which I’m about 15,000 words into now. Here’s the logline:

In denial that her past is holding her back, a private investigator goes to a closed small-town community to investigate the death of an environmental activist in a logging coup. She uncovers more than she bargained for and is forced to confront her own long buried grief to uncover the truth about what really happened.

Curiously living in this remote place in eastern Victoria provided the launching pad for an early career as a horse trainer and after a couple of years in the bush I ended up on the other side of the world in Portugal as a student of one of the worlds greatest horse trainers in the art of classical dressage, but more on that another time…

Main image: Late night stroll

Book review: Gathering Dark by Candice Fox

Candice Fox’s latest novel Gathering Dark, in its second print run already, is a page turning romp of a thriller set in Los Angeles and spilling over with larger than life characters.

Recently released from jail, Blair Harbour was a well respected paediatric surgeon leading a privileged life and about to become a mother, then she shot and killed her next door neighbour, went to jail and had her child taken from her. Now she works the graveyard shift at a cartel owned gas station while she tries to get her life back together. When she is held up one night by the daughter of the woman she’d shared a cell with, and her cell mate, Sneak, turns up looking for help to track down her daughter who has disappeared, Blair agrees.

Screaming would have been a terrible idea. If I startled her, that slippery finger was going to jerk on the trigger and blow my brains all over the cigarette cabinet behind me. I didn’t want to be wasted in my stupid uniform, my hat emblazoned with a big pink kangaroo and the badge on my chest that truthfully read ‘Blair’ but lied ‘I love to serve!’

Gathering Dark

Jessica Sanchez is a detective who doesn’t quite fit the force and is being ostracised by her colleagues because an old man left his fortune to her after she solved the murder case of his daughter. The mansion he bequeathed her is next door to the house where the son of Blair, who Sanchez put away for murder, now lives.

But then she saw the blood on his hands, all over his face, her neck. Jessica thought of vampires and zombies, of magical, impossible things, and had to steady herself against a pool table. Her mind split as the full force of terror hit, half of it wailing and screaming at her to flee, the other half assessing what this was: a vicious assault in progress. Assailant likely under the influence of drugs. Bath salts–they’d been hitting the streets hard in the past few weeks, making kids do crazy things: gouge their own eyes out, kill animals, ride their bikes off cliffs. She was watching a man eat a woman alive.

Gathering Dark

What unfolds is a complex web of lies, crime and deception, packaged in a tight plot, with well crafted dialogue, rolling prose and a good dose of black humour. I loved the tough female characters, the bad ass baddies, oh, and the gopher, got to love the gopher.

Candice Fox has been running a regular Wednesday Facebook Live write club of late. You can logon and write with her for an hour, then take part in a half hour Q&A where she answers all your writing questions. She’s an incredibly generous, funny and talented writer. I have enjoyed her writing since picking up her first novel Hades, but am now a lifetime fan, so if you are a crime reader and haven’t yet devoured any of her work – get onto it.