Book review: Finlay Donovan is Killing It by Elle Cosimano

Young adult suspense writer, Bram Stoker Award finalist and Edgar Award nominee, Elle Cosimano, has turned her hand to adult fiction and she’s a hoot. Finlay Donovan is Killing It is the first in a series of three books, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be reading the other two after book one.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d liked South Riding, before the divorce. Back before I’d known my husband was sleeping with our real estate agent, who also sat on the board of the homeowners association. Somehow, I’m guessing that’s not what the saleslady had in mind when she’d described our suburban mecca as having a ‘small-town’ feel.

Crime fiction writer Finlay Donovan’s husband ran off with another woman. Finlay is broke, the bills are piling up, she’s late submitting a manuscript to her agent and her husband is threatening to take the kids.

The brochure had featured photos of happy families hugging each other on quaint front porches. It had used words like idyllic and peaceful to describe the neighbourhood, because in the glossy pages of a real estate magazine, no one can see through the windows to the exhausted stabby mommy, or the naked sticky toddler, or the hair and blood and coffee on the floor.

Finlay meets her agent in a cafe to try and get more time to finish her book, after she leaves without success she finds a note in her bag from a woman at the adjacent table who misinterpreted her conversation with her agent thinking Finlay’s a contract killer. The note asks her to kill the woman’s husband for $50,000 and where Finlay can find him on a certain date. Finlay is aghast, but starts to think about what she could do with the money and wondering what’s wrong with the guy that his wife wants him dead.

Fantasies where I let myself calculate how many economy-size packs of Huggies, Lean Cuisines, and baby wipes fifty thousand dollars could buy.

Curiosity gets the better of her and she goes to check the guy out, inadvertently interrupting him attempting to drug a woman in a bar. Finlay diverts the victim, switches the drinks and drugs the husband, rolling him unconsious into her van and driving home. She goes inside to call her policewoman sister who is looking after her kids and when she goes back out to the garage, the guy is dead from the exhaust fumes of her combi. Finlay is in trouble, but this is only the start.

My Google search history alone was probably enough to put me on a government watch list. I wrote suspense novels about murders like this. I’d searched every possible way to kill someone. With every conceivable kind of weapon.

Finlay Donovan is Killing It is full of big bold characters including police, the mob, women who want their husbands dead, Finlay’s nanny and two recalcitrant children. The narrative is fast paced with a twisty plot that will keep you turning the pages as Finlay gets into deeper and deeper trouble. Highly recommended.

Theatre review: promiscuous/cities by Lachlan Philpott

Midsumma Festival, Melbourne’s queer arts and cultural festival runs 21 January to 12 February and boy has it come a long way since it began in 1989. Last night I went to see Promiscuous Cities written by Lachlan Philpott and showing at Theatre Works in St Kilda.

The production is set in the round and opens with a lone woman sitting on a stool, then it explodes. The props are sparse but versatile, and well designed costumes help bring the characters of the twelve talented young actors to life. The choreography is exquisite and creative and moves the actors seamlessly at pace from scene to scene in a way that enhances the aesthetics.

Promiscuous Cities has a bit of everything – at one moment like a cabaret, then a ballet, then a traditional play – but what sounds like a mish-mash works beautifully to tell a tale of the city of San Francisco. Multiple fast paced story lines run through the show exposing the underbelly of San Francisco, famed as a place of freedom and liberal thought.

What you get is glimpses into the cities many subcultures, the impact of the IT boom and the gentrification that has spawned homelessness, the ongoing legacy of the HIV pandemic, and the impacts of street violence and drugs. Promiscuous Cities show oozes queerness and reminded me of a trip I did to San Fran about eight years ago when I was lucky enough to get some insights from a local I met there.

Promiscuous Cities is a professional quality production that deserves a full house every night, so get a ticket before they all sell out. The show runs till 24th January.

Book review: Moon Sugar by Angela Meyer

I was taken with Angela Meyer’s writing when I read Joan Smokes, it has a slow, hauntingly beautiful vibe about it. Her most recent novel Moon Sugar applies her literary style to a story that blends crime fiction, science fiction and fantasy.

The lichen at least helped him understand the way Sally, he, his daughter, even Rick were all connected and continuing atoms and gases, infinite universes opening out from each moment.  And yet, he still has to cope with being here, now, without her corporeal form.

The novel starts with a prologue set twenty four years ago about an ageing astronaut surrounded by a mysterious lichen as he contemplates his mortality and the secrets he will reveal to his daughter when she is old enough. The scene appears untethered to the story that follows, but we circle back to its connection later in the novel and it becomes a critical piece of information linking the crime elements to the science fiction and fantasy narratives.

He remembers something he heard about taking drugs, that sometimes it’s like a zipper opening and that if you keep trying to pull up the zipper you’ll have a terrible trip but if you just let the zipper open and accept whatever spills out you will have a good time. And thinking about it this way, he is able to let go of holding together the division of where the edges of himself meet the world.

Josh, a young sex worker disappears in Berlin. An email with a suicide note is sent to his family and his clothing is found on the banks of a Berlin river. Personal trainer Mila who is one of his clients, and his best friend Kyle both think something is amiss. They each travel independently to Berlin, where a chance meeting has the unlikely pair team up to try and find out what happened to Josh – and that is when the magic seeps in.

This is how the world is increasingly run: cashed-up idealists who are in too much of a rush to properly consider any long-term projects, wanting to be heroes of the people in the moment, be the first and best.

Moon Sugar touches on themes of drug taking, queerness, connection, disconnection, capitalism, magic, sex and death. The characters are well drawn and Meyer pens great insight into the inner worlds of Mila and Kyle, take a trip with them.

Book review: Love and Other Puzzles by Kimberley Allsopp

Love and other Puzzles by Kimberley Allsopp opens with the protagonist Rory climbing out her inner west Sydney bedroom window in her pyjama’s to avoid the sounds of her house being packed up by removalists after her relationship with her boyfriend has broken down. The story then winds back a week to relay how it came to this.

Rory likes the safety of an ordered predictable life. She approaches her days with to-do lists and precise goals that can be met, like walking 12,000 steps each day and eating chia pods for breakfast each morning. She finds comfort in the regular bus driver on route 334 that she catches to The Connect newspaper where she works as a intern doing the TV-guide crossword and editing the classifieds to ensure they don’t contain offensive words.

A shoe basket signalled an organised life. A permanence and sense of order. The only thing I hadn’t consistently been able to get from my two homes growing up.’

Then Rory makes an uncharacteristic decision. To let The New York Times crossword puzzle dictate her decisions for a week to shake things up a bit. Needless to say this decision was life changing.

For every 24-hour period, I’m going to base my decisions on a maximum of three answers in The New York Times crossword. They won’t all be life changing. It could be about what to have for lunch. It could be about whether I go to a gallery opening that wasn’t already in my diary. It could be about whether or not I fudge the truth slightly, in order to be taken more seriously at work…

If you’re into chick lit you will enjoy Love and Other Puzzles. It’s a witty, entertaining, light read with plenty of pop culture and romcom references.

Book review: In at the Deep End by Kate Davies

In at the Deep End is a queer coming out edgy rom-com. Twenty-something Julia is sick of listening to her flat mates nightly dalliance. She hasn’t had sex for three years and the last time her one night stand accused her of breaking his penis. When she goes to a warehouse party and meets a butch charismatic conceptual artist who paints the women she has sex with, everything changes.

One Saturday morning last January, Alice pointed out that I hadn’t had sex in three years. I knew I’d been going through a dry patch – I’d been getting through vibrator batteries incredibly fast, and a few days previously I’d Googled penis just to remind myself what one looked like.

Julia’s new lover, Sam, introduces her to lesbian life, gay bars, polyamory and BDSM clubs. What follows is drama, navigating power dynamics and control and, well, lots of raunchy sex. Relief from the heat is provided by Julia’s visits to see her middle-class parents and her letter writing to an elderly widower in her civil service job.

It’s hard to accept that you’re the villain of someone else’s story.

In at the Deep End is a graphic and funny story about coming out, love, abuse and finding yourself. It’s Bridget Jones Diary meets Fifty Shades of Grey pulp fiction – not for the fainthearted.

Book review: Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au

Melbourne writer, Jessica Au’s novella Cold Enough for Snow reads like a meditation. The narrator and her mother, originally from rural China, go to Japan on holidays during the typhoon season. Their story unfolds in a dreamlike narrative brimming with beautiful imagery as they travel.

The best we could do in this life was to pass through it, like smoke through the branches, suffering, until we either reached a state of nothingness, or else suffered elsewhere. She spoke about other tenets, of goodness and giving, the accumulation of kindness like a trove of wealth. She was looking at me then, and I knew that she wanted me to be with her on this, to follow her, but to my shame I found that I could not and worse, that I could not even pretend. I instead I looked at my watch and said that visiting hours were almost over, and that we should probably go

Cold enough for Snow is told from the daughters first person perspective as she reminisces about events from her life and she and her mother move through the landscape taking in galleries and shops, eating and talking. It is a story told in glimpses that drift off on the wind – about a mother and daughter, about connection and separation.

They had seemed to me then, as now, like paintings about time. It felt like the artist was looking at the field with two gazes. The first was the gaze of youth, awakening to a dawn of pink light on the grass and looking with possibility on everything, the work he had done just the day before, the work he had still to do in the future. The second was the gaze of an older man, perhaps older than Monet had been when he painted them, that was looking at the same view, and remembering these earlier feelings and trying to recapture them, only he was unable to do so without infusing it with his own sense of inevitability. Looking at them, I felt a little like I felt sometimes after reading a certain book, or hearing a fragment of a certain song.

May you go gently into the new year and 2023 be kind to you.

Book reviews: Hot Reads by Femme Fatales

I was going to focus on Christmas themed murder mysteries, but most of them seem to be set in the northern hemisphere in cold snowscapes, and whilst I love a chilling thriller, they don’t seem quite right for an Australian Christmas. Especially given we’ve not really had any summer yet! So to tempt the sun to come out I’m going to go for sizzling thrillers for Christmas.

The heat takes us to exotic and faraway places. Hot weather as a narrative device puts us on edge, invites lawlessness, builds pressure and mind altering ominous undertones. Heat is oppressive and invites tension and conflict. And that’s before any characters are even introduced! Throw in the frayed nerves and sweaty palms of fermenting humans and the tension (whether it be sexual or savage) can be of gothic proportions. Here’s a few hot reads from some femme fatales.

A Fatal Inversion (1987) by Barbara Vine (ada Ruth Rendell)

Whilst burying a pet dog in the animal cemetery at Suffolk country property, Wyvis Hall, the owner stumbles across the skeletal remains of a woman and baby. Ten years earlier a group of young people spent the sweltering 1976 summer at the property after nineteen year old Adam inherited it from his great-uncle and decided to make it a commune. The story plays out beneath the tension of who will break first to reveal what really happened that sweltering summer.

The Dry (2016) by Jane Harper

What sweaty reading list would be without an Australian rural mystery? I have written about The Dry set in a small drought riddled outback town before.

Tangerine (2018) by Christine Mangan

Former college roommates, Alice Shipley and Lucy Mason reunite in the simmering heat of Tangier in 1956. Then Alice’s husband goes missing. Tangerine is a vivid, precisely plotted story about obsession and manipulation told from the perspective of two equally unreliable narrators. It’s like watching a spider lure its prey into a web.

Hard Rain (2020) by Irma Venter

Journalist Alex meets photographer Ranna whilst on assignment in Tanzania and the two start a sizzling push-pull romance. Things get sticky when the body of an IT billionaire washes up onshore in the hot humidity of a flood and Ranna becomes a suspect.

Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Noemi is a rich, glamorous party girl with an interest in anthropology living in Mexico City in the 1950s. She goes to High Place to check on her newly wed cousin after receiving a disturbing letter saying her cousin thinks she is being poisoned. Creepy, unsettling and intoxicating feminist post colonial horror novel set in a haunted house on a hill.

The Castaways (2020) by Lucy Clarke

A thrilling action packed survival story that plays with the past and present, set on the pristine beaches of humid Fiji. Two sisters fall out just before a planned vacation to Fiji. Only one goes and the plane she is on disappears without a trace. The surviving sister decides to go to Fiji to try and find out what happened. This is a story about solving a mystery, family dynamics and survivor guilt. Perfect Christmas reading!

Have a great break, see you on the other side.

Book review: The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson

Who doesn’t love a dysfunctional family story where the central character is a pompous, patriarchal, narcissistic artist with delusions of grandeur at its centre in the lead up to Christmas?

Tolstoy was an idiot

Ray Hanrahan is a painter who believes he is special and that his family exist in subjugation to support his greatness. Ray’s wife Lucia is a talented artist in her own right but self sabotages her own career for the sake of her husbands ego, ignoring calls from her gallerist with good news because it will upset Ray.

All that crap about happy families. It’s the unhappy families who’re alike. Uptight, cold…ugh

The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson is set over a weekend on which Ray has engaged his family and friends to celebrate the opening of his first art exhibition in years. His domination of his family has them scuttling around in fear to keep him calm, whilst concealing their dissatisfaction with their circumstances by acting in subterfuge to get their own needs met.

Artists need wives; everyone tells Ray this, or no ties at all.

Ray’s wife Lucia is having a clandestine affair with a politician, Priya. Lucia’s son (Ray’s stepson) is treated like the house slave by Ray and lives in a dilapidated caravan in the garden weighed down by, and trying to dodge, his stepfather’s bullying. Ray and Lucia’s eldest daughter, Leah is her fathers charlady and the youngest, Jess is the family rebel.

Longlisted for the Women’s prize for fiction, The Exhibitionist is a vivid, drily hilarious story about a middle class domestic tyrant. Perfect Christmas reading!

Dames of Crime: Maj Sjöwall

Who doesn’t love a bit of Nordic Noir? Long dark winter days, chilling temperatures and vast bleak wildernesses make for perfect dramatic plots and the dark narratives of grim crime fiction.

Maj Sjöwall was widely regarded as the godmother of modern Nordic Noir, or Scandi crime as it is also known. She co-authored 10 police procedurals featuring dour, middle aged Martin Beck with her third partner, Per Wahlöö whom she met whilst both worked as magazine journalists in 1962. Their influence can be seen in subsequent Scani noir such as Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Jo Nesbo’s Blake mystery The Man on the Balcony.

“that you have three of the most important virtues a policeman can have,” he thought. “You are stubborn and logical, and completely calm.”

Roseanna

The two conceived a project to write a series of ten books together, each writing alternate chapters in the evenings after work. The first book, Roseanna about the strangling death of a young tourist, was published in 1965. Their pared back, terse, fast-moving style of detective story was fresh and new and received rave reviews when they started to be published in translation in 1968.

January 7 arrived and looked like January 7. The streets were full of gray, frozen people without money.

Roseanna

The Laughing Policeman won the Edward Award in 1971 for best mystery novel and was made into a film in 1973. The tenth and final novel The Terrorists was published in 1975 shortly before Wahlöö died. The entire work can be read as a Marxist critique of the failings of Swedish society and is meticulously researched to include authentic details.

Recently—no; for as long as I can remember, large and powerful nations within the capitalist bloc have been ruled by people who according to accepted legal norms are simply criminals, who from a lust for power and financial gain have led their peoples into an abyss of egoism, self-indulgence and a view of life based entirely on materialism and ruthlessness toward their fellow human beings. Only in very few cases are such politicians punished, but the punishments are token and the guilty persons’ successors are guided by the same motives.

The Terrorists

Sjöwall was born 25th September 1935 in Stockholm and grew up in one of the hotels manager by her father, complete with round the clock room service. She was a single mother at twenty-one, then married and divorced two older men before meeting Wahlöö, a left-wing journalist and novelist. The two fell in love over crime fiction. They were together thirteen years until Wahlöö’s death in 1975. After Wahlöö’s death Sjöwall returned to a bohemian life writing for magazines and co-authoring a number of books and translating the American crime novels of Robert B Parker into Swedish. She died in April 2020.

The consumer society and its harassed citizens had other things to think of. Although it was a month to Christmas, the advertising orgy had begun and the buying hysteria spread as swiftly and ruthlessly as the Black Death along the festooned shopping streets. The epidemic swept all before it and there was no escape. It ate its way into homes and apartments, poisoning and braking down everything and everyone in its path.

The Laughing Policeman

Martin Beck Series

  • Roseanna
  • The Man Who Went Up in Smoke
  • The Man on the Balcony
  • The Laughing Policeman
  • The Fire Engine that Disappeared
  • Murder at the Savoy
  • The Abominable Man
  • The Locked Room
  • Cop Killer
  • The Terrorists

Book Review: The Dictionary Of Lost Words by Pip Williams

In my early twenties whilst living in Portugal I took it upon myself to read the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) from cover to cover in search of words I did not know (we had no TV in the house). When I found one of particularly interest, such as discombobulated (still one of my favourites), I wrote it down in my own notebook for later reference. At the time I remember wondering how words got into and out of the dictionary.

Words define us, they explain us, and, on occasion, they serve to control or isolate us.

The first part of the OED was originally published in 1884, twenty-seven years after the idea was initally proposed by members of the Philological Society of London. It was a massive endeavour because the English language is forever evolving, so its documentation can quickly become incomplete. In 1901 a concerned citizen wrote to the men compiling the OED to raise concerns about a missing word – bondmaid – a young woman bound to serve until her death. It was this idea of a missing word that sparked Pip Williams idea to write the Dictionary of Lost Words.

Words are like stories … They change as they are passed from mouth to mouth; their meanings stretch or truncate to fit what needs to be said.

Our protagonist, Esme spends most of her time under the table in the Scriptorium where her father works on the compilation of the first OED. One day a lexicographer drops a slip of paper containing a word. Esme saves the word and places the paper in a wooden suitcase in the housemaids room. The word is ‘bondmaid’. The event sets Esme on a path of collecting lost words, from the scriptorium, but also from the stallholders in the covered market whose words are often considered vulgar. Esme collects the words in her own manuscript, Women’s Words and their Meanings.

A vulgar word, well placed and said with just enough vigour, can express far more than its polite equivalent.

Set when the women’s suffrage was at its peak, Dictionary of Lost Words is a poetic, thought provoking story about the power of language, who controls the narrative, and that women need to be at the table when decisions are made about which words and stories are preserved.