Book Review: The Storytellers Muse by Traci Harding

Peter stifled his ambitions to become a writer and studied nursing in order to meet his parents expectations. Penelope Whitman was a famous author, but now she’s a crabby old woman nearing the end of her life in the nursing home where Peter works. Her eyes are fading and her arthritic hands can’t hold a pen, so she passes the time absorbed in her imagination. There’s one problem, a story in her head that persists in wanting to be told to the world. When Peter discovers who Penelope is, he sets out to befriend her and eventually becomes her protege when she asks him to transcribe her story.

As the telling and transcribing progress it becomes apparent there are other forces lurking. Em Jewel for one. Em is a creative, temperamental and supernatural force with the capacity to both inspire and destroy.

Part way through the telling of Penelope’s story, tragedy strikes and Peter has to find a way to finish the tale without her. What unfolds is a bit Agatha Christie for psychics – part supernatural mystery, part love story, part adventure and part historical intrigue spanning several generations. It’s a story within a story within a story.

The Story Tellers Muse is the first Traci Harding book I’ve read. Most of the works of this Australian author are science/fantasy series. I picked it up because it was in the mystery genre but might dip into some of her other work now I’ve had a taste of her writing. As an artist developing her craft, I particularly enjoyed the theme in the book that explored the relationship between creative artists and their muses. The Story Tellers Muse was also a fun and easy read that had me turning the pages – or rather pressing the play key as I ‘read’ the audio book, rather than the paper version.

Rare crime

Each winter Melbourne hosts Rare Book Week which delivers a program of free talks and events across the city to celebrate the importance of books, literacy and literature. Twice this week I fought my way through the dark, windy and desolate streets of Docklands to Library at the Dock, which is a fabulous library and community hub if you are ever in the area.

The events I attended were The Knife is Feminine about Australian mystery writer Charlotte Jay, and Portraits of Molly Dean in conversation with author Katherine Kovacic on her true crime book about the murder of Molly Dean in St Kilda in 1930. This blog is about those two events.

The Knife is Feminine

A dagger…it had a curious hilt shaped like a woman’s torso, with wings, only she had no face, just a visor like a knight.

The knife is feminine, Charlotte Jay

I’d never heard of Charlotte Jay, but as it turns out she was one of Australia’s best crime and thriller writers and I will certainly seek out some of her work to read now. Panel members for this event were Carmel Shute (one of the founders and national convener of Sisters in Crime), author Katherine Kovacic (The Portrait of Molly Dean and Painting in the Shadows), Abbe Holmes (actor) and Chris Browne (convener of Rare Book week, former academic and a book collector with 12,000 books and counting).

Charlotte was born Geraldine Mary Jay in Adelaide in December 1919, she chose the author name Charlotte because she thought it sounded literary. She married Albert Halls, an Oriental specialist who worked for UNESCO, and she spent much of her adult life traveling the world with him. Initially she worked as a stenographer for twelve “terrible years,” according to an interview Carmel Shute did with her in 1992. When she realised she had a talent for frightening people and telling a good story so became an author. Carmel observed that in life Jay had a liking for gin and tonic and a habit of snorting when she found others ideas ludicrous.

The author wrote seven crime novels as Charlotte Jay between 1951 and 1964, one as Geraldine Mary Jay in 1956, and seven as Geraldine Halls between 1967 and 1995. The stories in her novels included exotic settings like Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, Japan, Thailand, England, Lebanon, India, the Trobriand Islands, as well as Australia.

One of her books, A Hank of Hair was so risqué that Harper Collins refused to publisher it. The book was later picked up by Pan Publishing and released in 1964. Another novel, The Fugitive Eye written in 1953 was filmed for television and stared Charlton Heston. Her first novel, The Knife Is Feminine is out of print and there are only a handful of copies still in existence worldwide. We were lucky enough to get a couple of readings from one of those copies.

She wrote in the Gothic tradition and hearing her work, Charlotte Jay had a talent for the weird . She used slow, creepy build ups and detailed observations to tell cracker stories. She was the first winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Mystery Writers of America Award for Beat Not the Bones set in Papua New Guinea, which has some fascinating commentary on racism and colonial power in the 1950s. The following year Raymond Chandler won the award with The Last Goodbye.

The writer eventually returned to Adelaide and her last book was published in 1995, she died in October 1996. I for one shall look forward to reading some of her works, which are listed below.

Charlotte Jay novels

• The Knife Is Feminine (1951)
• Beat Not the Bones (1952)
• The Fugitive Eye (1953)
• The Yellow Turban (1955)
• The Man Who Walked Away (US Title: The Stepfather) (1958)
• Arms for Adonis (1960)
• A Hank of Hair (1964)

Geraldine Mary Jay novels

• The Feast of the Dead (US Title: The Brink of Silence) (1956)

Geraldine Halls novels

• The Cats of Benares (1967)
• Cobra Kite (1971)
• The Voice of the Crab (1974)
• The Last Summer of the Men Shortage (1977)
• The Felling of Thawle : a novel (1979)
• Talking to strangers : a novel (1982)
• This is My Friend’s Chair (1995)

Portraits of Molly Dean

Mary (Molly) Winifred Dean (1905–1930) was brutally murdered in Elwood on 21 November 1930 near her home after walking home late one night. Author of The Portrait of Molly Dean, Katherine Kovacic first came across Molly when studying the art of painter and sculptor Colin Colahan and became fascinated by her life which seemed to have been reduced to a single sentence in a Colahan’s biography. Molly had been Colahan’s lover and one of his models.

The historical mystery fiction, The Portrait of Molly Dean, was written to shine a light on Molly’s life, which along with her death feature in a number of other works. She was the subject of non-fiction A Scandal in Bohemia: The Life and Death of Mollie Dean by Gideon Haigh, and appeared in fiction works My brother Jack by George Johnston, and The Eye of the Beholder by Betty Roland, as well as the play Solitude in Blue, written and directed by Melita Rowston.

Molly Dean trained as a primary teacher and showed great promise for the profession but aspired for journalism and writing. She had had one long blank-verse poem titled Merlin published in a Melbourne publication called Verse.

Young Molly had a strained relationship with her widowed mother, Ethel Dean, who didn’t approve of Molly’s involvement with the Bohemians – the Meldrumites (followers of painter Max Meldrum) who Molly met when she became intimately involved with Colin Colahan, a well-known sculptor and painter of nudes.

On 20 November 1930 Molly went to the theatre to see Pygmalion with friends. She arrived at StKilda station on the way home, but missed the last tram, apparently due to stopping to make two phone calls to Colin from a phone box, so walked the two kilometers to Elwood along the tram route to the corner of Mitford and Dickens Streets. There were a number of sightings of her as she walked, but no witnesses to her attack. She was discovered early on Friday 21 November severely injured in a laneway less than two hundred meters from her home. She was rushed to hospital but she died of her injuries.

The police believed that due to the nature of the crime, Molly probably knew her attacker and the motive was most likely jealousy. An intense and exhaustive police investigation followed her death. A family friend, who was suspected of having an affair with Ethel Dean was investigated then dismissed. A man called Arnold Karl Sodeman, who confessed to four other killings, was also considered. His involvement was dismissed primarily due to his other attacks having very different profiles, and that he swore he wasn’t Molly’s killer. Sodeman was executed in Pentridge Prison in 1936 for the crimes he admitted.

The Crown Prosecutor did not proceed with the case and conspiracy theories abounded about Molly’s unsolved murder over the years. One theory suggested it wasn’t solved because she’d crossed paths with very powerful people in Melbourne, and they had shut down the investigation.

Artist Colin Colahan

Katherine Kovacic’s fictionalised account of Molly’s story is a fascinating tale of art, intrigue and murder, and Melbourne’s history. Her melding of fact and fiction patches together a coherent and sensitive narrative to re-tell a victim’s story and shine a light on her young life. It’s told from the perspective of a fictional art dealer called Alex who buys a painting in 1999 believed to be the last portrait of Molly Dean. Kovacic has released a second book Painting in the Shadows that also revolves around Alex, and a third is due out next year.

For the section of this blog on Molly Dean I have drawn on Kovacic’s talk at Rare Books Week and a piece published on the Public Records Office website by Dr Eric J Frazer about her murder.

Main image: Charlotte Jay and The Knife is Feminine

Book Review: Dark Light By Jodi Taylor

This is one weird book – I mean that in a good way. Elizabeth Cage is a mostly ordinary widowed housewife who likes a quiet life. Her primary problem is that she can see colours, which means she can read others emotions by the colour aura that swirls around them. We discover through her backstory that her special power is of interest to a man who had her locked up in an asylum so he could study and exploit her, until another inmate helped her escape.

Dark Light opens with Elizabeth running away and trying to cover her tracks by jumping random buses, then disembarking only to do it again on another bus until she decides to stop in the town of Greyston out of pure exhaustion from being on the move all the time. That’s when things really start to get wacky. Greyston is a small English village of women with a medieval tradition that involves kidnapping a man to be king for a year, getting him to impregnate the towns women then sacrificing him to the stone gods on New Year’s Eve. Elizabeth is recused from almost becoming one of the towns women by the man she was running away from.

It soon becomes evident Elizabeth has other special powers as she slips between the cracks of this world and other bizarre, chaotic, parallel universes inhabited by creatures from your childhood nightmares. In these other spheres bad things happen, dramatic rescues take place and Elizabeth is subjected to all kinds of quirky twists and turns, all the while wishing she could just sit quietly at home in a warm bath with a cup of tea.

All the way through this supernatural thriller, I was surprised at how it drew me in. When I had to put it down to go and attend to my ordinary life, I couldn’t wait to get back between it’s strangely engrossing pages. I have never read any of Jodi Taylor’s writing before and it wasn’t until I finished Dark Light that I realised it was the second book in a series – luckily it turned out that didn’t matter particularly, other than being disappointed I hadn’t started at the beginning with White Silence. I am certain I will be reading more of Taylor for another dose of peculiar, spooky fun in the future.

Book Review: Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Trent Dalton’s novel Boy Swallows Universe is part crime novel, part coming of age story and part memoir. Eli Bell is a boy growing up in commission housing on the outskirts of Brisbane in the 1980’s with his brother August who doesn’t speak. It follows Eli from age twelve through nineteen when he realises his boyhood dream and becomes a journalist. As a child he gets life advice from his babysitter and mentor Slim who is a convicted murderer, and he lives with his heroin addicted mother and violent, drug dealing step father – until his stepfather disappears when his criminal past overtakes him, his mother goes to jail and Eli loses his lucky charm.

Eli and August then go to live with their father, an anxious, alcoholic man who is a prolific reader of fiction and buys Eli writing paper to ‘burn the house down or set the world on fire.’ And Dalton certainly set the world on fire with this novel.

The book has won more awards than you can poke a stick at including four ABIAs: Book of the Year, Literary Book of the Year, the Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year and Audio Book of the Year (Wavesound, narrated by Stig Wemyss); the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing and Peoples Choice Award at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards; the Indie Book Awards Book of the Year; and the MUD Literary Prize. Oh, and it’s going to be adapted for screen.

It’s a long work at 480 pages, but every one is packed full of humour, tragedy, hope, love and a splash of magical realism, all written in Dalton’s unique lyrical prose. It gets the one of my favourite ever books award because it’s a rollicking good read and I loved his writing style. I expect I will read it more than once.

Watch my language? Watch my language? This is what really shits me, when the clandestine heroin operation truth meets the Von Trapp family values mirage we’ve built for ourselves.”

Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Univers

Book Review: The Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer

Anna can’t bring herself to end it. Instead she spirals toward insanity while she sits on the pavement outside her house and polishes five tiny footprints embedded in the cement, protecting them from passers-by. Her son Daniel disappeared and the footprints are all she has left.

DCI Marvel is a curmudgeonly detective who hates most people but has a uncharacteristic empathy for the missing and murdered. His mood takes a turn for the worse when he’s assigned to look for his bosses wife’s lost dog.

Anna and Marvel meet when Anna is trying to throw herself off a bridge. When Anna goes to a psychic for help to find Daniel, she meets the owner of the missing dog and decides to help the cynical Marvel find it. Then things take a strange turn.

English crime writer Belinda Bauer brings her characters to life by exposing quirky details about the absurdities of life and then weaving them with human tragedy. She has a knack of making the almost unbelievable plausible and times you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry. Her prose flows in a way that is easy to digest and draws the reader into the characters.

The first Bauer novel I read was Snap, short listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2018. Snap was a page turner that surprised and delighted with its offbeat, idiosyncratic characters and made me an immediate fan. I must admit I wondered if I would enjoy her earlier novels as much given I seemed to have started with the best. I’m pleased to say The Shut Eye did not disappoint and I’ll be delving into more of her work in the future.

Book review: Eden by Candice Fox

Reading Candice Fox’s novel Hades (reviewed in last weeks blog) set me off on a binge and I followed it straight up with the sequel Eden which won the 2015 Ned Kelly Award for best crime novel. Like it’s predecessor, Eden has several narratives running through it.

We are thrown back to discover how Hades, who bought up Eden and her brother came to be the man he became, the go-to body disposal guy who runs the tip, makes elaborate sculptures from discarded metal and causes many a grown man to tremble in their boots with fear, yet has a heart capable of great love.

Frank the cop who has fallen into a pit of drunken despair after the death of his lover, the death of a colleague and almost dying himself, is forced out of his misery by his work partner, the mysterious and dangerous Eden who loves hunting criminals but doesn’t always wait for the justice system to determine their sentence. She wants Frank back on his feet as they are to be assigned to a murder investigation that will require her to go undercover. She wants him to watch her back on surveillance and Frank can’t say no to her because she knows his dark secret.

As Frank gets drawn into Hades world, helping him solve a long ago mystery an unexpected twist nearly gets Eden killed. Dark, gritty, noirish and poetic, another great read.

Book review: Hades by Candice Fox

I’d known about crime writer Candice Fox for some time, but not actually picked up one of her books until recently, and what a treat it was. Hades, won the Ned Kelly Award for best debut crime novel in 2014.

Caste offs

Hades is an ox of a man who runs the Utulla tip, makes giant sculptures from salvaged scrap metal, and gets rid of unwanted bodies by disposing of them in the mountains of waste to decompose. When a stranger arrives and asks him to dispose of the bodies of two children, saying their deaths were an accident, Hades killed him. Then he notices the toes of one of the tiny bundles move. He keeps the children, raises them as his own.

The children grow up to be cops, crusaders of justice. Eden is dark, beautiful and aloof, and Eric her brother, brash and a stirrer of trouble. Frankie gets assigned to the station as Eden’s partner after both their former colleague are killed, and the two set out to track down a serial killer who harvests organs for people prepared pay, but not to wait. Frankie soon starts to notice something strange about the siblings he can’t quite put his finger on and starts poking and prodding around in their past. Will he live to quench his curiosity?

Cover image of Hades by Candice Fox
Big fish

Fox’s voice rolls out the story like a crashing ocean wave, leaving debris in its wake. It is beautiful, poetic, Gothic and deadly. The characters are compelling anti-heroes, her plotting exquisite and her prose enthralling. I love a local tale and the novel is set in Sydney, Australia, an added bonus.

It was hard to put down and I had a few late nights of page turning in my hunger to find out what happened. Fortunately when I finished, there was a sequel available to pick up. I fear a binge is coming on, so was relieved to find she has ten novels to her name laying in wait for me.

Book review: Wimmera by Mark Brandi

I’ve heard Mark Brandi talk at a few writers festivals and enjoyed listening to him, so finally got around to picking up his book Wimmera.

The river

It’s a story about two boys who grew up together in western Victoria in the 1980’s and it exposes dark secrets harboured in a small country town at a time when young adolescents had a lot of freedom and people trusted one another, sometimes a little too much. It shows how kids struggle with how to deal with their own emotions and those of adults who behave badly.

One of the things I found most interesting about this story was how Brandi used his characters change of voice through the work to show the boys at different ages. The first part is told in the voice of young Ben and provides a fascinating insight into the inner workings of adolescent country boys as they navigate growing up. I found the boys fascination with tits and body parts as their hormones raged mildly annoying but admired its realism.

Majesty

Brandi takes us through the story at a pace akin to how life in the country moves and meanders his way to a slow reveal. He uses great restraint in his writing and while he holds back many details, he provides enough of a sense of what’s going to make you wish it wasn’t.

In the second part of the story the two main characters Ben and Fab are in their early twenties and Fab is the narrator. He works at the supermarket, longs after a barmaid married to a man who doesn’t treat her well, and yearns for better things in life.

Ben and Fab meet up again just when Fab has decided to take a risk and try to make a go of moving to the city. The dark sinister secret that has been lurking in the background of the story is revealed when a body is found in the river, and before Fab leaves for the big smoke the boys find themselves caught up in a police investigation.

Cairn

Brandi handles the subject of child sexual abuse delicately, exposes the power relationship between children and adults from a child’s point of view and the lasting scars that can change the course of a child’s life. He provides enough information to know things are wrong but leaves the graphic details to the imagination of the reader. It took me a while to read the first part of the book, but it’s a compelling read and the change of pace in the second half had me racing to the end. I notice he has a new book out called The Rip, so will have to read that one also.

Book Review: The Eternity Fund by Liz Monument

Fahrenheit Press is fast becoming my go-to for crime fiction reads, my latest conquest being The Eternity Fund by Liz Monument.

Mount Yasur, Tanna Island

The Eternity Fund is set in a dystopian future world after some kind of cataclysmic event has laid waste much of what we know, and it’s a tough place to exist for most. The population eat cloned food (except for the very wealthy), vegetation is fake, some people are part human-part animal and others have had their memories, eyes and body parts enhanced with cybernetics.

Mount Yasur, Tanna Island

Ex-sex worker Jess Green gets recruited by the Unit that governs the world to work for Department Thirteen (Crime Solutions) because she’s an empath who can sense peoples movement and thoughts. Mo, her handler is a man of few words with a chip on his shoulders, who is serious about his job and won’t let Jess out of his sight – she’s not supposed to go anywhere without him, but of course she does.

Something is going on in the dead zone known as the Cinderlands, the epicentre of the cataclysm that occurred, and when a sinister brotherhood starts snap freezing large groups of people to harvest their organs, Jess and Mo get put on the case.

The duo investigate the crimes at the same time as Jess’s past starts to haunt her – the two things collide in a dramatic climax, but you’ll have to read the book to find out that part!

I don’t usually ready science fiction, but this futuristic noir thriller hooked me right in and I really enjoyed it.

Book Review: Good Samaritans by Will Carver

It takes six bottles of bleach to clean a dead body.

Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane

A lonely insomniac in a dysfunctional marriage with a wine guzzling wife who compulsively watches crap TV seeks late night comfort in the sympathetic ear of strangers plucked from the phone book at random.

A promiscuous misunderstood woman with several failed relationships and suicide attempts finally meets someone who accepts her for who she is, listens and understands her.

A man traumatised by the suicide of his childhood friend who he found hanging on the back of a door whilst they were traveling overseas together tries to assuage his guilt by dedicating his life to saving others and developing a few obsessive compulsive behaviours.

The character’s flaws are exposed like festering wounds via the short chapters which build suspense and unveil plot twists at every turn switching from one characters bizarre view of the world to another.

The Bridge, Adelaide

The unlikable characters trudge through life in dysfunctional relationships rife with unhealthy sexual practices and violence while they grapple with dark thoughts and obsessions bought to light via crossed wires. Dark, sick, twisted, quirky contemporary domestic noir set in a dull suburban backdrop.

Thrillers are meant to suck you in, elevate your heart rate and totally freak you out. Will Carver does all these things with Good Samaritans. I could not put it down despite being disturbed and disgusted by the tortured souls and their cat and mouse antics. Even the contrary title made me cringe.