Book review: The Survivors by Jane Harper

In The Survivors, Jane Harper takes us to an isolated small town on the Tasmanian coast riddled with a labyrinthe of dangerous caves that fill and empty with the tide. Getting trapped in there at high tide means certain death.

Evelyn Bay is a small, struggling, but close knit community, reliant on tourist visiting for whale watching and diving an old ship wreck in the bay. It has a pub and a police station that is about to be closed because not much happens.

Keiran Elliott left Evelyn Bay years ago, after his brother drowned at sea. He believes his was responsible for what happened to his brother and struggles guilt. He has returned with his wife and baby to visit his parents. Keiran’s father is suffering from early onset dementia and needs care so they are about to sell the family home and move because of this.

The Survivors, three statues commissioned in tribute to the 54 passengers and crew who died in a shipwreck a century earlier, stand as a mythic presence in the town. The waves lap at their feet, almost, but never completely consuming them at high tide. They are a constant reminder of the oceans ferocity, and auger when it is and is not safe to be on the beach.

Everyone knows everyone’s business. Towns people still grieve the losses of some of its members in the crashing waves during a terrible storm a decade earlier. When a second tragedy occurs – a young woman visiting during a break from university who is found dead on the beach – long buried secrets and grievances begin to emerge.

The police investigate the girls death while the townsfolk go wild with speculation on social media. Anger at a newcomer author who bought the house of the local landscaper’s grandmother, and ripped up the garden almost comes to blows in the pub. Animosity and guilt about who’s fault it was that three community members died in the storm all those years ago simmers near the surface, straining long held friendships.

The mystery unfolds as the characters grapple with grief, guilt and regrets that make some stronger, whilst others unravel. Another good read from Jane Harper.

Book review: The Mother Fault by Kate Mildenhall

One word to describe this dystopian novel – gripping. My heart was racing within the first few pages. I listened to it as an audiobook read by Claudia Carvan and turned it on compulsively in every spare minute till the end.

Near future climate changed world. People chipped like pets. One government, The Department controls everything. Mim’s husband goes missing. The Department warns her not to tell anyone, not to go anywhere, or risk her children being taken into care. She’s already told a journalist that Ben is missing in Indonesia.

The world shifted slowly, then so fast, while they watched but didn’t see. They weren’t stupid. Or even oppressed at the beginning. Let the record show that. There were no assassinations. No riots. The people invited the new government to take charge at the ballot box. The two parties had consumed themselves. Left the system wide open for a third option. Reasonable, populated by diverse public figures, backed by both big money and bid ideology. On a platform of innovative and economically viable responses to the climate emergency, a rehaul of the health, housing and disability schemes that would see the most vulnerable members of the community cared for, and a foreign policy that miraculously spoke to fear of the other and fluid borders ideal for capital in and capital out, the new party was humbly triumphant on election night. Simple, elegant. No need for finite portfolios and the bullshit of bureaucracy (their words, appealing to the everyday Australian). Centralised power was the answer. On Department for One Nation.

Mim decides to run. She goes to visit her family home in the country on the pretense of chasing work. The Department know where she is. They call and warns her to go home. Her friend removes the chips from her and her children’s palms, inserts them in some rats she releases into the bush, and Mim and the kids drive away. She soon discovers how serious The Department’s controls are when they visit her family and her friend has ‘an accident’. A house fire.

A strong but flawed female protagonist, protective of her children and desperate to find her husband. Somehow the strange COVID world we are living in now, with ever enhanced technology and increased government rules, makes the already plausible Gilead Esque world created by Mildenhall even easier to imagine into existence.

The narrator, Carvan, executes the audiobook with the skill you’d expect from a good actor. A compelling delivery that brings the characters to life by capturing their emotions and builds an exquisite tension throughout the story.

A brilliantly executed speculative fiction thriller.

Book review: Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

Vesta Gul is an ageing widow who lives in a small cabin on a lake with her dog Charlie. She is a curiosity to the local townsfolk. Out walking in the woods one morning, Vesta finds a note on the ground held down with stones suggesting a woman called Magda has been killed.

Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body. But there was no body. No bloodstain. No tangle of hair caught on the coarse fallen branches, no red wool scarf damp with morning dew festooned across the bushes. There was just the note on the ground, rustling at my feet in the soft May wind. I happened upon it on my dawn walk through the birch woods with my dog, Charlie.

There is no body in sight so Vesta decides to become a sleuth and try to work out what happened to Magda. She begins to concoct Magda’s story by writing it down following instructions on how to write a good mystery. She develops characters with elaborate backstories and conspiracy theories inspired by red herrings. She talks to Charlie and reflects on what her dead husband, Walter might make of her antics.

Reading lots of mysteries is essential. That seemed like ridiculous advice. The last thing anyone should do is stuff her head full of other people’s ways of doing things. That would take all the fun out. Does one study children before copulating to produce one? Does one perform a thorough examination of others’ feces before rushing to the toilet? Does one go around asking people to recount their dreams before going to sleep? No. Composing a mystery was a creative endeavor, not some calculated procedure.

Vesta’s adventure both enthrals and frightens her as she develops a detailed backstories for Magda and all the other characters in her mystery. Walter berates her continually in her head as she goes, as he evidently did in life, and Vesta seems to get some satisfaction out of defying him.

An ax murderer wouldn’t be very quick on his feet, carrying an ax and all. Charlie’s warning would give me time enough to collect my coat and purse, even. I wasn’t worried that I would be hacked to death, fed to the wolves, even if there were wolves out there, which there weren’t. At least none that we’d ever seen. Nor bears. Though there were foxes. But the most they were known to do was break into people’s garbage and make a mess. They were no worse than skunks or raccoons or opossums. Still, I’d taken a butcher knife up to bed with me and had slid it under the mattress. Just in case. Because who knew? Who knew? … And that was what was keeping me awake—not knowing, and wanting to know.

In the absence of human company, Vesta’s imagination recasts her view of the real world. She buys a camouflage onesie online and sets booby traps around her home. The woman becomes more and more unhinged from reality as she attempts to solve the mystery of the note.

Death in Her Hands is the story of an ageing woman facing a life of emptiness who uses her imagination to escape from her solitude.

The book unfolds in long rambling paragraphs across only seven chapters. It is is Ottessa Moshfegh’s third novel (the others being Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation). Death in Her Hands is part mystery, part suspense, and part black comedy.

Book review: The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan

The Ruin is the first book in the Cormac Reilly series by Dervla McTieran. Published in 2018, it is a gritty, atmospheric page turning police procedural.

Rookie copy Cormac Reilly is called out to investigate a domestic in Galway, Ireland in 1993. He is greeted by an under-nourished 15 year old girl at a dilapidated house. Her mother is in bed, dead from an apparent heroin overdose, and she has her much younger brother in her care. Cormac takes the kids to a hospital were the girl disappears and it is revealed the boy has unexplained injuries all over his body.

By 2013, Cormac has risen through the ranks to become a member of an elite anti-terror squad in Dublin. He moves back to Galway to be with his biologist partner, Emma who gets a lucrative research gig there.

Aisling is an ambitious young doctor training to become a surgeon. She lives with her boyfriend Jack. When she discovers she is pregnant, the couple have an intense discussion about whether they should keep the baby. Jack goes out to get some air and clear his head. His body is discovered in the river the next day, and his death declared a suicide.

Jack’s sister Maude, who has been living in Australia for years, arrives back in Ireland and pursues the police to look further into Jack’s death. She does not believe it was suicide. When Aisling meets her she joins Maude in pursuing this line of enquiry. The police view the women as a nuisance.

Cormac finds himself an outsider back in Galway, and is relegated to reviewing cold-case investigations – including the 1993 death he attended as a rookie. It turns our Jack who was found in the river was the little boy Cormac took to the hospital.

Cormac, Aisling and Maude’s trajectories begin to intersect as issues including child abuse, addiction, abortion and corruption are explored.

Book review: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Normal programming resumes this week with a book review of Kate Atkinson’s novel, Case Histories, book 1 in the Jackson Brodie series. I listened to this one in audio book format whilst working on the shed renovating iso project. More on that story later.

She should have done science, not spent all her time with her head in novels. Novels gave you a completely false idea about life, they told lies and they implied there were endings when in reality there were no endings, everything just went on and on and on.

In 1970, a girl called Olivia goes missing at night from a tent in her parents back yard. She is never found. A young woman called Laura is brutally murdered in her fathers city law office in 1994, the killer never identified, leaving her father wracked with guilt. An isolated young mother called Shiriley feels trapped with a baby and a demanding husband and takes to her husband with an axe during an argument in 1979. She goes to jail. Her child, given over to her husbands parents has for all intents and purposes, vanished.

The survivors of the tragedies are haunted by unresolved grief.

When you chopped logs with the ax and they split open they smelled beautiful, like Christmas. But when you split someone’s head open it smelled like abattoir and quite overpowered the scent of the wild lilacs you’d cut and brought into the house only this morning, which was already another life.

Ex-cop, and soon to be divorced private investigator Jackson Brodie is pursuing a flight attendant who’s husband believes she is cheating on him. His other case involves searching for an eccentric old ladies missing cats.

Time was a thief, he stole your life away from you and the only way you could get it back was to outwit him and snatch it right back.

Brodie is approached by Olivia’s sisters. They found their sisters toy hidden in their dead fathers belongings and want Brodie to investigate her disappearance thirty years after it occurred. Laura’s father hires Brodie to find the man in a yellow golfing sweater believed to have murdered his daughter. Shirley’s sister asks Brodie to find her niece who disappeared after her sister went to jail.

The seemingly unconnected cases begin to converge.

Doing nothing was much more productive than people thought; Jackson often had his most profound insights when he appeared to be entirely idle. He didn’t get bored, he just went into a nothing kind of place.

The novel jumps back and forth in time and from case to case. The threads are held together by the sense of isolation of each of the characters as they journey to find connection beyond their own tragedies. The reader is challenged to keep track of the many narratives, and compelled by Atkinson’s vivid and funny character sketches that draw the reader to them. Atkinson lightens the sense of grief and loss that permeates the novel with plenty of humour and perceptive insights.

The plot thickens,” he said, and wished he hadn’t said that because it sounded like something from a bad detective novel. “I think we have a suspect.” That didn’t sound much better. “My house has just exploded, by the way.” At least that was novel.

An intelligent and novel detective novel.

Book review: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Award winning All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews is a story of sisters, grief, and loss, told with an extraordinary sense of humour that makes the despair on the page readable. The novel explores the effect of growing up in a strict, closed religious community, the conflicting desires for life and death, the flawed and sometimes indifferent mental health care system, and the effect a family members mental health crisis can have on their loved ones.

Sisters Elfrieda and Yolanda grew up in the restricted confines of a Mennonite community in Canada in a family that indulged their rebellious daughters who strained against the communities restrictions.

Sometimes he referred to himself as a cowboy and these encounters as “mending fences.” But in reality it was more of a raid. He showed up on a Saturday in a convoy with his usual posse of elders, each in his own black, hard-topped car (they never carpool because it’s not as effective in creating terror when thirteen or fourteen similarly dressed men tumble out of one car) and my father and I watched from the window as they parked in front of our house and got out of their cars and walked slowly towards us, one behind the other, like a tired conga line.

Yoli grows up to be a divorced single mother and an author who writes YA books about rodeo romances. She carries around a plastic bag containing her latest manuscript – an attempt at a literary novel. Elf is a gifted and beautiful concert pianist who grows up to marry a loving man. She also wants to kill herself. The girls father committed suicide on a train track. Yoli, her mother and Elf’s husband dedicate themselves to keeping Elf alive, until Yoli starts to question that strategy and to search the internet for how to get hold of some Nembutal.

How are you doing? she asked me. Fine, fine, I said. I wanted to tell her that I felt I was dying from rage and that I felt guilty about everything and that when I was a kid I woke up every morning singing, that I couldn’t wait to leap out of bed and rush out of the house into the magical kingdom that was my world, that dust made visible in sunbeams gave me real authentic joy, that my sparkly golden banana-seated bike with the very high sissy bar took my breath away, the majesty of it, that it was mine, that there was no freer soul in the world than me at age nine, and that now I woke up every morning reminding myself that control is an illusion, taking deep breaths and counting to ten trying to ward off panic attacks and hoping that my own hands hadn’t managed to strangle me while I slept.

The story is told from the first person point of view of fortyish Yoli. The long rolling paragraphs pull the reader through the narrative, and the dialogue, which lacks quotation marks, makes you feel as if you are right inside Yoli’s head as she tells the story. It is a beautiful, sad, funnny and uniquely written book.

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: 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.

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.