Book review: Digging Up Dirt by Pamela Hart

Thought I’d lighten things up a bit this week with a cozy mystery. Cozies are an easy read that can be gobbled up without any uncomfortable feelings, whilst still offering satisfying twists and turns. Digging Up Dirt also includes a splash of simmering romance.

Nothing like the builder digging up bones to halt the work on your renovation. TV researcher Poppy McGowan needs to find out if the bones are human or animal so she can get on with finishing her house. When archaeologist, Dr Julieanne Weaver, whom Poppy doesn’t like, interferes and slaps a heritage order over the property because she thinks the bones a significant Poppy is really annoyed. But then Julieanne is found murdered onsite, face down in the excavation dressed in heels and an evening frock, and things get really complicated.

Pamela Hart is a prolific author who has written more than 35 books and successfully crosses the genre divide. She is best known for her historical fiction (The Soldiers Wife, The War Bride, A Letter from Italy and The Desert Nurse).

Hart has also penned speculative fiction (Ember and Ash)and children’s books under the name Pamela Freeman as well as being an accomplished scriptwriter for ABC kids. I’ve done a few of the online courses she has written for the Australian Writers Centre as well, which have all been of good quality. She’s no slouch!

Digging Up Dirt is Hart’s first mystery novel and it’s a fun Australian read (or listen to the audio book). 

Book review: Hinton Hollow Death Trip by Will Carver

The devil made me do it.

Fear is my greatest tool. It can be used to make a person do almost anything. You can take education, information, motivation and throw it all away, fear is the only thing you require. It is a slow and deadly poison. And it is effective.

Detective Sergeant Pace flees London to return to his hometown of Hinton Hollow for some respite after the trauma of his previous case. Pace’s shadow follows him, enveloping the idyllic small town in darkness and creating disarray in the community. Hinton Hollow Death Trip is the third Carver novel featuring Pace (see Good Samaritans and Nothing Important Happened Today) but could also be read as a stand alone.

The story is a noirish pulp meditation on what can happen when we abandon our values and give into our darkest parts, unleashing the monster within driven by our disappointments, bitterness, resentment and jealousies.

This is how evil works. I just have to get you started. What you do with that feeling is entirely down to you.

The unique twist in this tale is the narrator. Evil. Evil takes great pleasure insinuating itself into the cracks of people’s goodness, prodding at their insecurities and encouraging them to indulge the more selfish, destructive and violent elements of their nature. The message here is that we all have this capacity for destruction in us, but we make choices in response to experiences that determine whether we indulge our malevolent sides or keep turning toward the good in ourselves and others. Evil encourages the characters of Hinton Hollow to indulge their blackness and cheat, steal and kill.

Where everything happened for a reason. A leap of faith. Detective Sergeant Pace is no good. Detective Sergeant Pace is a footnote. Detective Sergeant Pace is a small story. 

In keeping with Will Carvers style, Hinton Hollow Death Trip, its cast and their behaviour leave the reader feeling queezy, despite the macabre content being tempered with equally dark humour. The characters are outrageous but believable and the narrative has a way of making the reader reflect on their own dark corners. 

This is not a story for the squeamish so if you can’t stomach a bit of graphic violence, stick with the cosies. It seems the writing of the story was also uncomfortable for Carver. Apparently the manuscript landed in the bin twice before Carver felt it was good enough to call complete. 

Some people are more comfortable in the dark. Some seek it out. Some thrive there…

Book review: Exit by Belinda Bauer

I used to love old British cop shows like The Bill, Inspector Morse and Taggart. British crime shows are memorable for slow-moving mystery plots and complex characters. Belinda Bauer’s crime novels are similar.

Despite sounding like a juxtaposition, Bauer’s most recent novel, Exit, is a hilarious crime thriller.

Amanda was at his shoulder now. ‘What is it?’ she said, but Felix couldn’t speak because all the words he’d ever known seemed to be whirling around inside his skull like bingo balls.
The ones he needed finally dropped slowly from his numb lips.
‘We killed the wrong man.’

Seventy-five year old widower Felix Pink is a member of the Exiteers, a secret group that supports the right to die by baring witness to the suicide of terminally ill patients then disposing of any evidence to ensure their deaths appear natural. Everything goes horribly wrong when Felix and new young Exiteer, Amanda, accidentally help the wrong patient to die.

The second voice in the story is PC Calvin Bridge, a small town policeman, and in his own eyes a failed detective. Calvin has no confidence in his own abilities. He also hoards a shameful secret past.

Even now, if she spotted Calvin from any distance, Shirley made a point fo glowering at him. And if she were with somebody else, she’d turn to them and say something, and then that person would glower at him too, which made him feel like a bad person – which he knew he wasn’t – so if he ever spotted Shirley before she spotted him, he always just hid.

A comedy of errors unfolds as Felix tries to find out whether he is guilty of murder or something more sinister is afoot, and Calvin finds himself doing the detective work he’s been avoiding.

According to British author Bauer, crime novels are about how the stories of our lives can be suddenly changed by the misdeeds of others. Life is a river and crime the rocks – it is when our lives hit a rock that we find out if we are life’s swimmers or sinkers. Bauer’s novels focus on survival and recovery after a calamity.

Baur has a knack for crafting original, oddball characters that endear the reader to them. Exit is a delightful, hilarious and farcical look at life and death, the invisibility of ageing, friendship, morality and loyalty.

Exit is Bauer’s ninth crime novel. I have written about the author before. See my review of The Shut Eye here

Book review: Nothing Important Happened Today by Will Carver

Creepy. Lets face it Will Carver knows how to write a creepy, mesmerising, noirish thriller – remember Good Samaritans?

London Detective Sergeant Pace returns in Nothing Important Happened Today, a story about a cult in which perfect strangers commit group suicide by jumping off bridges after receiving a white envelope containing the words ‘Nothing important happened today’. This message tells the receiver they have been chosen to become part of the People of Choice and off they trot calmly to meet their maker.

At its heart Nothing Important Happened Today is a story about human psychology, vulnerability and the power of suggestion. Carver splashes the narrative with reflections on the damaging effects of social media, how it provides a mechanism to airbrush our lives and foster an insatiable need for validation that can be really damaging to one’s self confidence. It makes you pause and take stock of the madness of the online environment and its mirage of connection.

We are so connected that we have become disconnected. We can’t have a thought, we have to have an opinion. Freedom of speech has gone too fucking far when we feel the need to share everything. When we filter the image of ourselves but feel no need to filter what we say out loud, hidden behind a new status and picture of ourselves when we were twenty pounds lighter.

There is something mildly detached about Carver’s writing style in this novel, written in the third person and collective first person, that fits neatly with the mindset of a cult leader. It shows the chilling lengths some people will go to get others to do their bidding. The cult leader in Nothing Important Happened Today sends person after person to their death to satisfy their own need for power and a twisted idea of their sense of importance in the world. Each victim is simply seen as a number by an anonymous person operating with the aim of making themselves the best cult leader ever, measured by the number of casualties they can motivate to initiate their own demise.

The fictional story is interspersed with facts about real life cults, how they came about and what drove their leaders. This addition helps lead the reader to ponder whether the actual story, which hovers on the edge of believably, is real or fiction, it’s a mind bending narrative.

Carver is clever at crafting a tale to make the hair on your neck stand up and leave you feeling a little discombobulated and disorientated. He causes you to pause and reflect on reality, illusion and what holds real value and meaning in life.

Book Review: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Whenever I visit my GP we talk about books and writing. She once filled an entire appointment telling me about the crime fiction novel she was writing about a GP who murders people. Lucky I’m a crime writer as well or I might have been reticent to accept any more scripts from her. On my last visit she got very animated about Martha Wells’s The Murderbot Diaries so I borrowed the first one to find out what her excitement was about.

All Systems Red is a 2017 science fiction novella and the first in The Murderbot Diaries series. For a simple story, it packs a powerful punch – I listened to the audiobook in one sitting whilst gardening, giggling to myself as I pulled weeds. The premise is simple: Two groups of scientists on an alien plant; something terrible happens to one lot and the others have to work out what, before the terrible thing happens to them as well. So what’s so good about it? …Murderbot…

I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.

Murderbot is a part organic-part robot SecUnit – a security guard of unspecified gender for hire to protect explorers of the universe. Murderbot is a little bit different to the other SecUnits because they have disabled their governing programming unit, giving them agency. The sulky Murderbot keeps this secret, along with their addiction to binge-watching soap operas. They just want to be left alone.

Murderbot is a kind of coming out story because this SecUnit feels like they need to hide an essential part of themselves from everyone else – those who are more powerful than Murderbot and wouldn’t understand.

Wells has given Murderbot, who is essentially a killing machine, extraordinary vulnerability as they struggle with their fears about their robot and human parts. They are trying to work out how to be comfortable in their own skin, and their efforts to hide this from those around them are touchingly hilarious.

The best part? There are five more books in the series.

Book review: Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

Kerry Salter’s girlfriend is in jail and her pop is dying, so she leaves Brisbane and her arrest warrants behind and heads south on a stolen Harley to her hometown of Durrongo – a place she’s been avoiding.

Thing is, you run now, after last night, and it’ll haunt you forever. You can go as far away as you like, but the past always comes along for the ride.

Too Much Lip is Goorie author Melissa Lucashenko’s seventh novel. Shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and the Stella Prize and winner of the 2019 Miles Franklin Award, it is a dark, funny story about family, home, country, intergenerational trauma, evil property developers, talking animals, life and death.

Kerry knew from long experience that there was no winning an argument with her mother. To Pretty Mary she was and always would be the Great Abandoner. Shame enough to turn out a dyke, but her far greater sin was the empty hole she’d left behind her in the family. Even in the terrible dark shadow cast by Donna’s disappearance, Kerry had still up and left to live among whitefellas and city people. Sharper than a serpent’s tooth, blah blah de-fucken-blah.

Bundjalung language words are peppered through a narrative that exposes the impacts of the history of colonisation and dispossession on Australian Aboriginal people. Lucashenko’s voice in the novel is unique and effectively echoes the voices of Australian aboriginal people I have known. I have never read a novel like it – which primarily tells me that there are far too few Indigenous voices in literature.

Kerry looked around the deserted road.

‘Yugam baugal jang! Buiyala galli! Yugam yan moogle Goorie Brisbanyu? You could help instead of sitting up there like a mug liar from the city.

Kerry looked around again. The waark hopped up and down in rage.

Then the second crow chimed in, dripping scorn.

It’s no good to ya, fang face. Can’t talk lingo! Can’t even find its way home! Turned right at the Cal River when it shoulda kept going straight. It’s as moggle as you look.’

On being awarded the Miles Franklin some critics claimed Too Much Lip to be undeserving as Lucashenko’s voice was not ‘literary’. My reading of that criticism is that those critics are pompous, entitled gits – probably in need of empathy training – and most likely educated in posh private schools with little experience of diversity and no understanding or appreciation of its value.

For a moment Kerry thought her mother was talking about killing the old man. Putting him down gently. Her second thought, hard on the heels of the first, was: just as well Ken’s drug of choice isn’t morphine. If the hospital had prescribed malt whisky to ease Pop’s last days they would have been in trouble.

The Salter family are gritty representations of people living in poverty and battling with day-to-day existence in all its joys, sorrows, and frustrations. Their education is primarily in their own culture, and in survival – not academia and privilege. They are flawed, funny survivours who love and hurt the people they care about, and go through life trying to make the best of it.

Into the river that was about to be stolen away again, as it always had been since Captain James Nunne Esq. first rode up with his troopers, one two three, crying I’ll have that, and that, oh, and that too, while I’m at it.

Too Much Lip is a political novel, which perhaps makes it confronting and challenging for some white Australians to read, but we all should read it because within its pages there is opportunity for greater understanding, and that might help lift our humanity above our turned-up wanker noses.

I’ll definitely be adding more of Lucashenko’s work to my reading list.

Candice Fox, The Chase cover image

Book review: The Chase by Candice Fox

Candice Fox, all-around good guy, champion of emerging writers, writer of creepy thrillers. I’ve been a fan of Candice Fox since reading her first novel, Hades. Her crime novels are fast-paced and brimming with big bold characters doing outrageous things. She takes us to the limits of believability and holds us there, peering over the cliff face.

The Chase is set in the USA and I suspect Americans are the primary audience for the novel, though perhaps American culture simply allows Candice to take things a step further.

Every year Proghorn Correctional Facility had a Christmas softball game between the wardens and the inmates.

The warden’s families come on a bus through the Nevada desert to make a day of it. This year they are held hostage under the gaze of a sniper in order to free the entire prison population, some of the most dangerous in the country. The incident prompts the biggest manhunt in history. The novel takes the reader on a journey with some of them.

Celine Osbourne is in charge of the death row prisoners. She takes her job, and the break out very seriously. She’s also obsessed with one prisoner in particular and makes it her mission to track down and capture John Kradle.

She pinched the tobacco between her thumb and forefinger, flicked out the rolling paper with a touch more flair than she probably needed to, and laid the little caterpillar of brown fibres down in its thin, dry bed. Three boys, all cousins of hers, crowded in to watch her lick and roll the cigarette. Celine put the smoke to her lips and lit up. Their eyes were big and wild with excitement. It was a thrilling display on many levels. They were all farm kids, and lighting a match for any reason in a barn full of hay was like flipping the bird to Jesus Christ.

John Kradle had been on death row for five years after being found guilty of murdering his family.

He didn’t believe in all the ghost stuff. But he showed up anyway. He figured that was what you did when you loved someone. You nodded and laughed and chipped in with a ‘She’s right, you know. I’ve seen it!’ occasionally.

The breakout is Kradle’s one chance to set the record straight, prove his innocence. Trouble is, a serial killer and Celine are on his tail.

Kradle put his hands on the table, stared at them, and felt a wave of relief roll over him. A part of him had known, in all the years that Christine had been missing, that she had left simply because she was broken. That even if an explanation ever came, it wouldn’t be rational or healing to him.

I could feel the heat of the desert, the desperation, rage and grief of the characters as the complexity of their inner worlds drove their choices – good and bad. The Chase kept me turning the pages and sneaking moments in my day to keep reading. And how lovely to get to the end of find that Candice has dedicated the book to those of us unpublished writers who keep plugging away, hoping that our work will one day find a home.

I have dedicated this book to all aspiring authors. It’s not an easy road. Waiting. Trying. Daydreaming. Being rejected. Having your hopes destroyed and trying to rebuild them. It’s lonely, frustrating, and tedious. But whatever you do, my advice is never to let it become hopeless. Only you have control over that.

Book review: That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry

Who doesn’t love an Irish accent?

That Old Country Music is a collection of eleven beautifully written short stories by Kevin Barry. The book is his second volume of short stories and he has also written three novels.

The strongest impulse she had was not towards love but towards that old burning loneliness, and she knew by nature the old tune’s circle and turn – it’s the way the wound wants the knife wants the wound wants the knife.

In the first story a lonely man develops a crush on a Polish waitress at his local cafe and is unprepared for its impact; in another a young Roma girl runs away from a tormented life and finds herself in the care of a kindly old hermit; a writer inherits a cottage from an uncle and finds that his new life transforms him into a ladies man; a vagrant crouches by a dog at the edge of a town and observes people around him whilst he talks to the dog.

He had the misfortune in life to be fastidious and to own a delicacy of feeling. He drank wine rather than beer and favored French films. Such an oddity this made him in the district that he might as well have had three heads up on Dromord Hill.

The prose is lyrical and poetic with a wild humour that explores love, lust, loneliness, desire and doom in the wilds of western Ireland. Barry develops the characters quickly, infusing them with yearning and longing, set against a backdrop of rich descriptions of the environment.

The hills displayed with arrogance the richest of autumn and glowed, and I walked in a state of almost blissful sadness.

I listened to That Old Country Music as an audio book narrated in a lilting brogue, sprinkled liberally with the F$@&k word, by Barry himself and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Book review: Traffic by Robin Gregory

Traffic is a contemporary crime fiction story set in Melbourne and is Robin Gregory’s debut novel.

Private Investigator, Sandi Kent’s ex-girlfriend hires her to scout out and plan the rescue of a sex slave from an inner-city brothel. Simultaneously a lawyer friend hires her to seek out angles to defend a Colombian immigrant charged with murdering another sex worker.

Sandi struggles with a sense of loneliness and finds it difficult to resist her manipulative ex-girlfriends advances, making it appear that she is helping Cassy out for all the wrong reasons. Sandi’s desires, and her deep empathy for the vulnerability of others, weaken her professional boundaries and she soon finds herself in much deeper than she ever intended to go.

Gregory explores difficult themes in Traffic but manages to do so with enough humour to make the story an easy read. Issues such as domestic violence, the underbelly of human trafficking, the sex trade, and drug trafficking are traversed against a backdrop of cosmopolitan Melbourne. The story sets a good pace and Gregory’s voice is quintessentially Australian. I found it to be an enjoyable and entertaining read despite the very serious themes embedded in the story.

Book review: Joan Smokes by Angela Meyer

Joan Smokes is a 68 page novella by Australian author Angela Meyer. Winner of the Mslexia Novella Award (2019), this story is a case of good things come in small packages.

She used to be someone else, but decided to become Joan after she arrived in Vegas, to start again, shut her past out. It’s the 60s and she decides Joan has dark hair, red lipstick and wears floral dresses. Joan is also a smoker, so she buys a packet of cigarettes.

Joan moves forward amongst the casinos and flashing neon, finds a job and meets new people.

She’d seen the Las Vegas  strip in a movie. It is just as technicolor in real life. The radio plays ‘Be My Baby’ by the Ronettes and she flicks it off because love songs are ice. The lights make sound in her eyes. On one sign: the soprano crescendo of pink. On another, a swooshing fan of green-blue.

Her mother always said one man is as good as another. She forgets about Jack, tries to let things go.

You will want to know what Joan is running from, why she is on the edge of a breakdown and why she thinks becoming someone else will make her believe it didn’t happen. A sophisticated and emotional read that will make you wish the story was longer.