Books of the month: September 2016

Pick of the month

adeadlycambodiancrimespree2308_fWith my reading get back to something like normal during September the choice for book of the month was very difficult. Half of the 10 books I finished this month are worthy of the title but I’m opting for Shamini Flint’s A DEADLY CAMBODIAN CRIME SPREE because it encompasses so much of what I look for in crime fiction yet didn’t leave me feeling suicidal. As I said in my review “I don’t know what else you could possibly want from a novel than an evocative setting, a genuinely thought provoking narrative and characters who worm their way into your heart. Even those who haven’t read earlier instalments of this series need not worry: this is a novel that stands entirely on its own.

The rest, in reading order 

  • Tania Chandler DEAD IN THE WATER (an Australian novel with review to come closer to the publishing date)
  • Dorothy L. Sayers STRONG POISON (I enjoyed my second Sayers more than my first for a 1930 book but can’t imagine the insufferable Lord Peter Wimsey ever being a firm favourite)
  • Val McDermid OUT OF BOUNDS (McDermid is in top form with both her writing and social commentary in this cold case novel)
  • Meg and Tom Keneally THE SOLDIER’S CURSE (I thoroughly enjoyed the first instalment of historical fiction set in a colonia penal settlement from this father/daughter writing team)
  • Todd Borg TAHOE DEATH FALL (Was glad to find a non-Vegas story for the Nevada leg of my Reading USA Fiction challenge and really enjoyed the secret-laden mystery and meeting Spot, a Great Dane with heart)
  • Belinda Bauer’s THE SHUT EYE (One of the few authors who could get me to read a novel dripping with ‘woo woo’ elements, this novel is all heart)
  • Georges Simenon PIETR THE LATVIAN (I decided to visit 1930 a second time and found lots to enjoy in the characters and setting, even though the story itself did not grab me entirely)
  • Zygmunt Miloszweski RAGE (this Polish novel that views domestic violence from multiple angles and features a fabulously well-rounded lead character in prosecutor Teodor Szacki is a brilliant read)
  • Sue Williams DEAD MEN DON’T ORDER FLAKE (a light, fun-filled romp through a small Victorian town in which everyone knows everyone else’s business and murderers hide in plain sight)

The only book I didn’t think much of this month was one I didn’t bother to finish so I can happily recommend all of the above titles.

Progress Towards 2016’s Bookish Goals

Challenge Goal Progress
Australian Women Writers Challenge Read 25 eligible books, review at least 20 of them Read 13.5 and reviewed 12.5 books (the 0.5 is due to a male/female writing team)
Reading US Fiction Challenge Read 6 books by new to me authors set in different states of the US  5/6 achieved
Reduce TBR Have a TBR of 100 or less by the end of 2016 (starting point 145) TBR = 147 at end of month
Buy Australian Buy no physical or eBooks from non-Australian stores 0 this month, 3 in total this year
Read older books too Participate in at least 6 of the monthly Crimes of the Century challenges hosted at Past Offences  9/6 achieved
No Girl books Read no books with the word Girl in the title. Because meh.  0/0 achieved

It still looks like I’ll only achieve 2 or 3 of my bookish goals for the year but I’m not too disappointed. I know, for example, that I’d have bought a lot more cheap books from Amazon and elsewhere if I didn’t have my ‘buy Australian’ goal in mind all the time. Each of the three times I’ve bought from non-Australian stores I’ve had sound (to me) reasons and overall I still feel pretty good about supporting local booksellers as much as possible.

Speaking of which I went on a bit of a book-buying spree during September, something I haven’t done for ages and really enjoyed. Here’s what my new haul, all from local bookshops, looks like in my cataloguing app (I use Collectorz).

newbooksept2016

What about you? Did you have a great read during September? Anything good coming up for October? 

Posted in Belinda Bauer, books of the month, Dorothy L. Sayers, George Pelecanos, Meg Keneally (Aus), Shamini Flint, Sue Williams (Aus), Tania Chandler (Aus), Todd Borg, Tom Keneally (Aus), Val McDermid, Zygmunt Miloszewski | 1 Comment

Review: RAGE by Zygmunt Miloszewski

ragezygmuntmiloszewski28347_fThe third and apparently final story to feature Polish prosecutor Teodor Szacki is a cracker of a read, especially for those who don’t mind their protagonists jaded and their humour black. Very, very black.

Szacki is living and working in Olsztyn, geographically and socially distant from his beloved Warsaw. Whatever other awards the book’s author may have picked up I’m pretty confident he won’t be receiving any love from the Olsztyn tourism board which can’t be happy at his depiction of their city. I am left with the impression that the only beauty comes from architecture the Germans left behind while everything is else is “bland at best, but usually hideous,” that the traffic engineers head the list of incompetent public officials and that even the weather can’t do anything right

Some sort of Warmian crap was coming out of the sky, neither rain, nor snow, nor hail. The stuff froze as soon as it hit the windshield, and even on the fastest setting the wipers couldn’t scrape off this mysterious substance. The windshield washer fluid did nothing but smear it around

But while it may not be an inviting depiction of place it is certainly evocative and one of the real strengths of the novel. This is not one of those ‘could take place anywhere’ books.

Another strength is Teodor Szacki. He is not likeable in the traditional sense and some of his inner thoughts border on the deeply troublesome but he is compelling and the kind of person I am drawn to, in fiction and in real life. His flaws seem more human than those that have become clichéd for fictional detectives though perhaps this is simply because they are not the normal things one expects. He is for instance depicted as someone for whom life is a constant tussle between the man he wants the world to see and the man he really is. Sometimes this plays out in minor ways – such as drinking black coffee which he hates but thinks is more manly – and sometimes much more significantly. Like when the disdain of a junior prosecutor makes him re-think his offhand dealing with a woman who might have been subject to domestic violence. His strained relationship with his teenage daughter is due in part to this dichotomy too though there are other elements at play. It’s a beautifully and realistically drawn relationship, with both parties showing difficulties expressing their true feelings, and another highlight of the novel.

For me the story is the least successful part of the novel. The first half of it had me completely gripped but then it started to lose its authenticity and by the end was, frankly, farcical. It’s so hard to talk about why I felt this without giving away spoilers but I’ll just say it strayed to far into ‘world being orchestrated by a tortuous mastermind’ territory for me. The themes it explores make it worth reading though. Domestic violence is a pretty ‘hot’ topic these days but it can always do with more exposure and particularly from the male perspective. This is a book I can imagine recommending to a male reader who might need or want to learn something about this issue which is not something I can say about many of the books written by women on this topic. I don’t mean to be dismissive of those stories and the voices they allow to shine, but if we want to actually effect change in the world then we have to give men a way to learn about what’s OK and what isn’t too and they are far more likely to take notice of other men. The issue is explored in depth here and with enough nuance to give all readers some awkward moments, especially when combined with the exploration of the notion of accountability. Everyone in RAGE is forced to take responsibility for their actions or their lack of action.

Miloszewski has spoken about his work in translation as being a real collaboration and that does shine through here. There is humour and cynicism and all manner of linguistic delights that demonstrate Antonia Lloyd-Jones did a lot more than choose English equivalents for Polish words. The final product is a thought-provoking, memorable romp of a read that I highly recommend.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Publisher Amazon Crossing [2016, original edition 2014]
ISBN 9781503935860
Length 428 pages
Format eBook (kindle)
Book Series #3 in the Teodor Szacki series

Posted in book review, Poland, Zygmunt Miloszewski | 1 Comment

Review: PIETR THE LATVIAN by Georges Simenon

pietrthelatviansimenonaudioMy only previous exposure to Inspector Jules Maigret of the Flying Squad has been via the Michael Gambon adaptations for TV. This is not surprising given that until recently my reading of classic crime fiction was largely based on trawling my mother’s collection of American and English writers. But given that Georges Simenon’s first Maigret book was published in 1930, this month seemed like the perfect time to listen to the audio book I’ve owned for 18 months.

The case at the heart of PIETR THE LATVIAN is at once complicated and not terribly interesting. It should be interesting. There is an internationally known con man and mysterious identity doubles and some pretty shocking happenings that ought to have gripped me. But somehow it read like some distant relative’s journal of their trip to a place that doesn’t have a tourist board. I listened to a recently published audio version and at several points realised my mind had wandered and I didn’t know what had just happened. Or care very much. I did persevere (not least because there were other things to like about the novel) but if you’re the kind of reader who needs an engaging plot this might not be the one for you.

I did enjoy the fact that it was quite different from its English and American contemporaries, although I would say it’s closer to the American style if pressed. It’s got a very European sensibility though, with a missive from the 1930 version of Interpol setting the whole thing in motion and lots of cross border activity and people from all over Europe playing key roles in the story. There’s more than a hint of French existentialism too which is possibly why the story did not engage me as much as I might have hoped (I blame Sartre for my one failed course at university). There are hints of the hard-boiled though and any of the situations that would, in an English equivalent, provide some glamour are instead full of grit and solemnity here. And although there is a lot of legwork there’s precious little of the detecting that a traditional procedural would offer. It’s all hunches and pipe smoking and observing human behaviour that solves the crime here.

I also liked the introduction of Maigret because do get to know quite a bit about him, at least outwardly, which is not always the case in mystery fiction of the era.

He didn’t have a moustache and he didn’t wear heavy boots. His clothes were well cut and made of fairly light worsted. He shaved every day and looked after his hands. But his frame was proletarian. He was a big, bony man. Iron muscles shaped his jacket sleeves and quickly wore through new trousers. He had a way of imposing himself just by standing there. His assertive presence had often irked many of his own colleagues.

We also learn that he likes his beer (or really any alcohol at all at pretty much any time of the day) and to warm himself via the coal stove in his office. His inner life is more difficult to discern, though we find out he is unable to cry even when the situation might reasonably call for it and he’s also pretty darned resilient. By my reckoning he goes for about three days without sleep at one point (fulled by beer and sandwiches) and performs some quite amazing physical feats after being shot. In the TV adaptations Maigret’s wife is quite prominently featured but this is either an invention of the script writers or comes later in the novel series. Here Madame Maigret is barely mentioned and her only purpose is to fluff the Inspector’s pillows towards the very end of the novel.

As far as its setting goes both time and place are quite evocatively brought to life. This makes the book enjoyable but also awkward. Some of the attitudes about race in general and Jews in particular make the modern reader wince and it’s not hard to remember that at this time not very far away the National Socialists were gaining popularity in Germany.

So, even though I wasn’t swept away by the story I did find quite a lot to enjoy about this book and will definitely read later books in the series at some stage. My version was wonderfully narrated by Gareth Armstrong (though his accents are all English if that matters to you, I prefer that to fake French ones but it’s worth mentioning) and has been recently re-translated by David Bellos in what feels like a very authentic manner.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

You too can be prompted to seek out the classics if you participate in Crimes of the Century

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Gareth Armstrong
Translator David Bellos
Publisher Audible [2015]
ASIN B00GDLGZ18
Length 3 hours 57 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #1 in the Inspector Maigret series

Posted in book review, France, Georges Simenon | 6 Comments

Review: THE SHUT EYE by Belinda Bauer

theshuteyebaueraudioAs I’ve completely given up reading book blurbs (which either reveal too much of the plot or appear to have nothing whatsoever to do with the book to which they relate) and hadn’t seen any reviews of this book before noticing it on sale in audio format I dove into Belinda Bauer’s THE SHUT EYE without knowing anything about it. Probably just as well because even though she is one of my favourite crime writers I’m not a fan of what I call ‘woo woo’ elements (ghosts, psychics, conversing with the dead and so on) and this book is replete with them. However by the time I realised that I was engaged enough to keep reading because Bauer’s usual clever writing and thoughtful character development are on display. In the end enjoyed the book in spite of its otherworldly sensibility*.

One of the things Bauer does very well is incorporate multiple perspectives in her stories. For me this has a dual function of enabling me to get to know several well developed characters in each book as well as allowing her trademark non-linear stories to develop naturally. Although there is always an assumption that disparate threads will link up I can never predict just how that will happen and THE SHUT EYE offers no exception to that rule. I did not see its resolution coming though, in hindsight, it did all fit together. As ever.

One of the core characters is Anna Buck whose toddler son Daniel disappeared 4 months earlier. She is bereft and sliding – galloping almost – into madness due to her inability to accept this loss. Taken out of context her individual actions – be it cleaning the tiny footprints Daniel made in drying cement outside their house or contemplating suicide or replacing her lost child – seem crazed but in the context of a suddenly childless mother it all makes a kind of sense. Anna is easy to empathise with though at times hard to read about because she is so deeply sad.

It is more difficult to find DCI John Marvel sympathetic. He is a prickly, judgmental loner who thinks quite a lot of himself. But he is a good detective, even though his primary motivation is loving to win – he views his job as a never ending game of cops versus villains – rather than any great desire to do good in the world. For the year preceding this tale he has been obsessed with Edie Evans, a teenage girl who disappeared without trace one day. He is almost as desperate to find Edie as her parents are. Desperate enough even to contemplate using a psychic! And for all his faults, or perhaps because of them, Marvel is someone readers can relate to (well at least this curmudgeon-in-training can). Marvel has appeared in another of Bauer’s books, 2011’s DARKSIDE, and I remember liking him in a similar way even then. My sense is that this book is actually set earlier than that one but I’m relying on ageing memory here and it doesn’t really matter, the books do not have to be read in order.

And the ‘woo woo’? Initially this element is provided by Richard Latham. Leader of a kind of church and self-professed psychic, though he’s recently given up looking for missing people. DCI Marvel thinks him a con-artist but his boss’ wife – who has also experienced a loss – and Anna Buck want to believe. Who wouldn’t when they’ve suffered a loss that no one else can help with? But then it seems that Latham isn’t the only one who receives messages from the great beyond. Or is it just a different kind of madness?

You’ll have to read the book yourself if you want to know the answer to that question. And I really think you should. It might not be my absolute favourite of Bauer’s tales (I somewhat begrudgingly forgave the ‘woo woo’) but it is still a cut above most crime fiction. Bauer is tener and caring with both her readers and her characters but doesn’t fall into the trap of cloying sentimentality so her characters and their stories pack a genuine emotional punch. Even the relatively minor characters – like Anna’s husband James who has to live with the fact he left the door open the day his son went missing and the young Hmong man who works at the same garage as James but is perpetually afraid due to his immigration status – will stay with you long after the book is finished. If you are an audio book fan then I highly recommend the narration by Andrew Wincott. He’s superb.

*Authors of paranormal anything who keep pestering me via the contact form here please do not take this as a sign that I’m now game for your version of the spirit world. I’m not. Really and truly. I don’t care that you believe whatever you believe but I do not. I’m prepared to forgive Bauer because she has written a swag of books I’ve truly loved that didn’t have a single ghostly presence but this does not herald any overall change in my reading preferences.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My favourites of Bauer’s novels are (in publication date order) BLACKLANDS, RUBBERNECKER and THE FACTS OF LIFE AND DEATH.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Andrew Wincott
Publisher Random House Audio [2015]
ASIN B00U054QFA
Length 9 hours 2 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone

Posted in Belinda Bauer, book review, England | 6 Comments

Review: TAHOE DEATH FALL by Todd Borg

Owen McKenna is a former police officer now working as a private investigator on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. His sidekick, and the character who constantly upstages him, is a pony-sized Great Dane called Spot. This is the first of what is (so far) a 14 book series and my only real concern about reading the more recent instalments is, assuming Owen and his lovable dog age in real time, it would be impossible for Spot to still be featuring in the stories. Not sure I can bring myself to go there. I am more than a little bit in love with Spot.

A 14 year-old girl named Jennifer Salazaar wants to hire Owen to investigate the death of her twin sister. When they were both six Melissa died in a fall while hiking. Jennifer has always believed her sister’s death was not an accident but her family – in the form of a grandmother who has guardianship over her due to her mother being confined to a psychiatric facility – has dismissed her claims. Because she is a minor Owen can’t legally be hired by Jennifer – even though she has the financial resources to do so – but he does agree to ‘look into things’. He soon becomes convinced that something is awry in the Salazaar’s world but it takes him a while to uncover the family’s layers of secrets.

Plot is king in this tale so its complications and action-packed sequences are fitting and though they stretch the bounds of credibility on occasion they don’t actually go too far. And Borg does more than enough to make the reader care whether or not the characters (both human and canine) survive their various brushes with death. For me this kind of thriller can be a totally enjoyable read but only if I’m given enough reason to cheer on the good guys. There are a few clichés in the plot but there were enough twists to keep me guessing on some fronts and the resolution – sickening though it is – is in keeping with the rest of the story.

Overall the book has a light tone, in spite of the sometimes grizzly plot. Owen seems to be a decent guy and is not beset by dysfunction like so many fictional sleuths. His girlfriend Street – a forensic entomologist – has the potential to be a bit darker though I suspect there is more to learn about both of their pasts in future instalments of the series. The relationship between the two is not strained and their banter provides a lot of the book’s humour.

I chose this book only because the kindle version happened to be free one day and I needed to visit Nevada on my virtual tour around the USA via its crime fiction. I half-expected it would be a DNF (as so many free books have been over the years) but I was quickly engrossed in the story, wishing my home was big enough to house a relative of Spot’s and thinking I would like to meet up with these characters again. It even offers a good sense of place, reminding me that Nevada isn’t just repulsive (to me) casinos and desert heat (I’ve only ever been to Las Vegas) and has a lot of natural beauty as well.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

USAFictionChallengeButtonThis is the 13th book I’m including in my quest to complete the Reading USA Fiction Challenge in which I’m aiming to read a total of 51 books, one set in each of the USA (and one for the District of Columbia). My personal twist is that all the books are by new (to me) authors.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Thriller Press [this edition not sure, original edition 2001]
ASIN B004R1Q6B0
Length 245 pages
Format eBook (kindle)
Book Series #1 in the Owen McKenna series

Posted in book review, Todd Borg, USA | 5 Comments

Review: OUT OF BOUNDS by Val McDermid

outofboundsmcdermidI realise this isn’t the most pertinent thing I can tell you about OUT OF BOUNDS but as it occupied a lot of my thinking time with respect to the book I do have to report that if you think you’d like to read this book based on its cover then you’ll likely be disappointed. There isn’t a gate or fence or country estate or anything even vaguely resembling the scene pictured on any of the 421 pages I read. So bizarre did I find this cover with respect to its relationship to the story’s content that I fell down an internet rabbit hole while looking for reason and only discovered that perhaps McDermid has a thing for gates as two of her earlier novels appear on this list of 92 books with gates/fences on the cover. In the end I am reminded that book covers these days are, like their blurbs, utterly and totally meaningless. #BringBackPlainCovers

Distractingly pointless cover aside, OUT OF BOUNDS is the kind of entertaining read I’ve come to expect from Val McDermid. It is the fourth of her novels to feature DCI Karen Pirie who heads up a Historic Crimes Unit in Scotland. I’ve only read the first of these books prior to this installment but didn’t feel at any disadvantage for that as McDermid is adept at revealing just enough to make all readers – whether they’ve read earlier novels or not – comfortable. However, of necessity this book and my discussion of it does reveal a huge spoiler for the novel which immediately precedes it (THE SKELETON ROAD) so if you think you are likely to read that book any time soon stop reading this review. Now.

For the thing driving Pirie in this novel is grief over the death some months earlier of her boyfriend and fellow officer Phil Parhatka. Beset by insomnia and a reluctance to discuss her feelings about her loss, Pirie, never a slouch, throws herself into her work and in her free time walks the city’s streets late at night. As the book progresses she does open up a little, to her dim but good-hearted sidekick and a couple of friends, but retains the core of privacy that seems important to her mental health. It is a thoughtful character study of someone dealing with loss without the near ubiquitous modern solution of catharsis-through-Facebook. Though perhaps I am unduly biased as a fellow under-sharer.

The case she is meant to be working on is the two decades-old murder of a young hairdresser, killed on a Saturday night out with her friends. New evidence arrives in the form of a familial DNA match to a young boy who is lying in a coma. Of course things are not as easy as finding the boy’s male relatives and locking one of them up and several interesting legal and moral quandaries ensue. But Karen also becomes interested in the 1994 death of four people in a light plane explosion when the son of one of those people is murdered in the present day. Her reasoning – that unexplained deaths don’t run in families – seems pretty thin even to this reader who feels kindly disposed towards her, and it’s non existent to her superiors but she perseveres despite them. And it is a ripper of a storyline, producing the kind of drama and suspense regular McDermid readers would expect.

Another aspect of the book to really enjoy is the writing with which McDermid manages to convey so much about the people and places of her fictional world, as in this snippet which describes the version of the city that Pirie inhabits on her nocturnal wanderings

…Karen moved more quickly than usual through the side streets of Leith. It wasn’t the Wild West town of Trainspotting these days: too many people had splashed their cash on flash modern apartments like hers, too many upwardly mobile young professionals had colonised tenement closes. But after midnight, the few people she saw on the street seemed to come from the older Leith of chancers and drinkers, hookers and druggies, and the poor-but-respectable who’d failed to reach escape velocity.

I love McDermid’s way with words and her dialogue which always sounds as if it’s directly out of the mouths of real people.

My only gripe with the book is that everything is a little bit too…neat. Karen’s boss is – of course – an idiot but even when he has perfectly valid reasons for reprimanding her Karen gets around him a lot more easily than real people in similar circumstances would do. And she has just the right friend or acquaintance – all of whom are willing to bend rules and work stupid hours – to resolve all the thorny issues her two cases throw up. And when the book tackles topical issues, such as the treatment of refugees, the solutions offered are unencumbered by the complexities of real life. Given there is so much else to like about the book this neatness didn’t put me off to any great extent – heaven knows we all need a fantasy world in which such things as a Trump Presidency are not even a twinkle in anyone’s eye – but I did find myself hankering for a loose end or some other evidence of messiness.

On balance though OUT OF BOUNDS is an above-average romp of a tale that manages to be very current at the same time as offering authentic details of the recent history during which the two cold cases are set. McDermid’s fans need no incentive to dive right in but if you are not a regular reader of her work you could do much worse than start here. You’ll get a real sense of her strengths as a writer, more than a few chuckles at Karen’s dry  sense of humour and a darned good yarn.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Little, Brown [2016]
ISBN 9781408706923
Length 421 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #4 in the Karen Pirie series

Posted in book review, Scotland, Val McDermid | 10 Comments

Review: STRONG POISON by Dorothy L. Sayers

strongpoisonsayersaudioI was not enamoured of my first foray into the world of Lord Peter Wimsey a few months back but didn’t want to eschew one of the genre’s best known classic authors on the basis of a single read so when 1930 was chosen for this month’s Crimes of the Century I dove into STRONG POISON.

I think I can say now with some certainty that Sayers…or at least Wimsey…is never going to become a firm favourite for me.

Some of this is undoubtedly due to confirmation bias. I am the granddaughter of somewhat militant Irish immigrants and both my parents were at one time shop stewards for their respective unions. On what I have seen to date Lord Peter Wimsey embodies everything I innately find…irksome about the aristocracy (that’s much softer language than my family would use). He’s even more annoying than Downton Abbey‘s Lady Mary. But there’s also the fact that he displays the preposterous brilliance in all avenues of human endeavour that is popular among fictional sleuths and his preponderance for making up words (someone calls it piffling in the book). I know some people find this delightful and I wish I did (as happened whenever Douglas Adams engaged in the same practice) but somehow it all combines to make him tiresome to me. Even his Achilles’ heel, only hinted at during the text proper but revealed in an end note to be shell shock brought on by his war service, has a kind of self-serving ring to it. Like a job candidate who answers “unbridled perfectionism” when asked what their weakness is.

Putting aside for a moment my disdain for the ‘wealthy chap with the luxury of choosing how he spends his time and money’ character I did actually enjoy the read much more than my earlier foray into the series.

STRONG POISON opens with a Judge providing his instructions to the jury in the murder trial of a woman writer called Harriet Vane. She is accused of poisoning Phillip Boyes, a man she had lived with until a year or so before his death. At first I thought this an odd and potentially dull way to start a story but actually it works well. Not only does it provide a good summary of how things stand – bringing the reader immediately into the heart of the story – but gives a clear sense of how dire things are for Harriet Vane. It looks impossible that she will avoid the hangman’s noose and the reader can’t help but want to know how the seemingly impenetrable case will be turned on its head (as we all know it is sure to be).

Which is where our master sleuth enters the fray. For reasons that I don’t think are ever provided (or if so I missed them) Wimsey has been watching the trial. He is convinced of Vane’s innocence and reveals, when he wrangles a visit to the prisoner, that he has also fallen for her. As far as this goes he is rebuffed fairly stiffly, being the 47th person to propose marriage since Vane has been accused of the murder, but he does not let that dissuade him from his quest to prove her innocence. With the aid of his butler, a sympathetic police inspector of his acquaintance and his own typing agency of women who can turn their hand to many things, the impossible task is tackled with vigour and creativity.

What follows is a little uneven. For example we spend, for my liking, way too much time learning how one of Wimsey’s agency women inveigles her way into a key player’s life by pretending to speak to (or for?) the dead, but for the most part the story is engaging in the way it picks apart each of the pillars of the prosecution’s case. Sayers has managed to make this suspenseful even though no one can be in any doubt that Vane isn’t going to die at the end of it all and that is not an accomplishment to be sneezed at.

There is also a strong sense of Sayers’ undoubted feminist streak. I’m not convinced that Wimsey is really as enlightened as we are presumably meant to believe. When he proposes marriage for example he does so on the basis that Harriet would be different from the “ordinary kind [of wife] that is only keen on clothes and people“. But the women of this story make their presence felt despite Wimsey’s near-omnipotence. Although she hardly appears Harriet herself is a strong character – not only making her way in the world without the aid of a man – but failing to succumb to Wimsey’s charms. I was quite pleased that this thread did not resolve in the way that might have been expected and not only due to my dislike of Wimsey.

English actress Jane McDowell read this story to me very entertainingly and I must admit I am tempted to let her read me the next instalment of the Wimsey/Vane storyline even though I don’t particularly like the man himself.  There is much delight in hearing great dialogue spoken properly and Sayers does have some terrific passages here (mostly the ones without the made up words). So perhaps I it turns out I can enjoy a book even if I don’t like its main character.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Jane McDowell
Publisher This edition Hodder & Stoughton 2015 [original edition 1930]
ASIN B00SC60554
Length 8 hours 37 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #6 in the Peter Wimsey series

Posted in blog spotlight, Dorothy L. Sayers, England | 6 Comments

Review: A DEADLY CAMBODIAN CRIME SPREE by Shamini Flint

adeadlycambodiancrimespree2308_fOne of the delusions publishing houses appear to suffer from these days is that a book has to be depressing to be taken seriously. To be considered really good. In the world of police procedurals this often means at least a couple of these characteristics: a dysfunctional detective with an addiction or two, a location beset by months of darkness, gruesome crime scenes (usually involving the mutilated bodies of young women) and a portion of the tale seen through the eyes of the killer. Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh series offers none of these qualities but I would argue it’s just as serious – and just as good – as crime fiction gets.

Here Flint sends her irascible Singaporean Inspector to Cambodia where he is to have a ‘watching brief’ over an International War Crimes Tribunal on behalf of ASEAN which wishes to demonstrate its solidarity with Cambodia. Really it is a way for Singh’s Superintendent to keep his irksome subordinate out of the way for a while and Singh is not happy about the prospect of having nothing practical to do. He does not see himself as a thumb twiddling observer. In fact

It was Singh’s life mission to tramp after the murderers in his snowy white sneakers, following the evidence and his instincts, ignoring the advice and warnings of his superiors, stopping only for regular meals, cold beer and the odd afternoon nap, until he had ensured some justice for the dead.

It is not unreasonable then that Singh is irritated at being taken away from his ‘real’ work. But as fate would have it one of the witnesses at the Trial is murdered and Singh, who has already befriended Colonel Menhay, the military policeman in charge of security at the Tribunal complex, is invited to be a joint leader of the subsequent investigation along with the Colonel. With the help of Singh’s reluctant translator Chhean they attempt to find a motive and perpetrator for the witness’ murder before the entire war crimes process is abandoned due to fears about security.

The story takes place about 30 years after the Khmer Rouge’s horrendously bloody reign over Cambodia ended but the country and its people are a long way from recovery. Flint teases out the various ways people individually and collectively are grappling with their memories, their loss, their anger, their guilt. And, for those like the man on trial, their self-righteous indignation that anyone dares question their right to have behaved as they did. If it had nothing else to offer the book would be worth reading for providing these accessible insights into a difficult topic.

However the book has loads more to offer. The story itself is a cracker; proving several false ends as different characters attract suspicion and others try to influence the investigation’s outcome in one way or another. What I particularly love about the story though is that it never once takes the easy route. There are several plot threads that could provide the warm and fuzzy resolution that the novel’s bright cover and jaunty title font hint at but Flint doesn’t succumb to these temptations. Without being depressing purely for the sake of it, each thread is resolved realistically, occasionally with humour and, where necessary, incorporating the sadness that often accompanies traumatised people going about their fractured lives. The book also manages to show us the myriad shades of grey that come into play when exploring the nature of good vs evil or right vs wrong. As Inspector Singh muses when a resolution of sorts is at hand

It would have to do. In Cambodia, he feared, there were only small successes, no grand triumphs.

The Inspector is, as always, a delightful and surprisingly complex character. His foibles – such as his love of good food (something he struggles to find in Phnom Penh) – are on show but so are his basic humanity and his desire to see justice prevail. Here it is not always possible to discern which path will achieve that – or even what justice looks like – and Singh is really forced to struggle with his own morality on occasion. The characters new for this story – including the Colonel and Chhean the translator – are the kind who linger long after the book is finished.

I don’t know what else you could possibly want from a novel than an evocative setting, a genuinely thought provoking narrative and characters who worm their way into your heart. Even those who haven’t read earlier instalments of this series need not worry: this is a novel that stands entirely on its own. So, you’ve no excuse not to find yourself a copy.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Piatkus [2011]
ISBN 9780749953478
Length 310 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #4 in the Inspector Singh series

Posted in book review, Cambodia, Shamini Flint | 1 Comment

Books of the month: August 2016

Pick of the month

13PointPlanForAPerfectMurderThe truth of the sentiment it’s quality not quantity that counts really rings true for my August reading month. I only managed to finish 4 books but they were all decent (even the one with the really unlikable character). My pick of the month though is David Owen’s 13-POINT PLAN FOR THE PERFECT MURDER. It’s funny and clever and full of local (Tasmanian) colour and a ripping yarn.

The rest, in reading order 

  • Patricia Abbott – SHOT IN DETROIT (the book with the really unlikable character that I didn’t want to discuss because it revealed too much about me, it’s got great hooking-the-reader-in power and a very evocative setting)
  • Antonia Hodgson – THE DEVIL IN THE MARSHALSEA (a historical novel which takes us inside an 18th century debtor’s prison where being murdered doesn’t sound like the worst thing that can happen to you)
  • Arthur Upfield – DEATH OF A LAKE (my contribution to this month’s Crimes of the Century was this 1954 tale of a drowned man and the greedy sods who surrounded him)

All this month’s haul are worth reading and although they’re all quite different they’ve all got very evocative settings. I did some great virtual travelling this month🙂

Progress Towards 2016’s Bookish Goals

Challenge Goal Progress
Australian Women Writers Challenge Read 25 eligible books, review at least 20 of them Read and reviewed 11 books
Reading US Fiction Challenge Read 6 books by new to me authors set in different states of the US  4/6 achieved
Personal – Reduce TBR Have a TBR of 100 or less by the end of 2016 (starting point 145) TBR = 149 at end of month
Personal – Buy Australian Buy no physical or eBooks from non-Australian stores 1 this month, 3 in total this year
Personal – Read older books too Participate in at least 6 of the monthly Crimes of the Century challenges hosted at Past Offences  8/6 achieved
Personal – No Girl books Read no books with the word Girl in the title. Because meh.  0/0 achieved

I think we can all admit the “Reduce TBR” Challenge is a lost cause. I’m well over half-way through the year and have 4 more books awaiting me than I started off with, and am further away than ever from getting under the magic 100. Perhaps it’s time to accept reality on this front.

I caved on my Buy Australian goal and bought my next book club read (Zygmunt Miloszewski’s RAGE) in eBook format from Amazon because it was a full $25 cheaper than I could find it locally (in any format). So I guess we know how far my principles stretch. I’ve paid up to $15 more for a book locally than I could get it from overseas but $25 just seemed excessive. I’m not made of money.

Although I read two books by Aussies during the month they were both by blokes so I’m now a bit worried about my AWW challenge goal. I’ve got a tonne of eligible titles to read though, just need to find the hours.

At this point though it’s looking like I’ll only manage to achieve 2 of my 6 reading goals for the year. But I’m not losing any sleep over the matter, don’t worry🙂

Bits and Pieces

ResurrectionBayViskicIn case you missed the excitement last weekend winners of two sets of awards for Australian crime writing were announced. Head over to Fair Dinkum Crime for a full list of the winners. Here I’ll just highlight the winners of the two main awards: Emma Viskic’s RESURRECTION BAY won the Davitt award for best Adult novel (a decision I wholeheartedly endorse though it’s a bit unfair of me as I haven’t read all the shortlisted novels) and Dave Warner won the Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction with BEFORE IT BREAKS (which I have not yet read but plan to).

And because I haven’t shared one in quite some time I thought I’d finish with a chart which accurately reflects my reading level this year, thanks mostly to cramming two full time jobs into one life for the last little while. Happily that’s all over now.

Pages Read August 2016

What about you? Did you have a great read during August? Anything good coming up for September? 

Posted in Antonia Hodgson, Arthur Upfield, books of the month, David Owen (Aus), Emma Viskic (Aus), Patricia Abbott | 8 Comments

Review: THE DEVIL IN THE MARSHALSEA by Antonia Hodgson

TheDevilInTheMarshalsea28224_fIf, like me, you have something of a phobia of going to prison then you might want to take care when picking up THE DEVIL IN THE MARSHALSEA. Even though it describes events taking place nearly 300 years ago, its worryingly realistic and brutal depiction of prison life gave me more than one nightmare and I’ve never been quite so glad to be reading rather than experiencing.

It’s jolly good though.

It tells the story of Tom Hawkins: parson’s son, spendthrift, gambler, rake and reluctant amateur sleuth. In 1727 he almost manages to avoid being consigned to the Marshalsea – London’s debtor’s prison – through some successful last minute gambling but is attacked, has his winnings stolen and cannot avoid his fate. Once inside his one hope of legitimate escape – and even of avoiding the worst section of the prison where those without influential friends or money are packed like sardines until they die of some horrendous illness – is to discover who murdered Captain Roberts in the prison some days earlier. Captain Roberts’ ghost is said to haunt the prison which is causing unrest amongst the inmates and his wife is still living there while trying to prove her husband didn’t commit suicide which is making things awkward for the institution’s Governor.

The book won the CWA Historical Dagger Award in 2014 and it’s not hard to see why. The countless hours of research are evident, though well-hidden, in hundreds of small and mostly horrific details of sights, sounds and smells that Hodgson evokes. Even without the explanatory afterward it’s clear that this is the best kind of historical fiction, weaving facts and make-believe so that the reader can’t see the boundaries but ‘feels’ the authenticity in every word.

The characterisations too are larger than life. It is impossible not to fall for Tom Hawkins at least a little bit, even though he is a cad at times and makes the worst decision possible in almost every scenario life puts before him. But he is honourable, in his way. And bloody funny. I’ll forgive a lot of foibles if you make me laugh. The people he knows and meets are equally well-drawn and it’s never clear who Tom – or readers – can trust which is quite delicious. His cellmate – Samuel Fleet – for example is almost universally despised and thought by many to be Captain Roberts’ murderer. He plays a cruel trick on Tom that nearly gets him killed. But even so there is something to like about him. There are others too many to do justice to here but many of them have stayed with me long after I finished the book which is always a good sign.

The mystery itself is probably the book’s weakest element, though that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Merely that the other aspects of the book take precedence. At least for me. Perhaps this is in part because stories in which the protagonist is in nearly constant mortal danger are not my favourites. I think heroes of this type have limited scope for growth (which is why I’m not overly keen to read this book’s successor which sees Tom charged with murder and, presumably, having to again free himself from near-certain death). The resolution though is very satisfying and not easily predictable and there are plenty of twists and turns before we get there.

THE DEVIL IN THE MARSHALSEA is not for the feint of heart. Its language is often blue and the horrors it describes are much more unsettling than the average serial killer book’s because they are so much a part of daily life. Honestly I don’t know how anyone came out of such a place as Hodgson’s Marshalsea alive let alone with their sanity in tact. I was sleeping with the lights on just reading about it. But if historical romps and loveable rogues are your kind of thing then I highly recommend you give this one a go.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Hodder & Stoughton [2014]
ISBN 9781444775440
Length 401 pages
Format eBook (Kindle)
Book Series #1 in the Tom Hawkins series

Posted in Antonia Hodgson, book review, England | 4 Comments