Books of the month: July 2016

Pick of the month

TheDryHarperAudioJuly was a really slow reading month for me with only 6 books completed (or 949 pages + 24.5 hours of listening). But I still managed to find some gems including debut novel THE DRY from Jane Harper. Anyone who’s lived through drought will feel the authenticity of Harper’s setting – a small Australian town at the mercy of the weather – and there’s a great story and characters to back it up. The story starts with the apparent murder suicide of a local farming family before revealing layer upon layer of secrets. If you happen to be an audio book fan I highly recommend the narration by voice artist Steve Shanahan: a complete treat.

The rest, in reading order 

  • *Ellery Adams & Parker Riggs – A TREACHEROUS TRADER
  • *Ellery Adams & Parker Riggs – A DEVIOUS LOT

For pure escapism I’ve been working my way through this series featuring a writer for an antiques & collectibles magazine. They’re cosy reads that don’t talk down to readers and I enjoy that each one is set in different parts of the US and/or focuses on different types of collecting (the intrepid heroine even makes to England in A Devious Lot)

  • *Roger Monk – THE BANK MANAGER (set in 1950’s rural South Australia this is a terrific tale and highly recommended to those who prefer their mysteries without a lot of violence)
  • *Deborah Johnson – THE SECRET OF MAGIC (set in 1940’s Mississippi this book had a powerful opening depicting the murder of a black man returning from WWII but I was a bit disappointed by the rest of it, though I am in the minority)
  • *A.E. Martin’s COMMON PEOPLE (my contribution for this month’s Crimes of the Century my 1944 book was set in the world of Carnival folk and I thoroughly enjoyed it)

anything with an asterisk is worth a read.

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 = 145 at end of month
Personal – Buy Australian Buy no physical or eBooks from non-Australian stores None this month, 2 this year
Personal – Read older books too Participate in at least 6 of the monthly Crimes of the Century challenges hosted at Past Offences  7/6 achieved
Personal – No Girl books Read no books with the word Girl in the title. Because meh.  0/0 achieved

I’m going over-the-top with my personal challenge to participate in at least 6 Crimes of the Century challenges and am really enjoying it so will keep going. I’ve got another Arthur Upfield title lined up for August (which is focusing on the year 1954, why don’t you join in?). I like that I’m getting motivated to track down Australian titles.

I think now I should be able to finish the Reading USA Fiction challenge this year with only 2 books to go and 5 months in which to find them. Though at this stage I think it’s going to take me a couple of decades to make my way virtually around the US.

I’m not having too much trouble staying away from Girl books either.

That leaves my AWW challenge and reducing my TBR looking like the only shaky bookish goals left. August will be no less chaotic in my non-bookish life than July was so I doubt I’ll get on top of either goal this month. But we’re supposed to be having fun here right? So I’m not really all that bothered.

Coming Up

I’ve got a load of Australian titles staring at me from the nightstand…including some review titles I promised to take a look at. I should also be getting stuck into Peter May’s COFFIN ROAD for my book club. I like Peter May’s writing so I don’t know what’s putting me off getting hold of a copy. Aside from the fact I still have as many unread books in my own possession as I did at the start of the year (of the 53 books I’ve read so far this year only 12 of them were ones I owned before 1 January, I ought to be slapped).

And then there’s the book that’s been troubling me – forcing me to confront some things about myself that I’d rather not confront. I mentioned I had started it during last month’s Books of the Month wrap up and I’ll admit I set it aside for a couple of weeks before deciding to re-start it. I don’t mind giving up on a book that isn’t good or isn’t to my taste, but I’m less comfortable doing so simply because I don’t like what my reaction to a book says about me. So you’ll be hearing about this one shortly.

What about you? Did you have a great read during July? Anything good coming up for August? It seems to be literary awards season the world over, does that affect your reading? 

Posted in A.E. Martin (Aus), books of the month, Deborah Johnson, Ellery Adams, Jane Harper (Aus), Roger Monk (Aus) | 6 Comments

Review: THE SECRET OF MAGIC by Deborah Johnson

TheSecretOfMagicDeborah27923UDKH_fTHE SECRET OF MAGIC has one of the strongest opening chapters I’ve read in a long time. Set in 1946 it depicts the attempted homecoming of a decorated Lieutenant who has a head full of nightmares from the battlefields of WWII. Joe Howard Wilson is desperate to see his father, to retreat to the familiar, to heal. But Joe Howard is black and when he is told he must give up his seat on the bus that is meant to take him home in favour of German prisoners of war – they’re white after all – he baulks at the injustice. And is subsequently murdered.

The opening made me cry. Not just because it is heart-wrenching itself or because I read it during a time when I could be forgiven for thinking the world hasn’t moved on much at all in 70 years. But because it is so well written. Only a few pages but they pack a punch; offering striking imagery, engaging character establishment and managing to set a powerful expectation for what is to come.

The rest of the book was something of a disappointment.

I’ve debated whether or not to write this review. I have found that it is usually better to say nothing than be drawn into the kind of unwinnable argument such sentiments often create.  Perhaps it’s the way I do it but more often than not people think I’m siding with the “baddies” when I express a negative sentiment about a book (or movie or whatever) that explores a deeply traumatising event or element of history. For example when I remarked that I didn’t think 12 Years a Slave was as good a movie as all its hype had suggested someone I know asked how I could be supportive of slavery. The same person would undoubtedly think I support the killing of random black people if he knew I think THE SECRET OF MAGIC flawed too. I feel like it’s possible to separate my position on the real-world themes and history being depicted from the elements that make up a book. But maybe not? Or maybe I’m doing it wrong.

In support of my premise I’ll have ago. At talking about what I found disappointing about the book rather than what I do or don’t think about systemic racism.

The book felt like a bunch of set pieces, each one with the aim of reinforcing the notion that racism was rampant in Mississippi in the 40’s and racism is bad. Just to be clear I’m not arguing with any of that and am in no doubt that many horrendous things were done to black people in Mississippi in the 40’s for no other reason than white people could get away with doing them. But a work of fiction has to offer more than reportage. Doesn’t it? Surely it is meant to engage on another level too. Even if it has a really, really important message. As a reader I want to be kept interested in a story and its characters not just browbeaten or transported back to school.

Part of the reason the book didn’t work for me was its inclusion of a story within the story. One of the central characters – a white woman called M.P. Calhoun – is famous for having written a book many years ago in which black and white characters share adventures. Obviously that was a subversive concept for its time and so the book has a lot of importance for some of the characters. So this story, with magical realism overtones, is incorporated across the scope of the book via extract after extract. All of which completely failed to grab me. I found these passages repetitive and rambly and thought they contributed heavily to the slow pace of the narrative while not adding anything much to my understanding of the wider issues the author was addressing.

For me too the balance of historical fact and fiction was not right; too much of the former and too little of the latter. I think for example it’s difficult to use big, important names from history in this kind of fiction such as Johnson’s inclusion of Thurgood Marshall, founder of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, here. The man is legendary (even down here at the bottom of the world) and revered so there are great limitations on what you can do with such a character within a work of fiction. Authors who I think more successfully deploy real people in their fictional worlds either use lesser known names or place a more famous person in a time or place at which they weren’t yet known. Using Thurgood during the early years of the Legal Defense Fund did not provide much scope for creativity.

I did enjoy the depiction of Mary Pickett Calhoun: white and privileged yet the one who invites the NAACP to Revere Mississippi to investigate Joe Howard’s death. Her reasons for doing so are complex and the way the question of whether she really wants Regina Robichard – the black, female lawyer sent from New York – to find answers or only appear to be doing something is teased out across the novels offers a genuinely grey element to the novel. Everything and everyone else is, pardon the pun, too black and white for me.

I’m not suggesting THE SECRET OF MAGIC is a terrible book. But nor is it one that I will remember with fondness (or anger or any other strong emotion) as I imagined I would after that opening chapter. Nor do I mean to make light of the real world events on which it is based or the obvious personal connection the author has to many of its elements. But if it is permissible to set all that aside and just talk about whether or not the book ‘worked’ for me then it didn’t. I found its predictability and its focus on facts and teaching rather than engagement of the reader (at least this reader) on a creative level a struggle. It took me nearly three weeks to read and then it was only the promise of a glass of red when I finished that made me plough through the last 60 or so pages. Reading shouldn’t feel like taking medicine.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

USAFictionChallengeButtonThis is the twelfth 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 Fig Tree [2014]
ISBN 9780241004005
Length 400 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

Posted in book review, Deborah Johnson, USA | 4 Comments

Books of the month: June 2016

Pick of the month

This month had several contenders for my favourite read but I’ve managed to narrow it down to two and for the same reasons: they’ve stood the test of time and have been given a second life by small publishing houses.

TheChimneyMurderE.M Channon’s THE CHIMNEY MURDER was first published in 1929 and I only found a copy because it was re-released a couple of years ago by a delightful, independent press. What I loved about the book – in which a dismembered body is discovered scattered about an English family’s house – were its feminine heroines and its surprisingly modern sensibility. I’ve been participating fairly regularly in the Past Offences Crimes of the Century challenge for a couple of years now and have had mixed success on the quality front but it’s been worth the awful reads to find a gem like this one, which I never would have bothered to look for if I hadn’t been looking for books published in particular years.

Australian author Jean Bedford’s NOW YOU SEE ME is newer, first published in 1997, but also only came to my attention because of a re-release this year thanks to a different independent press. It is a dark but compelling story that centres on child abuse and its horrendous consequences. Although the content is very graphic it’s not gratuitous and I found myself accepting the author’s intent even if I might have made different choices myself.

In essence then my pick of the month is the wonderful publishers like Greyladies and Endeavour who scour the world’s out-of-print titles and bring the good ones back to life.

The rest, in reading order 

I’d hoped to pick up my reading pace a bit in June but international visitors, end of the financial year madness at my day job and wanting to bury my head in totally mindless television to escape election madness here and overseas meant I didn’t do nearly as much reading as I ought to have done

  • *FOREIGN ECLAIRS by Julie Hyzy (no review, but an entertaining continuation of this cosy series set in the White House kitchens)
  • *DEADLY DEALER by Ellery Adams (another enjoyable cosy audio book which pitted a niche journalist against people who collect)
  • THE TRAP by Melanie Raabe is about an agoraphobic author who lures the man she thinks killed her sister a dozen years ago to her home – I didn’t think much of it but everyone in my book club enjoyed it much more than I did so perhaps I am wrong
  • *THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE by Lou Berney was recommended to me by frequent visitor to crime fiction blogs Kathy D. for the state of Oklahoma in my quest to read a book by a new-to-me author from every state in the USA. It’s a fantastic novel about the past, its hold on us, the slipperiness of memory and the nature of obsession.
  • *THE LIGHT ON THE WATER by Olga Lorenzo is the tenth book I’ve read for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge and it is an outstanding character study of a woman whose autistic daughter disappears on a hiking trip. I loved the way Lorenzo writes.

anything with an asterisk is worth a read.

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 10 books
Reading US Fiction Challenge Read 6 books by new to me authors set in different states of the US  3/6 achieved
Personal – Reduce TBR Have a TBR of 100 or less by the end of 2016 (starting point 145) TBR = 142 at end of month
Personal – Buy Australian Buy no physical or eBooks from non-Australian stores None this month, 2 this year
Personal – Read older books too Participate in at least 6 of the monthly Crimes of the Century challenges hosted at Past Offences  6/6 achieved
Personal – No Girl books Read no books with the word Girl in the title. Because meh.  0/0 achieved

In positive news I have completed my personal challenge to participate in at least 6 Crimes of the Century challenges and there are still 6 months of the year left. Assuming I can find something interesting to read each month I will continue and will be reading Australian author A.E. Martin’s MURDER IN SIDESHOW ALLEY for the 1944 challenge this month.

The rest of my challenges are looking shakier, though there is still hope for the Reading USA Fiction challenge and I do have another book recommended by Kathy D. for the state of Mississippi to read this month. I think my only hope of reducing the TBR to under 100 books by the end of the year is to do some more culling of my collection and I’m worried I won’t be able to read 15 more books by Aussie women writers in the second half of the year. Though I do have at least 2 more lined up for July.

Coming Up

I’ve just started listening to Patricia Abbott’s second full length novel SHOT IN DETROIT and am selfishly delighted by at least one aspect of it. A swag of library book requests all came in at once last week so I’ll be knuckling down to those, starting with a local Adelaide author’s second historical novel dealing with 1950’s banking and crime.

Off to vote now. I should be happier about having the opportunity – many people fought very hard and some died so I could – but as some local commentator or comedian put it this week our choice is akin to being starving only to be presented with two meals you’re allergic to. But it’s compulsory here in Australia so off I must go, at least I can listen to my audio book while I queue up.

What about you? Did you have a great read during June? Anything good coming up for July? Do the seasons affect your reading? Are you looking forward to some summer beach reads or some winter warmers? 

Posted in books of the month, E.M. Channon, Ellery Adams, Jean Bedford (Aus), Julie Hyzy, Lou Berney, Melanie Raabe, Olga Lorenzo (Aus) | 5 Comments

Review: THE LIGHT ON THE WATER by Olga Lorenzo

TheLightOnTheWaterOlga27963_fTHE LIGHT ON THE WATER is the story of Anne Baxter and I can’t introduce her plight better than her creator does in the opening pages

How could it have come to this? No signpost ever pointed here. The idea would have been laughable. Anne Baxter a former journalist with the city’s leading newspaper, once married to a senior barrister. A tuckshop volunteer at her children’s preschool, a fete organiser. A woman born to be a mother. Yet here she is, in a prison cell in Ravenhall, peering back along a winding road. Craning her head, trying to see which was the first in a series of ill-considered turns.

I love that Lorenzo can say so much about a character and why we might be interested in reading about her in so few words. Other writers would take a chapter or more to lay out all the facts and hints of things to come that we glean from that paragraph. The rest of the writing is just as good. Just as spare. Just as purposeful. I’ve tucked lots of snippets and sentences away in my “words I love” file.

Anne’s sin – or crime – or situation – is that her youngest daughter, Aida, has disappeared. Or was murdered by Anne depending on who you believe. While they were hiking Wilsons Promontory (a national park just outside Melbourne). Aida is autistic. Difficult to manage. Was that reason enough for her mother to kill her? Or does it explain how an eight year old can be here one minute, gone the next, with no human intervention?

Although there is a resolution of sorts on the subject of what happened to Aida I don’t think the book is about that. It’s about Anne. It is an exploration of her life. An exploration of that notion that Lorenzo has introduced early on – how did a ‘good’ life turn so horribly wrong? It jumps backwards and forwards to points before Aida’s disappearance as well as the period following. Despite the haphazard nature of this time shifting we’re never in any doubt whether it is ‘before’ – when life was normal-ish – or ‘after’ – when Anne is living a kind of half-life “jammed between grief and guilt“. And whenever we are Lorenzo doesn’t allow us to lose sight of the book’s central question: what led to Anne’s current situation and was there a single point at which a different choice could have produced an alternate outcome?

As a character study the book is outstanding, not least because Anne is not always sympathetic or likeable. I don’t mean there are times when I felt I had licence to be judgmental of her perceived poor mothering skills as some of the book’s minor characters are (her mothering skills are not, in my opinion, up for debate) but there are times when Anne – like all of us – behaves irrationally or says silly things. Or does something that had me screaming “nooooooooo” out loud in the way I do whenever someone in a horror movie runs up stairs to escape. But this is all good. Lorenzo has not tried to portray Anne as saint or sinner. Just an ordinary woman. Who’s had some rough times, some good luck, made some mistakes, and gone through what must be the worst experience any parent can do.

Overall only the hardest of hearts could fail to empathise with Anne’s circumstances. The depiction of her mental state – slowly unravelling as it would inevitably do in the circumstances – is truly haunting

Losing a child, she thinks as she pours a coffee, is a terrible plunging, like water falling from a great height. You find yourself falling and falling – endlessly plummeting. Screaming as you go down. And then, at some point, you stop screaming. It’s not that you’ve become used to any of it. The horror is still there, lurking behind any temporary respite. You keep falling, a terrifying tumbling. But at times you forget to scream.

And though they might pale into insignificance when stacked up against the loss of a child the other horrors she endures – imprisonment, humiliation by strangers and the erratic, almost sinister behaviour of her sister – are equally well depicted. Sometimes a little too well. As someone who’s had an inexplicable but lifelong morbid fear of being imprisoned I felt physically ill during one particular passage of the book and then lay awake all night pondering whether we should be putting anyone – even actual criminals let alone people awaiting bail as Anne is doing – through such indignities. That’s the downside of good writing I guess.

Lorenzo also explores the way people react to Anne’s situation. Some – liker her older daughter, ex husband and best friend – are kind and supportive. Even if they have doubts. But some – including many strangers – behave appallingly. Without knowing anything more than the scraps of half-truths and complete bullshit they’ve gleaned from media headlines they spit or curse or send death threats. Sadly this element of the novel is as believable as the rest and does not leave the reader with a rosy picture of humankind.

This isn’t a book for everyone. If you went looking for a fast-paced, action-heavy plot you would be disappointed. This is much more a character driven novel and though there is a story arc it is definitely not the primary element and at times fades into the background. I don’t think it’s crime fiction either, though two of the three fellow participants of the Australian Women Writers Challenge who have reviewed it have labelled it as such. In a recent discussion on ABC’s The Book Club Emily Maguire’s AN ISOLATED INCIDENT was criticised for not being the psychological thriller its publicity material claimed it to be, and to me THE LIGHT ON THE WATER lies even further afield. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it, merely that it doesn’t conform to any of the tropes of the genre and setting people up with expectations that it does won’t help it find the right audience. But although plot-driven crime fiction is generally my favourite kind of reading I thought THE LIGHT ON THE WATER brilliant. I can’t quite bring myself to say I enjoyed it – Anne’s story is so very, very sad – but I was utterly captivated by it. By her. And by Lorenzo’s mastery of the language.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

AWW2016This is the tenth book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Allen & Unwin [2016]
ISBN 978192566542
Length 352 pages
Format eBook (iBooks)
Book Series standalone

Posted in Australia, book review, Olga Lorenzo (Aus) | 4 Comments

Review: THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE by Lou Berney

TheLongAndFarawayGoneLo27931_fTHE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE is the story of two people and their pasts. Wyatt Rivers was still in high school when the Oklahoma City movie theatre at which he was working was robbed at gunpoint one night in August 1986. All the other staff were shot and killed but Wyatt didn’t have a single physical injury when police found him lying amidst the bodies. In 2012 Wyatt is a private investigator in Las Vegas and has spent his entire life trying to forget. Trying not to ponder the unanswerable question: why is he still here and all the others gone?

Julianna Rosales was 12 when, about a month after the movie cinema incident, her 17 year old sister left her alone at the State Fair with $10 to spend and the promise that she would be back in just 15 minutes. Before it got dark dark. Genevieve, a ‘bad girl’ by most people’s definitions and beautiful to boot, disappeared that night. Initially thought to have run away but at some point presumed dead, though her body has never been found. Still living in Oklahoma City Julianna is now a nurse with as much of a normal life as she can fit in around her obsession. How could Genevieve leave her alone?

This is a book for lovers of great characters. Wyatt and Julianna are, at least on the surface, very different people but both totally captivated me. I sometimes find that when a book’s perspective is shared I am more interested in one person’s story and can be resentful when I am pulled out of my favourite character’s thread but here I was equally engrossed in both characters. Wyatt is funny and self-deprecating and has really tried to move beyond the event that marked his life by changing his name and moving around a lot. Julianna on the other hand is more intense with a darker strain of humour and cannot seem to let go of the search for her sister, even briefly. They are used to depict two different ways of dealing with (or not) traumatic events though we see by the end that they are more similar than they appear. I’m not ashamed to admit that I am a little bit in love with both of them. There are some terrific minor characters too, with my favourite being Candace: a cocktail waitress who inherits a run down live music venue from an ‘old guy’ (he’s 50) who everyone assumes she slept with. Her interactions with Wyatt – who is hired by one of her relatives to investigate the weird harassment she has been enduring – are a highlight of the novel.

This also a book for lovers of great stories. I gave up thinking I knew where the narrative was going after the first couple of chapters and I’d gotten about three major plot points completely wrong. There is genuine surprise and suspense here but it never feels like the reader is being manipulated. There’s no obvious withholding of information or obfuscation of facts and both mysteries unfold entirely naturally. The resolutions to the mysteries of each main character are both very satisfying even though neither is dramatic or the sort of thing traditional crime fiction readers might expect.

The musical and the bombing is about all I knew of Oklahoma before reading this book but I feel like I could at least recognise Oklahoma City if I were to visit now. Partly this is down to Berney’s excellent depiction of the place both past and present, and partly because I see a familiarity in a city of similar size and background to my own. Places built on the backs of energy companies, where sports reign supreme in the local consciousness and about which no one who doesn’t live there gives a second thought unless there is a crime so horrendous that they’re forced to pay attention for a moment. It is particularly interesting to see the city through Wyatt’s eyes as he left soon after the shooting her survived and hasn’t been back since. The changes that time and the revitalisation efforts which followed the Murrah building bombing are starkly obvious to him.

THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE is a book about the slipperiness of memory and surviving tragedy however you can. Its characters are flawed but not fatally and their struggles are captivating at least in part because they are accompanied by a healthy dose of humour. Finding books like this is what I dared to hope for when I embarked upon my virtual tour of the USA through its fiction. Lou Berney is a keeper.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

USAFictionChallengeButtonThis is the eleventh 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 William Morrow [2015]
ISBN 9780062292438
Length 454 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

Posted in book review, Lou Berney, USA | 5 Comments

Review: THE CHIMNEY MURDER by E.M. Channon

TheChimneyMurderI was recently alerted to the existence of Greyladies Press which gloriously claims to publish ‘well-mannered books by ladies long gone’. I was powerless to resist and immediately purchased two books and then coerced gently persuaded the host of the Crimes of the Century reading challenge to choose one of the years in which my new purchases had been published for this month’s challenge. And so I embarked upon another new-to-me author’s work in E.M. (Ethel Mary) Channon’s THE CHIMNEY MURDER, originally published in 1929, and promptly fell in love with the decidedly delightful book. It is on the face of it one of those restrained domestic stories that English mystery writing of the era is so well-known for but underneath its polite veneer the book borders on revolutionary.

It centres on two households living side-by-side in the type of outer London suburb/village that seems to populate a certain kind of novel. The Binn family is dominated by J Harbottle Binn (only his feckless brother ever calls him by his hated first name of Jabez). He is an angry, bullying, occasionally violent man whose long-suffering wife Selina and adult children Cynthia and Adrian are normally at pains to ensure that everything is to his liking so as to avoid as much of his wrath as they can. But in an act of family treason Cynthia and Adrian arrange a day-long birthday treat for their mother in which the three of them, along with their neighbour Marian Marley and her son Stephen, are to head to Windsor for sightseeing and picnicking. This adventure is to be undertaken entirely without their father’s knowledge, even after the event, as one of his many draconian rules is that their house must never be left unattended. A wonderful time is in fact enjoyed by all – especially Cynthia and Stephen who find a few moments to declare their love for each other. The next day Adrian determines to light a fire in the drawing room – even though it is only September and their father will be angry at such profligacy – but struggles with the task, producing more smoke than warmth. It soon transpires that a human arm wrapped in newspaper has been stuffed into the Binn’s chimney. And so begins the family’s descent into public infamy and personal chaos.

Although I was never in much doubt regarding who the arm (and other body parts subsequently located) belonged to nor even who had put them there, I still found THE CHIMNEY MURDER very engaging as there are plenty of other mysteries to uncover and I was caught up in seeing how the various players responded to the succession of alarming events that disrupt their lives. But even though it is solidly entertaining the story is not this book’s real strength. That lies in its rather marvellous characters who evolve very intelligently which is not something I’d necessarily expect from a decades-old whodunit. The stars are its two apparently downtrodden wives who turn out to be much stronger than anyone (even themselves?) would have thought possible.

Selina Binn has been bullied and verbally abused by her husband for years and initially presents as you might surmise based on that. She even lets her children cajole her into the birthday outing which she knows she ought not to participate in because she is so used to doing what others tell her. But when things turn sour – it’s not much of a spoiler to say that Harbottle Binn becomes a suspect in what the newspapers call the chimney murder – Selina comes into her own. Not only does she show us that her marriage has more to it than just ‘the bully and the doormat’ element, reminding us that we should never rush to judgement based on what we think we know about other people’s lives, but she demonstrates real strength of character and ultimately turns the tables – ever so politely – on her husband. Honestly I felt like standing up and cheering at a couple of points. Marian Marley is tested in different ways – living in penury for most of her life before learning a horrendous secret about her husband that has lasting consequences for her own future – but she too refuses to let this grind her down.

I’m often found lamenting the depiction of female characters in my classic crime reading so it was an utter delight to discover such well-rounded and feisty women in a book that’s not far off a hundred years old. The men are not left out of the character development stakes though as Adrian too is shown learning to stand up to his bully of a father. Mr Binn meanwhile undergoes the opposite kind of metamorphosis and that too is sensitively depicted.

There are plenty of things which remind the reader that the events being depicted in THE CHIMNEY MURDER are taking place in 1929, not least of which are the social attitudes on display, but the book never feels dated. Indeed at times it seems to have a thoroughly modern sensibility. Partly this is due to the presence of my two newest literary heroines (and Cynthia too who is no slouch in the standing up for herself stakes) but there are other elements including an undercurrent of really clever humour. For example there’s a minor thread involving the Binn’s other next door neighbour who is a malicious gossip but the police inspector working on the case puts her in her place very smartly in a scene guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of anyone who’s ever encountered such a gossip.

In short I completely adored my first foray into the output of the Greyladies publishing house and can thoroughly recommend THE CHIMNEY MURDER to those who enjoy a classic crime novel with heart and humour and some truly memorable characters.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Greyladies [2012]
ISBN 9781907503177
Length 213 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

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Posted in book review, E.M. Channon, England | Tagged | 8 Comments

Review: THE TRAP by Melanie Raabe

TheTrapRaabeAudioOf the many superlative-laden review snippets that adorn THE TRAP’s page at its local publisher’s website is this one

A fast, twisty read for fans of Paula Hawkins and Gillian Flynn.

Alas I’ve given up reading book publicity material prior to embarking on a book otherwise I might have seen this and saved myself the bother given that I hated Paula Hawkins’ book and didn’t even bother finishing Flynn’s. Though as THE TRAP was my book club’s choice this month I suppose I would have had a go even if I had seen this off putting sentiment.

To be fair I think THE TRAP is better than GONE GIRL ON A TRAIN but for me it’s a pretty low bar and I couldn’t go so far as to recommend it.

I was keen to get started on this one because I like to travel virtually via crime fiction and haven’t read much set in Germany, especially not modern novels. But almost all of the action in THE TRAP takes place inside the imagination of the story’s narrator or the house she hasn’t left for nearly a dozen years. A very occasional reference to a Munich street name is about all we get in the way of German sensibility. Insular settings can provide a powerful sense of place in their own right (I’m still having nightmares about the house in Dame Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE) but not in this case. I have no real sense of the house in which the story’s narrator – author Linda Conrads – has spent so many years of her life and her imagination – which is depicted via a story within the story – is even less successfully realised.

The conceit of THE TRAP is that Linda’s sister Anna was murdered 12 years earlier. Linda discovered her sister’s body shortly after her death and believes she caught a glimpse of the killer but no one has ever been caught for the crime. In the present day Linda sees a well-known journalist on television and is convinced that he is the one she saw on the day of her sister’s murder. For reasons that frankly still baffle me Linda determines that the only way to ensure that his role in her sister’s death becomes known to the world is for her to write a crime novel with a plot based on her sister’s murder and then invite the journalist to come to her home and interview her as part of the book’s publicity campaign. As you do.

Perhaps this premise sounded good in the movie’s novel’s pitch meeting but I don’t think it stood up to being fleshed out. Everything that happens is telegraphed too early and too obviously, many of the events are entirely unbelievable and the twists are really not all that imaginative. It read more like a made-for-television movie than the kind of crime novel I like to sink my teeth into. The fact that the fairly pedestrian storyline is effectively repeated via the story within the story – there are lengthy extracts from Linda’s novel Blood Sisters – just highlights the fact that there isn’t really a lot going on.

Like the protagonists of those wildly popular thrillers to which THE TRAP was compared in the quote above (and every second book on the market it seems to me) Linda is an unreliable narrator. Is she going just a little bit crazy in her self-imposed exile? There’s a room upstairs she refers to as Italy after all. And the story within the story – her fictionalised account of her sister’s murder – is equally suspect in terms of veracity. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of the unreliable narrator device but I can be swept along by it in the right circumstances. Sadly I think it’s particularly poorly executed here as Linda’s unreliability is all too obvious and I never felt at all invested in whether or not she was actually telling the truth. Surely the reader is meant to care about that? I found her under developed and thought many of her actions implausible which meant I never really ‘bought’ that she was anything other than words on a page (or on a hard disk in the case of my audio book).  Linda’s nemesis – the journalist – is also a one-dimensional, non-event.

So I admit that my claim this book is better than its Girlish comparisons is indeed damming with faint praise. I suspect if I’d been reading it in print I’d never have waded through to the end but at least in audio format I could occupy myself with chores and not feel my time being entirely wasted. As it is I did listen to the entire thing but I can’t imagine that in a month I’ll be able to remember a single thing about THE TRAP. There is simply nothing notable about it. The slow pace, clunky dialogue and under-cooked characters do not do nearly enough to deliver on the intrigue suggested by the premise.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Julie Teal
Translator Imogen Taylor
Publisher This edition Audible 2016
ASIN B01ATX7MWG
Length 10 hours 3 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone

Creative Commons Licence
This work by http://reactionstoreading.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Posted in book review, Germany, Melanie Raabe | 7 Comments

Books of the month: May 2016

Pick of the month

AnIsolatedIncidentMaguireAuthors who choose to subvert the tropes of much loved genres always take a big risk but in the case of AN ISOLATED INCIDENT Australian author Emily Maguire has been successful. Although it opens with the murder of a beautiful young woman this book does not focus on the elements you might expect based on that. There’s no italicised grabs of the killer’s thoughts or even much of a police perspective. It’s a book about the impact of violent death on loved ones and the impact of the violent death of pretty young girls on the wider community. It’s my favourite book of the year so far.

The rest, in reading order 

A bit of a light month both in terms of quantity and quality

  • Lynda La Plante – PRIME SUSPECT (a reverse adaptation in which the book was based on the television screenplay, and not a patch on the excellent original)
  • *Margaret Millar – AN AIR THAT KILLS (my Crimes of the Century book for this month was a 1957 tale of domestic suspense before that became ‘a thing’)
  • Fiona Barton – THE WIDOW (the latest hyped up novel to feature an unreliable female narrator; I didn’t like it as much as most people but found the journalist who shares the stage with the eponymous character a compelling voice)
  • Lindsay Tanner – COMFORT ZONE (a crime caper written by a former federal government minister this one missed the mark for me, it’s cute but too obvious to be really enjoyable)
  • *Jørn Lier Horst – THE CAVEMAN (the ultimate winner of this year’s Petrona Award, offers an interesting comparison between police and journalistic investigations)
  • *Agatha Christie – AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (evidence, if you need it, that Dame Christie wasn’t all about cosy drawing rooms and bloodless stories; this is a dark and brutal tale which has now been the subject of an excellent adaptation)
  • *C.J. Sansom – DARK FIRE (the second Matthew Shardlake novel which I didn’t get around to reviewing but did enjoy as much as the first, covering the period when Thomas Cromwell is losing his influence – and ultimately his head – the book pits Matthew and an unlikely accomplice against the powers of alchemy).

anything with an asterisk is worth a read

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 8 books
Reading US Fiction Challenge Read 6 books by new to me authors set in different states of the US  2/6 achieved
Personal – Reduce TBR Have a TBR of 100 or less by the end of 2016 (starting point 145) TBR = 143 at end of month
Personal – Buy Australian Buy no physical or eBooks from non-Australian stores FAIL. Bought 2.
Personal – Read older books too Participate in at least 6 of the monthly Crimes of the Century challenges hosted at Past Offences  5/6 achieved
Personal – No Girl books Read no books with the word Girl in the title. Because meh.  0/0 achieved

As mentioned last month I broke my self imposed rule and ordered 2 physical books from overseas. I console myself that they’re from the publisher directly – and a small one at that – rather than one of the big box stores I’m trying to avoid but still… Moira from Clothes in Books alerted me to the existence of Greyladies Press which publishes Well-Mannered Books by Ladies Long Gone and I ordered two titles (in my defence I could easily have ordered more but tried to show a level of restraint). I’ll be reading one of them, Ethel Mary Channon’s THE CHIMNEY MURDER, for June’s Crimes of the Century contribution as it was originally published in 1929.

Other than ‘Read Older Books Too‘ it’s looking increasingly shaky that I will be successful with my challenges this year but overall I am enjoying my reading and that is far more important. Right? Though winter is upon us here in the southern hemisphere and that is traditionally when my reading does pick up a bit, especially as I will start June with a week off work as I entertain overseas visitors, who will hopefully be at least a little jet-lagged and require much snoozing time:)

Other Stuff

If you happen to be a fan of podcasts and/or true crime you might want to check out the Bowraville series of podcasts from The Australian newspaper. If you listened to season one of Serial last year you’ll know that there has been an explosion in true crime podcasts since then but for my money this series of five podcasts is one of the few that matches Serial for journalism and dramatic narrative. Journalist Dan Box has investigated the still unsolved murders of three Aboriginal children from the same street in Bowraville over 25 years ago. It’s compelling stuff for all sorts of reasons, not least of which what it says about race relations in Australia.

Looking ahead…and a plea

USAFictionChallengeButtonIf anyone has recommendations for American crime novels set in states I have not yet visited virtually feel free to leave a comment or drop me a line via the sidebar. My personal twist on the Reading USA Fiction challenge is the books all have to be by new-to-me authors and you won’t know if your recommendation is that or not but I might give it a try anyway if your recommendation grabs me:)

To start June I am going to read Peter Hannington’s A DYING BREED thanks to a recommendation from Sarah at Crimepieces (and a personal love for books about journalism) and try to make inroads on the Australian Women Writers Challenge from my TBR mountain. I have another conundrum too as I was sent Derek B Miller’s latest novel for review. I would normally be eager to read the follow up to a book I loved but it is called THE GIRL IN GREEN and reading it would mean I fail at my ‘No Girl Books‘ challenge. Sigh.

What about you? Did you have a great read during May? Anything good coming up for June? Do the seasons affect your reading? Are you looking forward to some summer beach reads or some winter warmers? 

Posted in Agatha Christie, books of the month, C.J. Sansom, Emily Maguire (Aus), Fiona Barton, Jorn Lier Horst, Lindsay Tanner (Aus), Margaret Millar | 7 Comments

Book vs Adaptation: AND THEN THERE WERE NONE by Agatha Christie

Spoiler Warning: This post contains more information about the book’s plot than I normally would include but I felt unable to discuss some important issues without incorporating this. Naturally though I do not give away the ending.

Most discussions of Agatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE include the words masterpiece and best known work. I’m prepared to go with the majority on the first point but personal belief and my in-no-way-scientific ‘research’ (I asked a bunch of friends and acquaintances) suggests the second point might be bunkum.

The Book

AndThenThereWereNoneAt least in the introduction to the edition I read this time around Agatha Christie is reported to have said AND THEN THERE WERE NONE was her most difficult book to write. I can believe it. At its broadest level the plot is absurd and could easily have crossed the line from genuinely puzzling to preposterously stupid but Christie knew when to use bravado and when to be restrained so the story holds together remarkably well considering its intricacies. And it holds up too, only showing a few minor signs of its 75+ years.

Its premise is that 10 people are enticed to an island off the Devon coast with the promise of a job or a getaway or a catch-up with old acquaintances. After dinner on their first night they learn, via a sound recording made especially for the occasion, the real reason they are all there. Each is accused of having escaped justice for at least one death they have been responsible for in their past and they are now being called to account for their actions. No one takes the opportunity provided to speak in their own defence and shortly thereafter the weirdness kicks up a notch. Anthony Marston is the first person to die, after freely admitting that he killed two children while driving and revealing that his only feeling about the matter was annoyance at his loss of driving privileges. This first death is not immediately connected to the strange recording but when the bodies start piling up those left realise they are being knocked off one-by-one, each in a manner reminiscent of a nursery rhyme that is hanging in all the bedrooms.

One of the reasons I don’t think AND THEN THERE WERE NONE is Christie’s best known work is that if it were there would be less people – many of them other crime writers – who sniffily pigeonhole her as nothing more than a creator of ‘cosy’ logic puzzles. The book is neither ‘just’ a logic puzzle and there’s nothing cosy about it.

This story is seriously dark. Not just because there are a lot of deaths both on and off stage, many of them brutal, but because of its central theme. Christie has explored in depth the notion that all sorts of people are capable of murder, not only gangsters and n’er do wells. What’s more, the book posits, they don’t always need a terribly compelling reason to murder and are not always consumed by subsequent guilt. Not a single one of her alleged murderers has acted out of the ‘do anything to protect a loved-one’ kind of necessity. It’s all self-interest, revenge and greed here. One of the murders is often said to have been committed for love but I don’t buy it. Vera Claythorne, who contrives things so that the young boy for whom she is governess drowns in order for her own beau to inherit a fortune and marry her, is as callously self-absorbed as the rest of them.

Vera is among those characters who stick around long enough to slowly reveal the truth of their past actions. Some are brazenly unapologetic, some unwilling to ever admit wrongdoing, others become haunted by their actions. Though there is precious little you’d recognise as remorse even if a couple of characters do accept the inevitability of paying for what they have done. In short, this is as grim a picture of humanity as you’ll find between the pages of a book.

Cosy author my arse.

The book is more than a logic puzzle too though of course that element exists. But what strikes me about the plot is how much it goes against the conventions of the genre that Christie herself helped establish. There’s no benign central character who readers can be sure is innocent: everyone we meet is equally plausible as a suspect and a victim. And each of them is equally unsympathetic so the reader is not enticed to become invested in the safety of one person over another. Also, at some point before the end it becomes clear that there is no help on the way from outside: if anyone is to survive the murderous rampage salvation will have to come from within the group. Honestly it’s more Lord of the Flies than the upper crust drawing rooms that Christie is more typically associated with.

In one key respect AND THEN THERE WERE NONE is similar to another of Christie’s novels, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. Both tackle the subject of justice interestingly, eschewing the accepted societal norms for its dispensation. Here the subject is perhaps explored more deeply as various characters are depicted as having taken actions that would be difficult to pin down as criminal, however immoral they may be, but justice – or someone’s version of it – is applied equally. It’s a pretty subversive theme for a book written in 1938, and first published only shortly before the outbreak of WWII in 1939.

I’m not the world’s most ardent fan of Agatha Christie but I do find it depressing when people dismiss her many contributions to the genre I love, though I like to think it’s because they just haven’t read the right one of her books. It is to those people I most heartily recommend AND THEN THERE WERE NONE because it isn’t what most of you think. It’s psychologically dark and rivals any hard-boiled story you can name for sheer brutality.  It’s a bloody good read too.

The adaptation

AndThenThereWereNoneVideoAlthough adapted by Christie herself for the stage (annoyingly with a more positive tone) and several times for the big screen there has not been a television adaptation of AND THERE WERE NONE until the BBC decided to have a go in 2015. Given the enormous success of Christie’s work featuring series characters in TV adaptation form the only surprising thing about this is that they waited so long.

Airing as three one-hour episodes first in the UK during Christmas 2015 this joint British-American production falls into the faithful adaptation camp. It uses all the character names (unlike the best known of the films from 1945 which randomly changes about half of them) and much of the dialogue from the book. There are some plot alterations but these are generally insignificant and mainly speak to the differences between visual and written storytelling though there are a couple of anachronisms that stem from viewing this story in its historical context in a way that Christie could not have done at the time.

Despite its faithfulness the adaptation has a sensibility closer to Gothic horror than classic whodunit, chiefly brought about by the setting. The isolated island with its lonely and understated stately mansion and almost nothing growing on it is perfect, as is the fact the skies are always grey and even in wide shots there is a suffocating feeling to the place. Any sensible person would have taken one look and turned their boat around immediately.

The ensemble cast is collectively very good with no one attempting to garner more attention than their character demands which is not always easy when some exit the stage very early in proceedings. Noah Taylor as the house’s butler (also one of the 10 condemned who is said to have withheld vital medication from a previous employer which led to her death) and Charles Dance as a judge who allegedly committed an innocent man to hang are particularly creepy. In the best possible way of course. And Maeve Dermody as does a superb job as the hyper-emotional Vera Claythorne descending into a form of madness as the numbers of fellow ‘guests’ dwindles worryingly.

The only part of the whole thing I wasn’t really sold on was the ending which is quite different from the original even though the matters of who and how are not altered. I suppose it’s a bit difficult to make letter writing visually dramatic but I think there were probably ways to pull off something closer to the intent of the original than the mastermind revealing themselves to one of the victims as happens here.

The winner?

I’d give the nod to the book but only by the slimmest of margins as the adaptation really is great, especially in the way it draws out the story’s horror elements. Why not read the book and watch the adaptation?

Have you read the book and/or seen this adaptation? Agree or disagree with me? Have I missed something vital? Have you seen any of the stage or film adaptations? 

 

Posted in Agatha Christie, book vs adaptation | 13 Comments

Musings on the 2016 Petrona Award

PetronaAwardLogoThe Petrona Award for the best Scandinavian crime novel published in English during the eligible period which in this instance is the 2015 calendar year. The Award is in memory of one of the first crime fiction bloggers, Maxine Clarke, who particularly enjoyed crime novels from this part of the world and telling her many blog readers about them. Maxine, who blogged as Petrona, passed away in 2012 but is still fondly remembered and much missed by her crime reading friends.

This year’s shortlist comprises six novels from three of the five countries counted as being Scandinavian for the purposes of this award, Norway, Sweden and Finland (Iceland and Denmark missed out on this occasion). As always I am impressed by the diversity and quality of the books that have made the cut, at least of the 5 eligible titles I’ve read.

  • Karin Fossum’s THE DROWNED BOY is another of Fossum’s quiet, almost introspective stories in which she explores what happens when ‘normal’ people are tempted to do awful things. What tempts them? How do they justify it to themselves? Others? Can their aberration be hidden forever? In this case Inspector Sejer and his colleagues must determine whether the death of a toddler who had Down syndrome was the accident his parents claim. Or not.
  • Kati Hiekkapelto’s THE DEFENCELESS was the first book I read this year and I can still remember it clearly, which is not something I can say about all the books I’ve read subsequently. Set in northern Finland the novel uses the genre to tackle the issue of immigration from many angles. We watch a young man who fled Pakistan when the Taliban took it over battle daily with the tribulations that flow on from having entered the country illegally, a gnarled old cop take on a vicious immigrant gang and a policewoman, herself an immigrant, investigate a death that turns out to be more complicated than it first appears.
  • Jorn Lier Horst’s THE CAVEMAN is the story of two bodies, both male, found a few days apart. There is nothing to link the deaths, one of which attracts the attention of a journalist who wants to write a story about loneliness in the modern world while the other death garners the attention of police from several countries as it appears to have links to an American multiple murderer. The juxtaposition of the two kinds of investigation – by the police and the journalist – is a highlight of the book.
  • Hans Olav Lahlum’s SATELLITE PEOPLE is a whodunnit set in 1960’s Norway. Police, with a little help from a talented civilian, must work out which of a wealthy businessman’s friends or relations was responsible for his death at a dinner party. The novel is a clever homage to Dame Christie and others but has more character depth and social commentary than many of the classics.
  • Antti Tuomainen’s DARK AS MY HEART  is a quest novel about a young man’s obsession with discovering what happened to his mother, who disappeared when he was 13. Aleksi Kivi is one of those characters who stays with you for long after the book is over.

I’ve no idea which of these novels will win the Award. If it were me handing out the gong I I’d give it to Kati Hiekkapelto’s THE DEFENCELESS because it is both a truly brilliant book – offering equally strong narrative and political elements – and the one I think closest to the kind of novel Maxine enjoyed so much. But I am rarely right about these things so don’t go placing any bets based on my musings.

I made a deliberate choice not to read David Lagercrantz’s THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB which is the final shortlisted novel and is the continuation of Steig Larsson’s Millennium series. I’ve never, ever been a fan of writers who take over the artistic creations of dead authors. I think it’s presumptive and unnecessary and theft. And, at least sometimes, motivated by nothing but greed. I contemplated breaking a lifelong tradition and reading this book anyway, but what’s the point of having principles if you’re going to let them slide at the first opportunity of a really good read? I have no doubt the book is of a similar quality to the others in the shortlist and if it wins I won’t be letter bombing anyone or otherwise displaying my displeasure. But neither will I be reading the book or its inevitable successors.

The real winner of this year’s Petrona Award will be announced this weekend at CrimeFest in the UK. I can’t wait to find out how wrong I am (based on past experience).

PetronaShortlist2016

 

 

Posted in Antti Tuomainen, Hans Olav Lahlum, Jorn Lier Horst, Karin Fossum, Kati Hiekkapelto, musings | 7 Comments