Review: TOO LATE TO DIE by Bill Crider

 I’ve read a couple of Tracy’s reviews of Bill Crider books at Bitter Tea and Mystery and her latest one prompted me to choose the Dan Rhodes series for the Texas leg of my virtual tour of the USA. I opted to start at the beginning.

My exposure to Texas consists of a couple of hours in Dallas airport and binge-watching Friday Night Lights so I won’t claim any expertise on the subject but TOO LATE TO DIE seemed to me to have a very authentic sense of place. Our guide is Dan Rhodes who is, at least for the next little while, the Sheriff of Blacklin County which is, I think, fictional in name but not in essence. The small towns, getting smaller by the day as jobs dry up, and rural areas that make up Rhodes’ jurisdiction have a realistic sensibility, as do the people Rhodes and his deputies serve. The crimes are…ordinary for want of a better word. No serial killers or the like. Just bad luck and bad judgement for the most part. The first crime we learn about as the book opens is that a small grocery store has been robbed and the store owner looks unlikely to vote for Rhodes unless he can find the culprit pretty quickly. But Rhodes is soon too busy to court that particular vote as the body of a young married woman is found in her home. The investigation into this murder uncovers several people with secrets they’d prefer to keep hidden and places suspicion on a young mentally challenged man. The case unfolds at a slower pace than a big city story might do but this is more to do with the lack of resources afforded the Blacklin County Sheriff’s office than any inherent slowness on Rhodes’ part. Plus even though locals care about what happened to Jeanne Clinton they also expect their law enforcement officers to take care of all the smaller issues affecting their communities so even what meagre resources are available have to be shared.

As with all good crime series the central character has to engage the reader on several levels and Dan Rhodes nails it. A relatively recent widower with an adult daughter living at home and facing an election battle for his job Rhodes is immediately likable due to his sense of humour and his sense of honour. He doesn’t rush to judgement or act on scant evidence, even when this puts him at a disadvantage. I was – as ever – equally fascinated and disturbed by the concept of an elected law enforcement officer (not something that exists in my part of the world) but Rhodes is the kind of guy you’d appoint to such a job if it was filled in the more usual way. The other characters, including a love interest and a couple of wily old blokes acting as near-volunteer labour for the Sheriff’s office, round things out nicely.

The pace of TOO LATE TO DIE does pick up towards the end of the story as a suspect is cornered. This kind of ‘thriller-style’ element is often jarring in a book that has been quite low key up to that point, but Crider does a good job of making this ramping up of tension feel natural. And scary.

Really the only downside to this reading experience is that there are more than 20 books in this series now and I’m unlikely to ever catch up given how much else I have to read. But I definitely plan to re-visit Bill Crider’s version of Texas, even if I have to dip in and out of the series rather than read everything. As with all the best books in this genre the crime element of TOO LATE TO DIE is really only a backdrop for a good writer to tell compelling stories about interesting people. That he does so without gratuitous violence or unnecessary length makes me extra fond of Bill Crider.

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USAFictionChallengeButtonThis is the 17th 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.

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Publisher This edition Walker & Co 2013, original edition 1986
ISBN 9780802756503
Length 299 pages
Format eBook
Book Series #1 in the Dan Rhodes series
Source of review copy I bought it

Posted in Bill Crider, book review, USA | 5 Comments

Review: SCENE OF THE CLIMB by Kate Dyer-Seeley

I started 2017 with a couple of really harrowing books (one about the hideous behaviour of the Catholic Church and another about a terrorist incident). After these I needed a mental breather and plucked a couple of cosy mysteries from my pile of unread books. The second of these is eligible for my virtual tour of the USA.

sceneoftheclimbkatedyer27100_fThis book’s central character is Meg Reed, a young college graduate who, as the book opens, is living on a friend’s couch and desperately looking for a job. Fortuitously she one day spills a coffee on the editor of an adventure magazine and he offers her a job. Meg can write and she is the daughter of one of the city’s most well-known investigative journalists, her recently deceased father, so she doesn’t bother to mention that any sports, let alone extreme ones, are not really her forté. The product reviews and other minor articles she starts out writing are easy enough but when she is tasked with covering the Portland leg of an extreme sports reality TV show things start to get more complicated.

I have a low threshold for the cutesy titles beloved by cosy mystery series but in the case of SCENE OF THE CLIMB the wordplay is relevant. Set in Oregon in the northwest of the US the book’s central events combine murder with recreational climbing in some beautiful-sounding locations. I will admit to getting sidetracked more than once as I googled Angel’s Rest and other key locations for the story’s set pieces. It’s a part of the US I have not yet visited but the author made Portland, with its relatively low population and eco-friendly ways, and the surrounding areas very inviting. Even with the odd murder.

The story here is a good one, with a decent amount of plausible suspects for the crimes that pile up. Meg’s magazine is sponsoring the local leg of the reality TV show so there is a lot of access to the contestants and crew. Plus a couple of locals, including Meg’s new boss, also come under suspicion. The disparate threads and red herrings are all woven together well so the reader is easily swayed from one suspect to another before the final resolution. As with most cosy mysteries Meg has a circle of friends and family that are enjoyable to get to know. Her beloved grandmother is an entertaining mix of pragmatist and psychic and I can see her being a popular drawcard for future instalments of the series.

The cosy end of the crime fiction market is crowded and one I generally avoid these days due to the preponderance of gimmicks over the basics of story and character development. But SCENE OF THE CLIMB keeps the gimmicks and quirkiness to an acceptable level and it tells a suspenseful story that does not rely too heavily on unrealistic coincidences and the superhuman behaviour of its amateur sleuth. Although the main plot is well-wrapped up there’s a teaser relating to future possibilities for a minor thread that did make me add this book’s sequel to my wishlist for the next time I fancy a visit to the mountains. My only real gripe with the book is that its Australian character (one of the reality TV show’s crew) is not very authentic (for example the word ocker is not Australian for womaniser). I know it’s a small thing but unnecessary errors like this annoy me.

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USAFictionChallengeButtonThis is the 16th 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.

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Publisher Kensington Books [2014]
ISBN 9780758295316
Length 299 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #1 in the Meg Reed series
Source of review copy I bought it

Posted in book review, Kate Dyer-Seeley, USA | 5 Comments

Review: GIN AND MURDER by Josephine Pullein-Thompson

ginandmurderJosephine Pullein-Thompson’s GIN AND MURDER is another of the titles I procured last year from Greyladies Press. Why? Because of the cover. I love the clothes everyone is wearing in the picture and the scene looked so inviting I immediately imagined eavesdropping on those people having a lovely time at their cocktail party. The book delivers on this basic promise: there is a party at which gin cocktails are consumed and idle gossip is shared. There is also snobbery, hunting, two murders and some gentle humour.

Apparently Josephine Pullein-Thompson is better known for writing “pony books”. She and her two sisters wrote dozens of the things, aimed at children and spanning several decades. It shows. Even though this book has horses rather than ponies, as befits a book for adults, there is rather a significant focus on things equine. I wasn’t a pony girl nor am I a horse-y adult so this element left me a bit confused on occasion but I did get a few chuckles out of it. There’s a sequence in which some old duffer loses track of the hounds the hunt group he leads is meant to be following and I liked the imagery of both fox and hounds getting one up on the humans.

The rest of the drama, such as it is, centres on the hosts and attendees of Friday night drinks at the home of Elizabeth and Charlie Chadwick. Undercurrents of discontent amongst the acquaintances present become more evident when Guy Vickers, one of the attendees, dies suddenly. When it is clear the death was not from natural causes suspicion quickly falls on hunt master Mark Broughton as he’d fallen out with Guy. However there are another half-dozen people making up a very toffy suspect pool.

Initially the person working his way through these suspects is ‘the local man’ but he is soon shunted aside. At this distance it appeared his only sin was being too common for the upper crust to deal with, but in the confines of the story the Scotland Yard man had to be brought in due to superior intelligence. DCI James Flecker, who is smart but dishevelled and absent-minded, and his less forgetful sergeant work their way through the case with equal amounts of bravado, guesswork and insight. Though not before another murder occurs.

One thing that did stand out for me was the depiction of the Broughton family which includes Mark’s alcoholic wife Clara and his orphaned niece and nephew. All of these elements are sensitively incorporated into the story while displaying a kind of pragmatism that befits a time that is still considered post-war. The uncovering of the reason for Clara’s alcoholism is rather poignant. A family grouping of this kind transplanted to today would all be in therapy and/or the subject of multiple visits by social services.

I’m sure GIN AND MURDER offers a very realistic picture of a particular world. I don’t know the first thing about that world but am confident Pullein-Thompson does and that she has drawn it very well. The book offered a perfectly delightful way to while away a blisteringly hot summer afternoon with my own gin cocktail to hand (purely for mood setting of course) and I can’t complain if it hasn’t seared itself into the long term section of my memory. There’s a lot to be said for a pleasantly entertaining diversion.

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Publisher This edition Greyladies Press 2014, Original edition 1959
ISBN 9781907503375
Length 204
Format paperback
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy I bought it

Posted in book review, Crimes of the Century, England, Josephine Pullein-Thompson | Tagged | 8 Comments

Review: THE SILENCE BETWEEN BREATHS by Cath Staincliffe

thesilencebetweenbreathsstaincliffeI’m not sure I’d have brought THE SILENCE BETWEEN BREATHS home if I’d known anything about it, and I certainly wouldn’t have picked it to read on a warm summer’s day after finishing a particularly harrowing book. I bought it last year purely because I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Cath Staincliffe and didn’t even look at the blurb (they’re so spoiler-y these days). Though now that I think about it most of her books have made me cry. I momentarily forgot that.

It tackles a grim subject.

We meet several people on a train from Manchester to London. A harried young man on his way to an interview for an apprenticeship. A family of four heading to the city for a wedding. A woman who has just scored her dream job and is going to do some shopping. An elderly lesbian couple and their dog off to start a walking holiday. The teenager currently working as a cleaner for the rail company but who dreams of running his own restaurant. A middle-aged woman meeting up with an old friend, needing a break from family pressures including a mother with dementia.

As always Staincliffe is very good at bringing these ‘ordinary’ people to life and making the reader care about and worry for them; even the ones who aren’t very pleasant. We are worried for them because there is also a young man called Saheel on the train. He is on a personal, holy mission of destruction.

The most interesting perspective of the novel is offered by Saheel’s 13-year old sister. She is at home alone wanting to work on an art project but her computer is broken so she decides to use her brother’s. And discovers what he is planning to do. Unable to contact anyone in her family she calls the police. Hoping they can stop him before he carries out the bombing he has described in a prepared video. And so begins all manner of heartache for her, her parents and a different brother. I imagine it happens in all cases of serious crime: that the loved ones of the perpetrators are at best forgotten but more likely to be actively vilified by association. It felt like a very timely message in this era of instant outrage and opinion-before-fact to be reminded that lots of different kinds of people are impacted when such horrendous incidents are planned. Or worse, actually happen.

The novel is basically a story in two acts and the second part is less successful for me, even though it did generate a tear or two but it is difficult to discuss without spoiling the plot somewhat. However, if you read the book’s official blurb you will know what happens so I will let on that the second half concerns the aftermath of ‘an incident’. What Staincliffe has written is not bad and some of it is quite moving as various characters struggle with their memories and losses and medical issues. But I did think this part of the book lacked something. There were opportunities to explore some complexities of the social and political consequences of these types of incidents that were ignored. The book seemed even to be setting the stage for some of this when it introduces one of the affected characters as a UKIP voter with some fairly bigoted views. Following the incident this is entirely ignored and while it may be that was the point – that such things are forgotten in times of real crisis – I’m not convinced that the way this character’s story arc played out demonstrated this.

Although it doesn’t occupy a significant portion of the book I think it would have been stronger without Saheel’s perspective appearing at all. It was a fairly bland characterisation in comparison with the others and offered nothing particularly new or insightful about the people who choose this kind of path. Perhaps more importantly I don’t think it added much to the story as it was the impact of his decisions and actions that were the driving narrative force not his inner thoughts (such as they were).

Staincliffe’s writing often tackles very topical issues and generally provides some real insight into the subject. LETTERS TO MY DAUGHTER’S KILLER is one of the best books I have read that explores the subject of domestic violence and its many victims for example. Here I thought the book engaging and at times moving but found it lacked the thought-provoking qualities I have come to expect from this author. She could however teach a masterclass in creating memorable characters from very ordinary people which is not a skill to be overlooked.

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Publisher Little Brown [2016]
ISBN 9781472122650
Length 264 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy I bought it

Posted in book review, Cath Staincliffe, England | 6 Comments

Review: CRIMES OF THE FATHER by Tom Keneally

crimesofthefatherkeneallyThere is a type of book it is difficult to discuss. Books which tackle big, important subjects. Books which tackle big, important subjects involving injustice on an almost unimaginable scale. With such books even the mildest of criticism is, often, seen to be the same as siding with the perpetrators of injustice. As if the book’s intent to shine light on some dark recess of humanity is all that matters. The quality or otherwise of the writing, character development, plot, structure and so on are not able to be considered independently of the big, important subject. When such a book is written by a national living treasure that nearly everyone, including me, has been waiting for him to write, the difficulties are compounded.

But it would feel dishonest to say nothing at all so I will have a stab at it.

Between his essays, full length non-fiction, plays and novels Tom Keneally has tackled lots of big, important subjects over the years. But for some people, especially those of us who grew up Catholic and then drew apart from the Church for one reason or another, it is his commentary on the subject of Catholicism’s role in our society that stands out. He was a seminary student in his youth and although he did not take final vows and is critical of the Church about many issues he is not a rabid hater and still considers himself a ‘cultural Catholic’ (his term). In short, he speaks, in part, to and for some of us. So it was never really a question of if Keneally would write this book but when.

CRIMES OF THE FATHER has a valiant attempt at achieving the impossibly lofty goal of making some sense of  the horrendous scale of abuse by Catholic clergy over many decades and the arguably even more horrendous scale of the cover-up of this abuse by Church hierarchy for almost as long. It’s not, I think, entirely successful but then it’s a lot to expect of one relatively short work of fiction.

It is set in the mid 1990’s with occasional, illustrative flashbacks to the preceding 30 or so years. Keneally made a deliberate choice to set the book at a time when information about the abuse was starting to filter out into the wider community but before the Church had irrevocably chosen a way of dealing with the scandal and its many victims. When there was still a chance that the Church might take a path of openness, restitution and genuine healing. Of dealing sensitively and compassionately with victims who suffered directly. And of offering those indirectly impacted by the scandal – who include people of faith reeling from the allegations being made about ‘their’ Church and the many clergy who have never perpetrated any abuse of any kind or been involved in any covering up – some kind of solace that all was not lost.

That alternative path is chiefly represented by Father Frank Docherty. Sydney born and raised he is exiled by his Cardinal to Canada in the 70’s for his unorthodox political beliefs. His infatuation with a married female parishioner, though never acted upon, also plays into the mix. He becomes a University teacher and psychiatrist; eventually working with many clerics who have been accused of and/or admitted to the kinds of sexual abuse that is starting to be made public. In 1996 he is invited to Sydney to give a lecture on this subject; on how the Church should deal with the growing number of accusations and victims. His proposed approach – one that does not involve lawyers and confidentiality agreements and threats implied or explicit – is not the majority view of his peers. As for the hierarchy? Late in the book Docherty realises the Church will not follow his recommended approach because

…impelled by their anxiety about institutional survival, as well as by a fear of the ignorant malice of a pluralist community all too ready to believe the worst.

It is, of course, an unsatisfying resolution but it echoes reality. Which on this subject is as unsatisfying as it gets. This aspect of the book does not offer anything particularly new – we all know now what a bloody mess the Church has made of this the world over – but it is as clear an explanation as I’ve seen regarding why the Church made the choices it did. Keneally’s not justifying it or apologising for it by any stretch but explanation is a necessary thing in its own right if society is to avoid repeating its mistakes.

There’s an attempt also to explain how such a culture of abuse developed though I think there’s less clarity about this within the book. And that’s reasonable. Although Keneally has clearly done much research and thinking about the subject, and has some personal experience of the kind of teaching given to priests, there isn’t a single, neat answer to this. If it was all about celibacy for example then the same kind of abuse and covering up wouldn’t have taken place in the many other organisations that have been reported to the Royal Commission into institutionalised responses to child sexual abuse. However the book does offer some genuine insight about the problems with the way priests (and potentially other religious leaders) are taught and the reverential way society has traditionally treated such people. I don’t think I’m any clearer on why or how an individual could choose to act on their desires in such a way but I’m not blaming the book for that. There are some minds I really don’t need or want to get inside.

In a recent interview with the ABC Keneally offered some thoughts regarding why he wrote this as a work of fiction

“Fiction hath charms — that’s all I have to say,” he says.

“You’re telling truth through lies. But they are true lies, the lies of fiction. They’re authentic lies. You still depend on absolute reality.”

I get the point – and generally agree with it – but I’m not convinced it was the best choice in this instance. It enabled things to be a bit too…neat…I suppose. Though that’s not really the word I want but I’ve been trying to think of a better one for three days and have come up empty.

The key characters used to tease out this aspect of the story are the mother of a young man who commits suicide and names a prominent member of the clergy as his abuser in his suicide note and a damaged ex-nun Father Docherty meets by chance who was abused by the same man. They display different aspects of the sort of anger you might expect. A third victim wants nothing to do with naming and shaming, at least initially, as he’s managed to make a success of his life despite the abuse. Of course these people are all sympathetic but I thought that they were pretty superficial: more like case studies than real human characters. This is unlike Keneally who normally excels at character development. Father Docherty and and another character, the married woman he loves from afar who is also the sister of the priest accused by the book’s three victims, are more well rounded but even so it’s all a bit too…neat. Or contrived. Or something not quite natural.

I’m not sure exactly what I expected from this book but it was without doubt too much. I knew that going in though as I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to provide the definitive answer to horrors such as this. Is a tiny part of me disappointed that Keneally didn’t pull off a miracle? Sure. But it is only a tiny part.  I’m glad to have read the book, I learned some things and I have some ideas to ponder and discuss with other lapsed Catholics (because it always comes up). That’ll do.

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Publisher Penguin [2016]
ISBN 9780857987112
Length 382
Format paperback
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy I bought it

Posted in Australia, book review, Tom Keneally (Aus) | 9 Comments

2017: Bookish Goals

Last year I did reasonably well with my reading goals and generally found they provided a good, if loose, structure to my reading and buying habits. I’m going to follow a similar path for 2017 while trying to work on the areas that need improvement (TBR mountain I’m looking at you).

Read and review 25 books by Australian Women Writers.

aww2017-badgeIt’s the sixth year of the Challenge and I’ve never hit the 25 books read mark yet though last year I got closest with 22. I’ll track my progress here. Once again I will try and read outside my criminal comfort zone but I’m not setting a specific goal for that. Please consider joining the challenge yourself and remember that now there is a Facebook group for Challenge participants to chat and tempt each other.

Participate at least 8 times in Crimes of the Century

Each month Rich (or a lucky Challenge participant) selects a year and participants have to read and review a crime novel from that year. Last year I did all 12 months but I don’t want to put a silly amount of pressure on myself. Sometimes it is really difficult for me to get hold of books within the timeframe but I like using this meme to prompt me to read older books in addition to the contemporary novels I prefer. I was allowed to select the year for January’s reading and went with 1959 for the entirely selfish reason that I already own a book first published in that year.

Reduce Mount TBR to 100 books or less (from 131).

mount-tbr-2017This should be much easier than it is because I read quite a lot. But I also buy quite a lot and borrow quite a lot. Last year my Mount TBR went from 145 to 131 despite me reading 103 books. Sigh. So this year I am signing up for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge in the hopes that a little more accountability will get me over the line. I’ve signed up for the Mt Vancouver level which requires me to read at least 36 books owned prior to the start of this year and will track my progress on this page where I’ve listed all 131 unread books I own at the start of 2017. Realistically of course I’ll need to read more than 36 of these books if I buy others. Sigh.

Buy no physical or eBooks from stores outside Australia

Image sourced from http://mumsgrapevine.com.au/2014/01/7-ways-to-buy-australian-made/

I’ve been doing this for several years now and though it hurts a bit financially I generally make it work by waiting for sales and borrowing more from the library. Last year I did cave 4 times but 3 of those were what I call legitimate (the books were not available to me in Australia at any price). The aim of this challenge is really for me to be accountable for putting my money where my mouth is. I don’t want local bookstores to close and one way to ensure this is for big readers like myself to buy lots from them.

Read at least 10 books eligible for my Reading USA fiction challenge

USAFictionChallengeButtonI started a virtual tour of the USA in January 2014 and have only read 15 qualifying books so far! My criteria is that the books have to be by new to me authors which is causing some of the problem. But I will get there eventually. Last year I read 7 eligible books but thought I would like to stretch myself a bit this year and get to the half way point of my tour at least.

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I think this is about enough goals for me. I’m not continuing with my “No Girl Books” stance because I’m not as angry as I was this time last year (well not about that) and I do have two TBR books with Girl in the title that I want to read. But that doesn’t mean I intend to real all the bandwagon jumpers.

Some of these goals will contradict each other. I don’t for example own many classic crime novels nor many unread books by Aussie women writers nor any books eligible for my Reading USA Fiction challenge. So I will have to acquire books to complete those challenges which will hinder my completion of the Mt TBR Challenge. Only thing to do is to get started.

Posted in books of the year, memes and challenges | 4 Comments

2016: The charts

I realised a couple of months ago that I have 10 years worth of reading data in one place or another. So I spent a little time over a rainy weekend splicing it all together in a single spreadsheet so that I could do some funky charts. Well funky to me, I realise there is an incredibly small niche audience for these but my motto for this post was ‘have pivot table will blog‘ I won’t be offended if you move along without looking 🙂

How many books have I read in 10 years?  1080. If there was an emoticon to represent me wishing wistfully for the halcyon days of 2011 I would insert it now. Unless I mention it my charts do not exclude unfinished books (DNFs) but I specifically exclude them for this one because it seems to matter more.

2016booksread


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What format do I read in? A few years ago I declared I was going to go all electronic within five years for my reading. Ha. And ha again. This chart shows I never got close. One reason is that I try not to buy through Amazon (audio books excluded and only until a viable alternative supplier appears) and eBooks in other formats are not as easy or cheap to procure and access (after giving up on my Sony eReader I now read ePub format books on my iPad, usually bought from Booktopia which is about the only reliable local source). But also I realised pretty quickly that I prefer physical books. The other kind remind me a bit too much of work. I do love my audio books though (hence my deal with the Amazon devil).

2016booksbyformat


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Where do they come from? This chart shows I have always bought the majority of my books though the percentage has dropped since I started making a concerted effort not to use Amazon & Book Depository. Buy less but buy local is my motto these days. The two most notable spikes in the figures are the years when I got heavily into Book Mooch (before realising it was costing me way more than buying new books would have done) and the two years I was a judge.

2016booksource


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Does author gender impact my reading? This chart shows the number of books I’ve read by male and female authors expressed as a percentage of the total (and I don’t mean to be rude with my ‘other’ category but sometimes I read books by a male/female writing team or I don’t know the gender of the author). You might think that my participation in and hosting duties for the Australian Women Writers challenge would skew my reading but the year I read the highest percentage of books by female writers was 2007 (long before the AWW Challenge started). Wanna know why? I went through a phase of reading lots of cosy mysteries for a couple of years and they are almost all written by women. The only year I achieved a dead even split was in 2008 and since then it has oscillated some.

2016booksbyauthorgender


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Resisting the cultural cringe. As you can see with regards to reading books by Australian authors the only way was up from the low point of 2007 (0.36% represents a lone book that year). The chart also makes it easy to see which two years I was a judge for the Ned Kelly Awards. I don’t really know what’s a good percentage to aim for with respect to reading local authors (I want to know about the rest of the world too) but I’ll at least try to keep it above 10%.

2016booksbyausauthors


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Old vs New: It’d be easy to read old, familiar authors only and be very happy. But then I would miss out on some fabulous reading. I seem able to average 10-15% of new authors each year but they punch above their weight given that in my favourites list for this year 14 of the 25 books highlighted were by new (to me) authors.

2016booksnewauthor


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Life for the woefully monolingual. I am reliant upon wonderful translators to read about people and places outside the English-speaking world. My high water mark for translated books was in 2012 (27% of total books read) and I’m a bit disappointed with this year’s 13%. I still keep an eye out for good recommendations but as I rely more on my library these days I’m a bit stymied. Will try harder on this front though.

2016bookstranslated


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Virtual travelling. This one shows 24 settings for which I have read 5 or more books over the past 10 years. Not surprisingly England, America and Australia take the top 3 spots but I was a bit surprised to see Sweden coming in a clear fourth. If you’re really paying attention you’ll note that there are 26 bars not 24 in the chart. My data has ‘non-fiction’ as a setting (and yes I know it is sad I have only read 7 non-fiction books in 10 years) and then there’s ‘international’ (which covers those that take place in multiple locations or out in the middle of the ocean).

2016booksbysetting

For the sake of completeness I feel the need to share an additional chart which shows the 31 settings (not counting unknown which includes imaginary places) for which I’ve read 1-4 books. That’s a total of 55 countries visited virtually at least once over the past decade. A much better record than my regular travel.
2016booksbysetting4orless

I’m still not sure there’s any point to any of this but at least the charts are more fun that the ones I do for work. That’s if for my analysis of past reading, time now to look forward. I’m already into my second book for the new year (a review of the first is proving troublesome to write).

Posted in books of the year, charts, charts, charts | 9 Comments

2016: The Favourites as Reading Bingo

One of my favourite bloggers is once again challenging people to play Reading Bingo and another blogging pal has already played the game. Feeling a little left out I thought I would see how many of the 25 squares I could mark off with my favourite reads of the year. As well as being a bit of fun I realised this is a sneaky way to produce a list that is legitimately much longer than the usual 10. See what I did there?

reading-bingo-small

A book with more than 500 pages

SixFourHideoYokoyama26952_fI read two of these (though I suspect some of my audio books would equate to more than 500 pages). I enjoyed C.J. Sansom’s DARK FIRE (595p) very much but I have to highlight Hideo Yokoyama’s SIX FOUR which clocks in at 604 pages. We read this for my face-to-face book club and while we all gently(?) chided the person who selected it I am glad to have read the book. There is a bit too much detail in parts but this story of a missing persons case that tortures one policeman in particular also offers a fascinating exploration of the Japanese media landscape and its office politics. Worth persevering with.

A forgotten classic

TheChimneyMurderI’m not sure if this counts. It’s definitely forgotten and old but is that enough to qualify as a classic? For me, yes. I adored E.M. Channon’s THE CHIMNEY MURDER which was originally published in 1929 and was recently re-issued by a wonderful UK publisher that has as its aim the publication of “Well-Mannered Books by Ladies Long Gone“. I want to hug them for that alone but this book is hug-worthy too. Funny and oddly subversive for its time this one also falls into my women who rock category which should be a bingo square all of its own.

A book that became a movie

RoadRageRendellAudioI re-read Ruth Rendell’s ROAD RAGE this year. I’m not a huge fan of this series but have always had a soft spot for this one because of its environmental plot line (thereby appealing to my inner greenie). What I noticed this time is that it is amongst that rare breed of crime novel that isn’t primarily concerned with murder (there is a murder but it’s not the main focus of the story). Also I found its exploration of Inspector Wexford’s personal life, brought about because his wife Dora is amongst a small group kidnapped by environmentalists, unexpectedly touching. Must be getting soft in my old age. The book was adapted into a 3.5 hour episode of the Ruth Rendell Mysteries featuring George Baker as Wexford that first aired in the UK in 1998.

A book published this last year

tellthetruthshamethedevilI read 41 books published in 2016 and a lot of them were jolly good. I have however snuck a few into other categories so will use this opportunity to mention Melina Marchetta’s TELL THE TRUTH, SHAME THE DEVIL which I have been pressing upon anyone in my company for longer than a nanosecond since I finished reading it. It is a proper modern thriller full of action, suspense, humour and sadness yet with enough hope to ensure the reader is not left feeling suicidal at the end. It has a very ‘of the moment’ sensibility in that it tackles very topical issues such as the role of social media in the modern world and the complex way we collectively deal with horrendous crimes such as terrorism, but all of this is done intelligently so that the book won’t feel out of date in a year’s time.

A book with a number in the title

13PointPlanForAPerfectMurderI am very happy to have read David Owen’s 13-POINT PLAN FOR THE PERFECT MURDER and not only because it allows me to mark off a particularly pesky square of my bingo card. As I wrote in my review it “is funny, fast and has a fiendishly good plot. You should read it immediately.” I was chuffed to see these words and some more of my gushing included in the praise received pages of the second David Owen novel to be published this year (it’s called ROMEO’S GUN and arrived in my post box on December 23 to prove once and for all that there is indeed a Santa).

A book written by someone under 30

ITHEJURYI may have read multiple books in this category but I don’t know it. As someone who goes out of her way not to find out much about the authors who write for my entertainment I have no bloody clue how old most of them are and I was disinclined to spend time asking Google. Especially after it told me that even Hannah Kent, whose second book THE GOOD PEOPLE I read this year and who looks so very young to me, is 31 now! Time does indeed fly. So the only way I can officially check this box on my bingo card is to use Mickey Spillane’s I, THE JURY which was published when the author was 29 (in 1947). However this is by way of a negative recommendation. Do. Not. Read. This. Book. If you see a copy in your travels do the world a favour and slip it into the nearest shredder.

A book with non-human characters

TheJumpJohnstoneNot being one for books involving talking cats or paranormal beings this category is a bit of a struggle for me. I could of course mention Ellery Adams’ delightful LETHAL LETTERS, the sixth of her novels to feature a North Carolina writing group, the murders they encounter and a standard poodle called Haviland who, though he doesn’t actually talk, manages to communicate more effectively than many who have the power of speech. But I’m going to take a bit of leeway and highlight Doug Johnstone’s THE JUMP. The bridge you can see on the cover is the most influential character in this fantastic book about finding a way back from the abyss of a child’s suicide.

A funny book

whatstrangecreaturesemily28636_fI’m a bit worried this proved a difficult square to mark off. I’ve got plenty of eligible books on my TBR (Hiassen, Brookmyre, Bateman…) but this year I seem to have been pulled towards books about grief and tragedy and other un-funny topics. However I did laugh out loud more than once when reading Emily Arsenault’s WHAT STRANGE CREATURES. As she tries to get her brother off a murder charge the book’s main character – Theresa Battle – provides a narrative of self-deprecating observations about her life that I found really engaging and quite Austen-like which sits well with the book’s title.

A book by a female author

AnIsolatedIncidentMaguireSad that this category is probably hard for some readers. A good one for me though as 66 of the 103 books I read this year were by women writers. I’m highlighting Emily Maguire’s AN ISOLATED INCIDENT which I have been unable to shoe-horn into any of the other bingo squares and I have to include it in my list. It ostensibly another story of a murdered pretty girl but quickly turns subversive and is actually about the impact of the death on those left behind. Its heroine is a barmaid and amateur prostitute. She’s fabulous.

A book with a mystery

seealsomurdersweazyOfficially the easiest of squares for my to mark off my card as I read less than a dozen books that wouldn’t qualify. Blush. Larry D. Sweazy’s SEE ALSO MURDER has truly haunted me. I keep thinking of its heroine – Marjorie Trumaine – and her no nonsense way of dealing with the crappy things life throws at her (these include a paralysed husband who wants to die, her nearest neighbours being brutally murdered and the fact that wintering in North Dakota in 1964 sounds darned cold and miserable). But Marjorie is an indexer and an old-fashioned trooper (another candidate for the missing women who rock category) and the book is wonderfully melancholic without being depressing.

A book with a one-word title

hellfirefossumaudioI’ll give an honourable mention to Robert Harris’ CONCLAVE which I had a few lapsed-Catholic related issues with but overall enjoyed (especially the narration of the audio book). But I’m using this square of my bingo card to highlight Karin Fossum’s HELLFIRE. It was one of two of her books I read this year and absolutely cemented her place in my very favourite authors list. Fossum is not one for car chases and axe-wielding psychopaths. Instead she shows us the cruel tricks fate can play on us all and ponders how seemingly tiny decisions can have everlasting consequences.

A book of short stories

ruthsfirstchristmastreea18510_fOk I’m going to cheat a bit here because I don’t like short stories much (they’re so short). But on Christmas Eve I did decide to get into the seasonal spirit and read Elly Griffiths’ RUTH’S FIRST CHRISTMAS TREE which is a short story she released as a freebie for fans of her Ruth Galloway series in 2012. It was cute and had plenty of Cathbad though did leave me wanting more. Which is, of course, the problem.

Free Square

ResurrectionBayViskicThe last square to fill and in some ways the most difficult but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the first book I read in 2016: Emma Viskic’s RESURRECTION BAY. It’s short and funny and genuinely thrilling and its characters – fallible and imperfect all – are truly memorable. I am not alone in my opinion as the book won several awards this year including the Davitt Award for best adult fiction and the Ned Kelly Award for best first fiction.

A book set on a different continent

adeadlycambodiancrimespree2308_fAgain I am spoiled for choice as I read 73 books set somewhere other than Australia this year. But this square is going to Shamini Flint’s A DEADLY CAMBODIAN CRIME SPREE which sees the series’ Singaporean protagonist sent to Cambodia to observe a war crimes tribunal. It is just about my perfect crime novel. It has well developed characters, a strong sense of place and explores interesting – if at times confronting – social and historical themes without making me feel like I’m at a lecture.

A book of non-fiction

ThisHouseOfGriefGarnerH25742BDR7_fI only read one of these this year (blush) but happily it was by Helen Garner who never disappoints. THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF made me equally sad and angry in its description of yet more innocent lives lost to the immature emotions of a saddo bloke (3 children driven into a damn by their father and left to drown while he escaped) and its exposing of some failures of the legal system. At times it required the application of multiple tissues and may have resulted in a couple of real-world rants about injustice but it reminded me what a bloody treasure Garner is.

The first book by a favourite author

afewrightthinkingmenaudioI re-read Sulari Gentill’s wonderful first novel A FEW RIGHT THINKING MEN when it came out in audio format this year. It was just as good as the first time around with the added bonus of a narration by Rupert Degas. I am in danger of Sulari Gentill taking out a restraining order against me because I gush at and about her so much but I do love this series about friendship and doing what’s right even when…especially when…it’s hard. While I was twitter-stalking her Sulari told me that Rupert Degas has been booked to narrate the whole series so I have many more hours of enjoyment to look forward to.

A book you heard about online

TheLightOnTheWaterOlga27963_fAustralian Women Writers Challenge founder Elizabeth Lhuede first brought Olga Lorenzo’s THE LIGHT ON THE WATER to my attention with this review.  It is an absolutely riveting book about a life – a seemingly ‘normal’ life – that went horribly wrong without any warning. How did former journalist and suburban mum Anne Baxter end up in a prison cell? It is beautifully written and an absorbing character study. Thanks Elizabeth.

A best-selling book

TheDryHarperAudioAccording to several lists, including this one based on sales figures from Australia’s biggest bookstore chain, Jane Harper’s debut novel THE DRY is right amongst the best sellers for the year. At least in the case of Dymocks’ list that’s not just best-selling Australian books either. For once I am in agreement with the majority opinion: it’s an absolute cracker of a read in which there are no blood-thirsty psychopaths. Only ordinary people with secrets they want to keep hidden. And, of course, there’s the weather.

A book based on a true story

SweetOnePeterDocker23590_fIn 2008 an Aboriginal elder was essentially baked to death in the back of a prison transport van in Western Australia after being picked up for drink-driving. Peter Docker’s SWEET ONE takes this horrendous truth as the basis for a riveting, imaginary tale of justifiable vengeance. For a white, city-living woman it is awkward and confronting but should be mandatory reading for all Australians. An honourable mention in this category to Jane Jago’s THE WRONG HAND which sensitively addresses the topic of children who commit unthinkable crimes. I know we’d all like to pretend such things don’t happen but that really isn’t the answer.

A book at the bottom of your TBR pile

sanctumminadenise4405_fDenise Mina’s standalone novel SANCTUM had been sitting at the bottom of my TBR since 2009! It’s a standalone novel and I liked that. Also like that Mina tries different things rather than sticking with a formula. It is the story of a man discovering that his wife is not who he thought she was and I was impressed that even though I didn’t particularly like Lachlan Harriot I was gripped by the exploration of his world.

A book your friend loves

therulesofbackyardcricket29023_fI don’t want to come across as some kind of crazy stalker lady (again) but I’m going to claim author and blogger Angela Savage as a friend. At least of the online variety. It was Angela’s raving about Jock Serong’s THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET that prompted me to go out and buy it. I then recommended it for my book club because you guys told me to. And now it’s vying for the spot at the top of my list of favourite noir novels of all time (Ken Bruen’s THE DRAMATIST has had a chokehold on that spot for years but now…). The book gets everything it tackles just right, including brothers and cricket in all its guises, and it made me feel sympathetic towards a sort of person I would otherwise sneer at (overpaid sports star who can’t control himself).

A book that scares you

runningagainstthetiedortleppAmanda Ortlepp’s RUNNING AGAINST THE TIDE is scary on two fronts. Firstly it depicts someone having to move from the city to a very small country town. I am a city girl down to my bones (it’s all about the anonymity for me). The year I spent living in semi-country New South Wales (North Richmond in the late 80’s for those playing at home) is the least favourite year of my life and the prospect of having to make a permanent move to a place everyone knows everyone genuinely terrifies me. Secondly it’s a darned good suspense novel as it depicts things going worryingly wrong for Erin Travers and her family in their new home. Ortlepp does a great job of making everyone appear potentially murderous.

A book that is more than 10 years old

AndThenThereWereNoneAgatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE was first published under a less politically correct title in 1939. The book’s premise is, basically, that anyone is capable of committing murder and not just because they need to protect a loved one as might be ‘allowable’. This is one to recommend to people who dismiss Dame Christie as a writer of fluffy logic puzzles. This is about as dark as crime fiction gets.

The second book in a series

SatellitePeoplePlaying catch-up I read the second and third of Hans Olav Lahlum’s Norwegian historical mysteries this year. The second in the series is THE SATELLITE PEOPLE and it’s a treat. It is an homage to the golden age of detective fiction but with deeper characterisation than you might expect and it builds its own series characters up nicely.

A book with a blue cover

TheLongAndFarawayGoneLo27931_fThere are not as many options for this as I’d have thought but even though its cover is not entirely blue I cannot do a list of the year’s favourite reading without including Lou Berney’s THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE. A book of shared perspectives: two people attempting to deal with, or hide from as the case may be, past tragedies in their lives. Full of humour and heart.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

So in the end and with only a smidgen of rule-bending I am able to declare BINGO on 2016’s reading.

And once again reflect on the fact that I think I’d be in a padded room by now if it wasn’t for all the fabulous people – authors, narrators, translators, editors, people who empty the rubbish bins at publishing companies – who ensure I am supplied with such great reading. A heartfelt thanks to you all.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

What about you? Any favourites for 2016 that you want to share? Things I should be adding to my own 2017 list? How many squares could you mark off your own Reading Bingo card?

 

 

 

 

Posted in Agatha Christie, Amanda Ortlepp (Aus), books of the year, David Owen (Aus), Denise Mina, Doug Johnstone, E.M. Channon, Elly Griffiths, Emily Arsenault, Emily Maguire (Aus), Emma Viskic (Aus), Hans Olav Lahlum, Helen Garner (Aus), Hideo Yokoyama, Jane Harper (Aus), Jock Serong (Aus), Karin Fossum, Larry D. Sweazy, Lou Berney, Melina Marchetta (Aus), Mickey Spillane, Olga Lorenzo (Aus), Ruth Rendell, Shamini Flint, Sulari Gentill (Aus) | 13 Comments

Books of the month: December 2016

For the sake of completeness a quick end-of-month post amidst the year-end ramblings

Pick of the month

therulesofbackyardcricket29023_fI read 8 books and a short story during December which is right around my average monthly number for the year. There is a standout book but a couple too that in any other month might occupy the top spot. However I cannot go past Jock Serong’s THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET. A novel that deserves its noir categorisation for its achingly bittersweet ending alone. I am so utterly fed up with the overuse of this word but here it is truly fitting.

The rest, in reading order 

  •  Agnes Ravatn – THE BIRD TRIBUNAL (everyone but me raves about this one)
  • Margaret Millar – A STRANGER IN MY GRAVE (my second reading of a Millar novel this year thanks to Crimes of the Century and a more satisfying experience)
  • Hannah Kent – THE GOOD PEOPLE (great writing, evocative setting, too much exposition for me)
  • Jo Bannister – LIARS ALL (never got around to reviewing it, enjoyed the final instalment of the Brodie Farrell series which I had somehow completely missed when it came out 7 years ago)
  • Vanda Symon – THE FACELESS (thoroughly excellent standalone novel about people who’ve lost everything looking out for each other)
  • Jaye Ford – DARKEST PLACE (seriously scary story where everyone is a suspect)
  • David Owen – ROMEO’S GUN (delivered as if by Santa right before Christmas this is Aussie storytelling at its best)

Other ramblings & looking ahead

The year’s goals are completed, or not as the case may be.  I’ve also jotted down some thoughts about my five years of participating in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Other than that I’m working on my favourites list for 2016 and also have spent way too much time preparing some additional charts. Because holidays 🙂 As far as reading goes I was the chooser for January’s Crimes of the Century so will soon be embarking on 1959’s GIN AND MURDER by Josephine Pullein-Thompson, a book I procured from the excellent Greyladies press. Two of my favourite things are right there in the title so it should be a good one :).

Thanks to all who have followed, read, lurked and commented here at the blog or gotten in touch with me via email. If I haven’t responded to you please know it’s more to do with the vagaries of technology (I cannot ever seem to get my email to sync 100% between web, laptop and mobile devices) and/or absent mindedness on my part. I love hearing from you, even when you’re writing to say I was wrong about a book recommendation. Wishing you all great reading in 2017.

 

Posted in Agnes Ravatn, books of the month, David Owen (Aus), Hannah Kent (Aus), Jaye Ford (Aus), Jo Bannister, Jock Serong (Aus), Margaret Millar, Vanda Symon | 6 Comments

Five years and 96 books later (thoughts on the Australian Women Writers Challenge)

awwlogos2012-16


The Australian Women Writers Challenge was born five years ago out of a frustration that books written by women are not taken as seriously as those written by men. Not reviewed as much. Not awarded as often and so on. Rather than whine about this state of affairs Challenge founder Elizabeth Lhuede decided on a positive course of action: to challenge herself and others to read and review books by Australian women.

I’ve been participating as a reader & reviewer since the beginning of the Challenge and as helper responsible for things criminal for the last four years. For the past few months Elizabeth and all the members of the team that wrangles the Challenge have been discussing its future. Should it continue? If so, in what form? Do we need to shake things up? Has the Challenge had any impact? There will be more to come on some of these questions (though in case you are wondering the Challenge is definitely continuing in 2017, you can sign up now) but it feels like the right time for me to take personal stock too.

Counting

Numerically speaking my own reading habits have clearly been impacted by my participation in the Challenge. In the five years preceding this Challenge I read a total of 56 books by Australian women whereas in the first five years of the Challenge I’ve read 96 books written by Australian women. In percentage terms the difference is more stark (9% versus 19%) because I’ve read less books in total over the past five years than I did during the five years beforehand. As a chart lover of long standing I feel the need to express this distinction visually

awwreadingtotals

Spreading out

I have read and enjoyed some books I would not otherwise have looked at. Wendy James’ THE MISTAKE is one that sticks in my mind. I had ignored it because the bookshop copies all had a giant “recommended by the Australian Women’s’ Weekly” stamp on the cover and that turned me off completely. I don’t read that magazine even at the hairdresser’s and loathe gender-based marketing. But the Challenge prompted me to give it a go and I thought the book so great I went on to read everything else Wendy James has written and am eagerly awaiting her 2017 release. I’ve tried out other authors too that I would likely not have bothered with if it weren’t for the Challenge. Some of them aren’t even crime writers such as Favel Parrett, Caroline Overington and Romy Ash.

Here are links to each year’s reviews I’ve posted for the Challenge

The bigger picture

Regardless of how much richer my own reading might be thanks to the Challenge I am probably more interested in whether anything anything is different in the wider world. Alas it’s hard to know (though there is some data  analysis coming from an AWW intern so I may revisit this question).

I could choose to be buoyed by the fact that over the past five years the country’s most prestigious literary prize has been won by female authors four times (in the preceding 10 years it had only been won twice by women writers). Though of course there is no evidence of a causal link between the Challenge and this fact. The creation of the Stella Prize in 2013  cannot be ignored as a factor. Nor can coincidence.

But I could also choose to be saddened that Challenge participants are still, by and large, women. I can’t do actual percentages because I don’t know for sure the gender of all the people who sign up or post reviews. However as someone who regularly peruses all the reviews posted by participants and an administrator of the Challenge’s new Facebook group for readers I’m pretty confident in saying that more than 90% of the people taking part in this Challenge are women. Some men try and can’t do it as this brave admission by Sydney bookseller Jon Page attests to (hey at least he tried). It seems there is a long way to go in getting men to accept that women writers have as much to offer as the blokes. Sigh.

I don’t think I can sensibly comment on whether the Challenge has had an impact on the quantity or quality of reviews of works by Australian women writers in mainstream publications as I just don’t have enough data to go on. And so many other factors must surely be influencing what data there is given changes in the media landscape over recent years. Hard to publish a review in a publication that no longer exists. I do have to say that the quality of reviewing amongst challenge participants varies greatly. There is a lot of enthusiasm but as a reader looking for a way to find good books to read I generally want more than plot synopses and gushing. That said, I’ve come across some reliably good reviewers over the course of the Challenge which has helped guide my book choices. The blogs I look to for thoughtful reviews include

There are of course other people writing good reviews too but when I looked back over my bi-monthly wrap ups for the crime fiction/true crime genre these are the blogs that make multiple appearances.

Looking ahead

aww2017-badgeI’m going to keep on as a Challenge participant and co-host. I was sorely tempted to bow out on the basis that it’s not making much difference but that was a bit defeatist even for me (cynical old curmudgeon that I am). Our tireless founder is gathering new blood in the hosting team and generating enthusiasm with behind the scenes changes and I decided this is one of those cases where it’s better to whine from inside the tent than outside it. Dammit I will find a way to get men reading crime fiction by Australian women writers.

In 2017 the Challenge is going to focus on classics in interesting ways. I’ll be looking to highlight classic crime fiction by Australian women writers and my first hurdle will be to get my hands on some (I do have a couple on hand but not nearly enough). Feel free to send me recommendations.

You can participate too

Do consider signing up even if you’ve never done a reading challenge before. You don’t need to have a blog or Goodreads account and the Stella level of the Challenge only requires you to read 4 books. Easy peasy. For ideas of what to read, news and discussion about the Challenge

 

Posted in memes and challenges, random thoughts | Tagged , | 14 Comments