Out of step on THE BIRD TRIBUNAL by Agnes Ravatn

thebirdtribunalI’m quite used to having a dissenting opinion about a popular or much-praised book but in the case of THE BIRD TRIBUNAL by Agnes Ravatn I seem to be a completely lonesome voice. Whether on Good Reads or Amazon or blogs I enjoy like Raven Crime Reads or This Crime Book or Crime Fiction Lover everyone is raving about this book. Yet even though it’s only 185 pages short I was bored and waiting for it to start until the very last page. When I put it down in frustration.

The premise of the book is one I struggled with from the outset. It is the present day. A young woman – Allis Hagtorn – leaves her life for mysterious reasons and goes to look after a loner living in the woods at the edges of some un-named town whose wife is away. To me what follows is a whole lot of not very much followed by a fairly predictable ending. Neither the first person point of view from the frankly pathetic Allis nor the brooding loner (Sigurd Bagge) who is too mysterious for words engaged me and there are no other characters to speak of (save for the world’s unlikeliest shop keeper).

In short, it’s not for me.

But everyone else seems to think this book is haunting, suspenseful and tense and the characters compelling. So clearly I missed something.




Posted in Agnes Ravatn, mini review, Norway | 10 Comments

Books of the month: November 2016

Pick of the month

givethedevilhisdueaudioI felt pretty wretched after watching the US election unfold at the beginning of the month, both because of what it might mean for the world and for the delayed grief over my mother’s death it sparked. But, as has often been the case over the last 49 or so years, it was a book that got me out of my funk. Sulari Gentill’s GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE, which I read in print the moment it was published last year, was recently released in audio format and I am in heaven. English actor Rupert Degas, currently living in Australia, gives wonderful voice to all my favourite characters. As well as being a ripping historical mystery full of great characters the book is particularly relevant to the present day. For one thing its cast of characters cross political and social circles but still manage to get on one with one another for the most part. It’s nice to imagine that kind of thing being possible. But the book also explores the rise of fascism in the 30’s and how those who could see the dangers ahead struggled to get their fears heard. There are some worrying parallels. But even so I am buoyed by reacquainting myself with Rowly Sinclair and his stalwart chums and was delighted to learn via a tweet from Sulari that Rupert Degas will be narrating all the books in the series over the coming months. Squee as my inner teenager might say.

The rest, in reading order 

  •  Margot Kinberg’s PAST TENSE (a terrific, classic-style whodunit featuring a cold case on a university campus)
  • Sulari Gentill’s THE PRODIGAL SON (because there is not a full novel in the Rowland Sinclair series being released this year Sulari and Pantera Press released a free novella which is a prequel to the first book in the series and depicts how Rowly and his best mates all met)
  • Felicity Young’s A DONATION OF MURDER (the fifth fabulous book in the historical series set in pre WWI London contains dastardly organised crime, a dead body that wakes up, police corruption and a marriage proposal)
  • Pat Flower’s VANISHING POINT (my Crimes of the Century read for November was published in 1975 and takes place inside the head of a very disturbed woman)
  • Robert Harris’ CONCLAVE (listened to this one narrated superbly by Roy McMillan and enjoyed aspects of this tale of a papal election though as a conflicted, lapsed Catholic with what Kath & Kim might call isssssues there were parts I wasn’t so fond of. Overall an enjoyable read though).

Progress Towards 2016’s Bookish Goals

Challenge Goal Progress
Australian Women Writers Challenge Read 25 eligible books, review at least 20 of them Read 19.5 and reviewed 19.5 books (the 0.5 is due to a male/female writing team)
Reading US Fiction Challenge Read 6 books by new to me authors set in different states of the US  7/6 [Successfully Completed]
Reduce TBR Have a TBR of 100 or less by the end of 2016 (starting point 145) TBR = 134 at end of month
Buy Australian Buy no physical or eBooks from non-Australian stores 1 this month, 4 in total this year [Failed]
Read older books too Participate in at least 6 of the monthly Crimes of the Century challenges hosted at Past Offences  11/6 [Successfully Completed]
No Girl books Read no books with the word Girl in the title. Because meh.  0/0 achieved

So it looks like I’ll end the year with 3 successfully completed goals, 2 near misses and a pretty sad fail. Not so bad really but I’ll do a final wrap up later this month.

What about you? Did you have a great read during November? Anything good coming up for December?  Do you read seasonal books in December? Got a favourite Christmas or Hanukkah mystery to recommend?

Posted in books of the month, Felicity Young (Aus), Margot Kinberg, Pat Flower (Aus), Robert Harris, Sulari Gentill (Aus) | 2 Comments

Review: CONCLAVE by Robert Harris

conclaveharrisaudioI was undecided about whether or not to read Robert Harris’ CONCLAVE but a recommendation from a blogger I trust pushed me over the line. Though I’ve liked his historical books I’m not a huge fan of Harris’ contemporary novels (check out my thoughts on THE GHOST and THE FEAR INDEX to see why) but before I was old enough to make my own choices much of my life revolved around my family’s Catholicism. I assume it is for that reason that, though I abandoned even the pretence (for my mother’s sake) of belief a couple of decades ago, I am still drawn inexorably to stories involving religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular.

Although I seem to be in the minority I can’t quite see CONCLAVE as a thriller. For the bulk of the novel there are hints of vaguely nefarious goings-on but they are not front and centre and aside from the one revealed during the novel’s preposterous ending the characters’ secrets are a lot milder than what most modern readers would imagine when thinking “Catholic Church”. Towards the end there’s a bit of excitement (before the laughter generated by the truly ridiculous final reveal) but still I didn’t find the book thrilling. To me it is a somewhat contemplative study of an event – the election of a new Pope – and all the minutiae that make up a thing normally shrouded in secrecy. If you approach this novel expecting page-turning thrills you might be disappointed. If on the other hand you like the idea of delving deeply into an event that is at once political and spiritual then you’ll probably get something out of it. Though it’s worth noting here that the book is pretty middle-of-the-road as far as the views it expresses of the Church as an institution. References are made to recent sex abuse scandals and the Church’s failure to adequately address these and there is a hint of the ever-present struggle between the conservative and progressive theological camps but the book is far from a polemic. The result is that if you’re still a believer you’ll probably be OK with how far the book goes (don’t let the ending throw you, it’s preposterous and not to be taken remotely seriously) but those who have been directly affected by the Church’s failings or who otherwise take a more extreme standpoint may struggle with how lightly the Church itself gets off. I think it’s perfectly fair of the book not to be a rant but I know people who would feel let down by this.

For me the best part of the novel is its narrative voice. Our view of the events – the bulk of which take place over a three exhausting days – is via Cardinal Lomeli. He is 70ish and struggling with aspects of his faith but determined to fulfil his duties as Dean of the College of Cardinals in overseeing the election of the new Pope. Harris has done a good job bringing Lomeli to life, giving him the sorts of foibles, dreams and exasperations that any of us might experience and making him very human and relatable. This is a darned good achievement given that most of us probably can’t actually relate to the sort of life a politically powerful Catholic priest might live. And even if you think the idea of 118 men, the majority of them old and white, choosing one of them to be the leader of a heavily tarnished institution is nothing but irrelevant and amateur dramatics, Harris – through Lomeli – does a bang-up job of drawing the reader into a world of compelling secrets.

The rest of the novel was less successful for me. As in THE FEAR INDEX Harris once again displays an inability to hide his extensive research, literally filling the book with esoteric details, many of them repeated several times over. It didn’t bother me as much this time around but only because (a) I was expecting it based on my previous experience with his writing and (b) I already knew a lot of the details and was able to let them wash over me in a way that wasn’t possible with the arithmetical nuances of hedge fund management and cannibalism that clogged up THE FEAR INDEX. I’m sure the nuns would be thrilled at just how much of the nonsense they taught me was tucked away in my memory banks.

Ultimately though it was what the book wasn’t that bothered me most of all. Every now and again I thought Harris was going to seriously explore the intellectual and theological arguments facing this centuries-old institution but he only ever scratched the surface. I think I’d have preferred it if he hadn’t teased me. And the political shenanigans weren’t nearly as remarkable as the blurb had me believe they would be. To me the book felt too safe; as if its angles and contentiousness had been stripped out by a committee. I suspect the final product is something even the Church itself would struggle to oppose (they’d probably dislike the ending but it is so utterly stupid and implausible that they’d more likely laugh than sue).

I listened to the audio version of CONCLAVE which is superbly delivered by English actor and award-winning audiobook narrator Roy McMillan and think this is probably what made me feel more benign about the book than I otherwise might have done. It is a truly wonderful performance and highly recommended for fans of this format. Without this element the book would be, for me, a lightly enjoyable read that didn’t quite live up to its premise or promise but in the audio format it’s actually quite a treat.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Roy McMillan
Publisher Random House Audio [2016]
Length 8 hours 19 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone

Posted in book review, Italy, Robert Harris | 8 Comments

In My Secret Life

But I know what is wrong,
And I know what is right.
And I’d die for the truth
In My Secret Life.

Leonard Cohen, In My Secret Life

When they hear I have a blog most people who know me in real life assume it is a political one. They are bemused when they learn it isn’t. I don’t blame them. I’ve been talking about politics since…well…forever. It’s what my family did around the dinner table.

I’ve been an activist too. I’ve stuffed envelopes, passed out how-to-vote cards, cooked democracy sausages and driven people to polling stations. In what is either enlightenment or lunacy (depending on your point of view) I don’t have a party affiliation (in fact I’ve volunteered in some capacity or other for candidates from four different political parties over the years) but I have always been interested in people who have great ideas.

My choice to blog about a different passion – and to keep the subject matter very focused – was quite deliberate. I found that you can – or at least I can – actually have too much political discussion. It’s been good for me to have a space to discuss more genteel subjects. Like murder.

And I’m not really going to change that now. I promise this post will be a single aberration.

But like much of the world, political discussion has been dominating my life of late, though in one way not as much as I’d have liked. I can’t really put into words how much I have missed my mum, who died in August last year, these past few months. Missed the conversations we never got to have about the bizarre American election season just ended (sorry to my American friends and family I don’t mean to be rude and I’m not having a go at one side of the spectrum more than another but, at least seen from this distance, it’s been like watching a largely incomprehensible circus). Of course I have discussed it all – endlessly – with other family and friends galore but it’s not quite the same. On Wednesday as I watched the US election results unfold – during a highly unproductive work day here in Australia – I kept thinking of points and issues mum and I would have discussed, and/or argued about. Annoyingly I had tears in my eyes at one point and some numpty walked into my office and assumed I was upset at the result. I didn’t feel like telling them I was in the middle of delayed grief so now that person thinks I’m slightly deranged. Sigh.

One thing my mum and I would do at the end of an election campaign, especially one where we were on opposite sides of the political spectrum which happened more often than not, would be to revert to our other shared passion. Reading mysteries. And though I’ve not more than a page or two for a week now I’m determined to get back on the horse tonight.

As my blogging friend Mrs Peabody suggested earlier this week there’s probably two kinds of crime novels to look out for right now: respite crime (the cosier stuff that lets you escape reality for a bit) and gritty crime that explores the political and social themes that are playing out in the real world. Each kind has its purpose but I think I’ve found one that’s a combination of both.

givethedevilhisdueaudioSulari Gentill’s GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE sees the series hero, Rowland Sinclair, taking part in a car race but the dead bodies are not on the race track. I’ve already read this once in print but I downloaded the newly released audio version this morning. Readers of my other blog will know I am a huge fan of Sulari’s work and it does feel particularly pertinent now. Set in the 1930’s the books, including this one, feature characters from a range of social and political strata who manage to rub along together, learning from and listening to each other. Couldn’t we all do a little more of that? The series also explores the rise of fascism and how difficult it was to draw people’s attention to what was happening in Germany at the time. And no I’m not suggesting that the new President-elect is some modern-day Hitler but I do believe that ensuring evil acts are not allowed the cover of darkness is our collective responsibility and I will take my lessons in sensible activism wherever I can find them.

There has been much written and said in reaction to this week’s events. I know because I’ve spent way too many hours down internet rabbit holes, But my favourite – for all manner of reasons – is comedy show Saturday Night Live’s singularly unfunny opening to its November 12th episode.

Let’s all agree to never give up eh?

Posted in musings, Sulari Gentill (Aus) | 20 Comments

Review: PAST TENSE by Margot Kinberg

pasttensekinbergMargot Kinberg’s third novel set at fictional a Pennsylvania University, Tilton, is the first one which sees her series hero, policeman turned academic Joel Williams, tackling a cold case. The investigation is sparked when skeletal remains are discovered during a construction project taking place on campus. The remains are identified as belonging to a student who disappeared from campus in 1974, though there was no investigation at the time. It was the 70’s after all and Bryan Roades was an adult. He could have just gone off ‘to find himself’. Now however we know different.

There is something particularly engaging about the concept of cold cases. Somehow their secrets are even more intriguing than those of present-day cases and they offer an insight over and above a standard whodunit. The exploration of how long-past events can have ripple effects into the present – for victims, relatives, friends and perpetrators – is endlessly fascinating if the number of novels, movies and TV shows which feature this concept are anything to go by. In PAST TENSE we meet several people who are still, in some way, impacted by the events of the past. Bryan’s younger sister has never had any kind of answers about his sudden disappearance from their family life. Bryan was pursuing several students and a professor for a story he was writing for the student newspaper. The things he wanted them to discuss are still, today, painful for them all. And then there’s his lover who was petrified of their relationship being made public. All the people who knew Bryan have some emotions to deal with now that his body has been found, not just his killer and it this element that gives the book its dramatic sensibility and allows readers to connect with the book. Who among us doesn’t have a secret or two they would rather remain unexamined by the prying eyes of the present.

Kinberg, as you will know if you have followed her blog Confessions of a Mystery Novelist for any length of time, is at home with the classic whodunit style of crime fiction and that shows here. PAST TENSE is in many ways a fine example of the genre, though its particular twist is that the investigation occurs almost in relay with Joel Williams doing his share of the work and two active police officers carrying out those parts of the investigation that it would stretch credibility for an amateur sleuth to do. Even a former professional sleuth. I really like this aspect of the novel because it deals intelligently with the problem often presented by amateur sleuth-led stories.

From its gorgeous cover onwards PAST TENSE is a terrific book, especially for those who love a classic mystery. It’s got an interesting suspect pool guaranteed to keep you guessing, engaging investigators, a focus on a fascinating period of history and a solidly constructed plot that is both surprising and satisfying. There’s even a body found by a dog walker (though I suppose technically he’s a dog runner in this instance). Top reading.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I’ve previously reviewed PUBLISH OR PERISH and B-VERY FLAT which are books 1 and 2 of this series

Publisher Grey Cells Press [2016]
Length 428 pages? That’s the number according to Amazon but I think they must be very small pages – it’s around the 200-250 mark in old fashioned page size I think
Format eBook (for Kindle)
Book Series #3 in the Joel Williams series

Posted in book review, Margot Kinberg, USA | 4 Comments

The TBR Book Tag

All year I’ve been struggling with a personal goal to get my TBR below 100 books. I haven’t gotten there and I now know it’s not going to happen with less than two months to go. But I still want to work on having a more manageable TBR and when I saw this post over at Cleopatra Loves Books I thought putting my own cards on the table might help with this ongoing goal. Perhaps this time next year I’ll be telling a story of minimalism success.

How do you keep track of your TBR pile?

I use a database called Collectorz. Hate the spelling, love the software. I have it on my computer and there’s an iOS app for my phone and a website for…well…whenever I don’t have my computer or my phone. As soon as I order or buy a book I add it to my database and then keep track of things like reading date as well as a swag of other data. The books I count for my TBR are the ones that I own but haven’t read. I don’t count books I’ve ordered but haven’t received yet or books on my wishlist.

Is your TBR mostly print or e-book?

Print books win by a country mile. Back in 2011 I wrote about my plan to go all digital within 5 years. I was on a minimalism kick and had other reasons. But that plan was a failure. Not only because I bought something other than the device from the store named after a river though that didn’t help (books were never that cheap, nor that readily available and Adobe’s eReader management software offered the worst user experience of any software I have ever used in any context). But also, I don’t really like reading eBooks much. These days I use my iPad to do it when necessary but it’s not often. This year for example I have only read 11 eBooks (and 43 physical books and 27 audio books)

How do you determine which book from your TBR to read next?

Whim. I don’t accept very many books from publishers or authors for review these days (that turned out to be way too much pressure) so can generally read what I want when I want. I have a couple of reading challenges that come into play and the vagaries of the library hold system (which sometimes delivers a dozen books at once and then goes for weeks offering nada) factor in but this is my leisure hobby so I like it being my choice.

A book that’s been on your TBR the longest?

I was given a copy of Jared Diamond’s GUNS, GERMS AND STEEL for my birthday almost a decade ago (in 3 weeks it will be a full decade). That was right around the time I almost stopped reading non-fiction all together. I used to read heaps of it, now…not so much and I can’t really explain it. I still have some vague notion that I will read this. Maybe a 10th anniversary celebration?

As far as fiction goes I’ve got 4 books by Australian crime writers that I’ve had since 2008. It’s ridiculous that I haven’t read any of these yet. I have read later books by all the authors. But still. In a recent purge I got rid of quite a few other books I’d acquired around the same time on the grounds that I wasn’t ever going to read them. But I’m still hoping to get through my Aussie crime writing back catalogue.

A book you recently added to your TBR?

crimesofthefatherkeneallyTom Keneally’s CRIMES OF THE FATHER is my most recent addition to the TBR. It was only published last Monday. Funnily enough given the title it’s not crime fiction (although it does explore horrendous criminal activity) but when one of my favourite authors tackles the subject of the Catholic Church I feel compelled to read.

A book on your TBR strictly because of its beautiful cover?

I really, truly don’t buy books based on their covers. If they sat on my shelves long enough Sulari Gentill’s books would qualify because I love their covers but I read ’em as soon as they arrive.

A book on your TBR that you never plan on reading?

I have had a purge this year of the books I could admit that I will never read so there’s really nothing else that I don’t plan on reading. Though I will admit there are a handful that remain using the “there might be a zombie apocalypse one day and I might survive but be locked here in the house for a long time and grateful for the distraction“. These might have to go in the next purge.

And I’ll probably have to decide soon about GUNS, GERMS AND STEEL.

An unpublished book on your TBR that you’re excited for?

As I accept so few review books I don’t have any unpublished books on the TBR at the moment.

A book on your TBR that everyone has read but you?

thegoodpeoplekenthannah29009_fThere’s really not anything I can see that would fall into this category. I don’t tend to read a lot of mainstream popular books and those that I do read are easily available from the library (which are not counted on my TBR). I suspect if I leave it for too long Hannah Kent’s recently published THE GOOD PEOPLE might be in this category soon as her first book, BURIAL RIGHTS, was much talked about for the longest time. This one was only published in September though.

A book on your TBR that everyone recommends to you?

therulesofbackyardcricket29023_fJock Serong’s THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET has been much recommended. You guys even voted for it to be my recommendation for my face-to-face book club so at least it won’t be on my TBR much longer.


A book on your TBR that you’re dying to read?

Surely this is a trick question. I want to read them all. Promise. I guess it’s Denise Mina’s RESOLUTION which is the third book of her trilogy featuring a feisty Scottish social worker. For a while I saved it because I knew it would be my last meeting with a favourite character but now it’s just ridiculous I haven’t gotten to it.

How many books are in your Goodreads TBR shelf?

I don’t do the Goodreads thing but my database tells me I have 130 unread books as of today. On the one hand I should be happy about this because at the end of October last year I had 201 unread books! Still at my current reading rate this is more than a year’s worth of reading and it is highly unlikely I’m going to acquire no new books in the next 12 months so this number won’t be going down as quickly as it ought to. But progress is progress.

The breakdown is

  • Physical books – 88
  • eBooks – 32
  • Audio Books – 10

Other numbers of curiosity

  • Number by Australian authors – 36
  • Number by female authors – 65
  • Number classed as crime fiction – 120 (hashtag obvious fact)
  • Number on the TBR 5 years or more – 37
  • Number bought new – 80

Wanna play along with this meme? Or tell me how many unread books you have? Or give me your favourite justification for owning more unread books than 1 human being can read in a year? Or a lifetime?




Posted in memes and challenges, musings | 21 Comments

Books of the month: October 2016

Pick of the month

tellthetruthshamethedevilIt is truly difficult to pick my favourite read for October as I felt blessed with so many wonderful books but I’m going to highlight Melina Marchetta’s TELL THE TRUTH, SHAME THE DEVIL which is this popular local author’s first novel written for adults (she is a multi-award winning YA author). Depicting a possible terrorist incident and the fallout from it, the book is fabulous – topical, intelligent, filled with interesting characters and telling a ripper of a yarn. More please.

The rest, in reading order 

The two I’ve marked with ** were in the running for my pick of the month, the rest are all worth reading

  • ** Jane Jago THE WRONG HAND (a fictional novel that takes a horrendous real-life crime committed by children as its inspiration; it is confronting but sensitive and I am still pondering the issues it raises)
  • Ellery Adams LETHAL LETTERS (the 6th book in the Books by the Bay series is another intelligent cosy about the strength of friendship and the secrets that families keep)
  • Michael Wood FOR REASONS UNKNOWN (this debut novel featuring a DCI returning to work after compassionate leave and asked to work on a troubling cold case is a true page turner)
  • Karin Fossum HELL FIRE (the 12th Inspector Sejer novel continues Fossum’s quest to explore why crimes are committed and offers a heart-breaking picture of how a seemingly small decision can have lasting consequences)
  • ** Larry D. Sweazy SEE ALSO MURDER (set in 1960’s North Dakota this is a melancholic tale of a remarkable woman who becomes reluctantly involved in investigating a horrendous series of murders)
  • R. Austin Freeman THE RED THUMB MARK (the nicest thing I can say about my Crimes of the Century contribution for 1907 is that it was short, its absurdly brilliant and handsome and impressive hero was unbelievable and the detail-laden plot repetitive and dull)
  • Denise Mina SANCTUM (an early standalone novel in which Mina tries something new in writing the book as the diary of a man learning whether or not his wife has been unfaithful and/or is guilty of murdering a serial killer)
  • Anna Snoekstra ONLY DAUGHTER (this month’s choice for my F2F book club had a good premise that I didn’t feel was delivered on)
  • Hans Olav Lahlum THE CATALYST KILLING (the 3rd book in a wonderful Norwegian series involves an investigation into the 1970 murder of a young communist activist and the ripple effect her murder has on those around her)
  • Emily Arsenault WHAT STRANGE CREATURES (my virtual tour of the USA via its crime novels took me to Massachusetts and this deliciously funny story about a young woman’s fight to clear her brother’s name when he is arrested for murder)
  • Mark Douglas-Home THE MALICE OF WAVES (I enjoyed this atmospheric tale about the death of a young boy on a remote Scottish island and the inestigation involving expert study of the sea and its behaviour)
  • Anya Lipska WHERE THE DEVIL CAN’T GO (I’ve owned this book for years and am now annoyed with myself for taking so long to get to this tale of the ex-pat Polish community in England and how they – and police – investigate a series of deaths)

I also reviewed Tania Chandler’s DEAD IN THE WATER this month though I read it last month.

After some sluggish reading months it feels good to be back on form though I dropped the ball with my reviewing towards the end of the month. Blame the day job for that not the books as both were very good.

Progress Towards 2016’s Bookish Goals

Challenge Goal Progress
Australian Women Writers Challenge Read 25 eligible books, review at least 20 of them Read 5.5 and reviewed 15.5 books (the 0.5 is due to a male/female writing team)
Reading US Fiction Challenge Read 6 books by new to me authors set in different states of the US  7/6 [Successfully Completed]
Reduce TBR Have a TBR of 100 or less by the end of 2016 (starting point 145) TBR = 130 at end of month
Buy Australian Buy no physical or eBooks from non-Australian stores 1 this month, 4 in total this year [Failed]
Read older books too Participate in at least 6 of the monthly Crimes of the Century challenges hosted at Past Offences  10/6 [Successfully Completed]
No Girl books Read no books with the word Girl in the title. Because meh.  0/0 achieved

I have officially completed two of my six goals now. This month I read two more books to contribute to my virtual journey around the US via new-to-me crime fiction writers. My ‘visit’ to North Dakota via SEE ALSO MURDER was an absolute treat, one of favourite books of the challenge so far and definitely an author I’m adding to my ‘must read’ list. I really enjoyed WHAT STRANGE CREATURES too though it did not give as strong a sense of its place, to the point I struggled to confirm action was taking place in Massachusetts.

Although I made some progress on reducing my old stock of TBR books (read some, DNF’d a couple, ditched some) a recent buying spree added more unread titles to the corner of the house where my TBR resides. So unless I throw away a bunch of books for no good reason I’m not going to meet my goal to reduce my TBR pile to below 100. I blame all you authors. Just look at my new Aussie author novels acquired during October!





And that’s only some of my haul <insert embarrassed emoticon here>

I even conducted a poll this month to get your help in selecting which title my book club should read next. You nominated one of those Aussie books – THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET by Jock Serong so I’ll be reading that one shortly.

Not always reading

I’ve been listening to less audio books lately due to my new obsession with true crime podcasts. I avoid true crime books like the plague but, like every other podcast junkie last year, I did enjoy Serial (for those who missed the phenomenon it was series of shows that looked in detail at a 1990’s murder for which a man has been convicted but there is a lot of doubt in some circles about his guilt, or at least about whether or not he got a fair trial). Lately there have been a plethora of copycat podcasts all looking at some crime or other. They’re not all as good as Serial (even Serial’s season 2 wasn’t as good though I enjoyed it more than many) but most are compelling in their way. There seems to be something about the medium that really suits this kind of storytelling. My favourites so far are

In the Dark which is about a 27 year old kidnapping case in Minnesota that was only solved this year. What I liked about this one is that it really tackled all aspects of the investigation into the crime and took a serious look at what went wrong in this case and some of the issues facing law enforcement generally. It’s really thought provoking too. If the episode in which the kidnapped boy’s mother who went on to become a campaigner for the creation of sex offender registries discussed why she now thinks such registries are a bad idea doesn’t make you stop and ponder then you’re missing the point. This whole series is really terrific journalism.

Breakdown (Season 2) is about the case of Justin Ross Harris who left his toddler son in a hot car all day, causing the boy’s death. There’s no question of Harris’ responsibility but he is currently on trial for malice murder, which means the authorities think he meant to kill his son in this way. Part of the reason Harris is being so harshly viewed is due to his personal behaviour which is morally questionable at best (lots of sexting and other nonsense that makes you wonder how the man ever got any work done). But is being a pig good enough reason to accuse a man of murder? The podcast is reported by a veteran Atlanta journalist who has clearly spent a lot of time covering the law and he is really providing an in-depth look at how the legal system works. I’m hooked.

Accused looks at an unsolved case, the 1978 murder of a young woman. Her boyfriend was accused and went on trial for the crime but was found not guilty. Even the woman’s family’s civil suit failed to place blame on the man. The podcast looks at whether the boyfriend is the luckiest guy alive or the blinkered approach by police hounded an innocent man while the guilty party got away with it.

What about you? Did you have a great read during October? Anything good coming up for November?  Dare I ask if you have any recommendations for true crime podcasts I should check out?

Posted in Anna Snoekstra (Aus), Anya Lipska, books of the month, Denise Mina, Ellery Adams, Emily Arsenault, Hans Olav Lahlum, Jane Jago (Aus), Karin Fossum, Larry D. Sweazy, Mark Douglas--Home, Melina Marchetta (Aus), Michael Wood, R. Austin Freeman, Tania Chandler (Aus) | 6 Comments

Review: WHAT STRANGE CREATURES by Emily Arsenault

whatstrangecreaturesemily28636_fThere’s a pretty high degree of chutzpah involved in taking a Jane Austen quote for your novel’s title but Emily Arsenault’s WHAT STRANGE CREATURES is equal to the challenge. The book is often deliciously funny and its protagonist, struggling academic and potential crazy cat lady Theresa Battle, could well be a 21st century descendant of Austen’s favourite heroines.

The book focuses on the relationship between Theresa and her older brother Jeff who we learn in the opening pages is accused of having murdered his girlfriend. In what might be evidence that names matter the Battles have low expectations for their lives

Sometimes, when my father would scratch off a losing lottery ticket or arrive at the movie theatre after all the seats had sold out, he would say cheerfully, “Oh well. We’re Battles. We’re used to disappointment.” Or worse: “We’re Battles. What chance did we have?”

Jeff, the designated family genius who nevertheless couldn’t hang on to his job as a bus driver, seems almost resigned to his fate. Theresa though is not prepared to settle for this and goes to bat for her brother by attempting to uncover who else might have murdered Kim.

The character of Theresa is fabulous. Not fabulous as in she has it all together and can kick ass and bake cupcakes too. But fabulous in the way she is totally believable. She has one failed marriage behind her, a half-finished PhD thesis about a really obscure subject, a growing menagerie of pets and a dull job that was meant to be a fill-in while she finished her dissertation. She also has a wicked sense of humour and is just as willing to turn her humorous observations on herself as on those around her. Without the funny she’d have just been rude and/or morose but with it she is endlessly readable.

The story itself was a little patchier in execution. It’s not bad but it’s not brilliant. The number of references to Theresa’s obscure thesis subject was a little high for me.The first one or two passages in which the 14th Century religious eccentric featured were vaguely interesting but after a while I was just glad I would never have to read the completed thesis. The larger story concerning Kim’s death and Theresa’s ‘investigation’ was a bit rambly too. There’s meant to be a sort of political intrigue in that Kim had become obsessed with some local politician and how she was going to show him up via a viral video. But I never really bought this. Looking back I’m going to blame the book blurb partly for this (I know, I know I don’t read book blurbs anymore. Except that I did just this once. I. Have. Learned. My. Lesson.) because it made this angle seem a lot more substantial than it ever actually was. If I hadn’t been expecting it perhaps I would have felt differently about the fact it was never really a strong theme. Still I liked the way Theresa dove into things, even the way she put herself in danger seemed realistic (if somewhat daft on occasion) and the resolution was a good one.

Given that I read the book for yet another stop on my virtual tour of the US via its crime fiction I’d have liked to gain more of a sense of this book’s location. It took me until three quarters of the way through to confirm it is actually set in Massachusetts (the state I had assigned it to on my reading list) as there is really nothing that sets it anywhere other than “small-ish University town USA”.  But this is more a book of inner places than external ones and Theresa’s inner life and her relationship with Jeff is well worth the price of admission. Sibling relationships – especially between a brother and sister – are something of a rarity in fiction and this one is thoughtfully and credibly drawn. So Arsenault’s borrowing from Austen (the full quote is ‘what strange creatures brothers are‘ from MANSFIELD PARK) is indeed well-earned.

Perhaps not one for the die-hard crime fiction fans but if you enjoy a character-driven novel with self-deprecating humour and a hint of mystery I can definitely recommend WHAT STRANGE CREATURES.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

USAFictionChallengeButtonThis is the 15th 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 [2014]
ISBN 9780062283238
Length 366 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

Posted in book review, Emily Arsenault, USA | 5 Comments

Review: THE CATALYST KILLING by Hans Olav Lahlum

thecatalystkillinglahulumFor the third instalment of what has become a favourite historical crime series for me we move out of the 60’s and into 1970. The book opens with one of the series’ heroes, Inspector Kolbjørn Kristiansen or K2 as he’s referred to by the press, sitting on a train and witnessing a young woman outside behaving erratically and seeming to be in great fear. The woman attempts to catch the train and even motions to K2 that he should pull the emergency cord after the doors close before she can board. He doesn’t, not realising what she wants until it’s too late, and a few hours later he is called to the scene of the woman’s murder. She is soon identified as Marie Morgenstierne, the young woman who was the fiancée of Falko Reinhardt, a charismatic political activist who disappeared two years earlier.

Fortunately for K2 he is once again able to call on the crime solving assistance of Patricia Borchmann. She is the daughter of an old family friend and her logic and intelligence has helped K2 solve two previous cases (or if we’re being scrupulously honest we should admit she’s done most of the solving all on her own). Patricia is in a wheelchair and chooses not to leave her home but none of that stops her from thinking things through and directing K2’s questioning of suspects and evidence collection. The series titles all relate to the type of crime Patricia sees at the heart of the story and here she feels that the killing of Marie Morgenstierne is the kind of crime that sets of a chain reaction of sorts. Events, including further killings, that might never have taken place but for the original murder. This is just one aspect of the unique perspective Patricia brings to crime solving and the series.

Another thing I thoroughly enjoy about this series is its exploration of Norwegian history. As with the previous two books there are aspects of the story that hark back to WWII but there is a lot of fascinating contemporary detail as well. Marie’s circle of activist friends are key to this element of the novel. Her missing fiancé was leader of a radical communist group which is attempting to carry on its work despite the loss of their leader. The young people’s activism is contrasted with that of a network of older men who had been convicted of being involved with the Nazis during the war and thought, perhaps, to still be active on the right-wing side of politics. Might they really be planning some kind of attack on a prominent political figure? And if so can K2 and Patricia prevent it from taking place?

The suspect pool for Marie’s murder is pretty wide. After Marie’s death there are three members of Falko Reinhardt’s group left for K2 to investigate and he must also look to former member, Miriam Filtvedt Bentsen, who chose to move to a less radical group some time after the leader’s disappearance. There are also several former Nazis whose current activities he needs to dig into and possibly even Falko Reinhard’s parents who are still struggling with the disappearance of their much-adored only child. Even Marie’s father is a potential suspect, having been estranged from his daughter largely due to their wildly opposite political leanings. This all makes for a fascinating and complex story and a difficult crime for Patricia and K2 to solve. Even the resolution here is complicated, though it is satisfying.

There’s some interesting developments in the personal lives of the main characters here too. K2 is glad that Miriam Filtvedt Bentsen proves never to be too high up the list of suspects because he becomes somewhat smitten by her. In a way this fact forms a wedge between K2 and Patricia (though not in the obvious way) and in turn provides one of the most dramatic and heart-breaking moments of the book. I always know I’m getting a bit too invested in fictional people when I start preparing to give one of them a bollocking for some aspect of their behaviour. But I really do like both these main characters and I want them to continue to solve crimes for my enjoyment (it is all about me right?) so I don’t want them being unpleasant to each other. I note though that there is another book in the series already published overseas so I’ll just have to hope that things are patched up already.

Before I wind up I must make particular mention of the translation here. It is so easy to become blasé about having access to such great books thanks to the work of largely unsung contributors. Most people, myself included, tend only to think of the translator when the writing doesn’t read naturally or feels clunky in some way but that is never the case with this series. I was particularly struck this time by the inclusion of several colloquialisms that are perfectly natural in English, describing someone as “a few sandwiches short of a picnic” for example, and couldn’t help wondering if this was an actual translation or whether in the original language a totally different derogatory phrase for calling into question someone’s intelligence was used. And if so how did Kari Dickson (this novel’s translator) choose that particular phrase? I guess I’ll never know but it fitted so perfectly in context, along with the thousands of other choices I’m sure she had to make, and as I am woefully monolingual I am eternally grateful for her efforts.

THE CATALYST KILLING might be my favourite book of this series so far (and I really liked THE HUMAN FLIES and SATELLITE PEOPLE). Along with the well-plotted classic whodunit there is the intriguing look at life in 1970’s Norway, a slew of interesting characters and more than one heart-pounding moment. Although it does have some humourous moments this book isn’t as light as its predecessors. It’s still a long way from the noir-ish end of the genre spectrum but the tensions and heartbreaks of many of the key players give this novel a more sombre tone. Ok there were tears. But I loved it anyway.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Kari Dickson
Publisher Pan Macmillan [this edition 2016]
ISBN 9781447232780
Length 406 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #3 in the Inspector Kolbjørn Kristiansen series

Posted in book review, Hans Olav Lahlum, Norway | 7 Comments

Review: SANCTUM by Denise Mina

sanctumminadenise4405_fI’ve been trying to whittle down my TBR shelves and plucked this one because I’ve owned it for over seven years without reading it. How preposterous. Especially as I love Mina’s writing.

Written after the Garnethill trilogy, which features a lovable if prickly social worker as the protagonist in some darkly comic stories, SANCTUM (apparently released as DECEPTION in the US) is a standalone novel which sees Mina heading in a completely different direction. In the novel’s prologue she tells us we’re about to read a sensational true crime diary that she owns, having been the successful bidder for the item at auction. What follows is a series of diary extracts written by Lachlan Harriot, the husband of a forensic psychiatrist who has been found guilty of murdering one of her former patients, convicted serial killer Andrew Gow. It starts just after Susie Harriot has been convicted herself when Lachlan thinks she is innocent and will be soon win an appeal. He offers to help by going through the documents and computer files in Susie’s home office. This prompts him to start his computerised diary and what he uncovers makes him question his understanding of what’s been going on with his wife. And his life.

I have to admit I didn’t really buy into the premise that this was a real world case (in fact I found the set up a bit naff) but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the fiction of a diary written from an interesting perspective. It says a lot for Mina’s skill that neither the naff-ness of the novel’s premise nor the unlikeable-ness of its narrator prevented me from getting into the book and staying with it.

It is compelling to feel like we are inside the head of someone who is undergoing some major, life-altering discoveries. His initial belief in Susie and willingness to do all he can to help get her out makes way for confusion and uncertainty as he learns new things. Snippets of information from various sources allow him to piece together an alternative version of his life and there is genuine suspense in the way Mina brings all this together. At the same time we watch Lachlan unravel somewhat in his personal life which is not all that surprising I guess. And its not what makes him unlikeable. He’s kind of a pratt to start with really in terms of his behaviour and life choices. He’s got a medical degree too but has never worked as a doctor, nor really as anything else and his decision to be a stay at home dad to the couple’s toddler daughter is not quite as redemptive as it might seem given the pair also have a full time nanny. Fair enough I suppose that he was fully occupied with his wife’s case when we meet him but I couldn’t help wondering what the heck he did all day before Susie got the sack and then went to prison. But even though he’s hardly endearing there are still some heart-wrenching moments when Lachlan has to visit Susie in prison, cope with the ‘help’ of his and Susie’s visiting family members and re-engage with normal life when he feels like everyone will be talking about him and/or Susie’s conviction.

SANCTUM’s storyline has some predictability to it but I didn’t pick the ultimate resolution and there were plenty of surprises along the way. I don’t know if we were supposed to feel like we got to know Susie – I didn’t but wasn’t that fussed – but the depiction of Lachlan is a treat. Irritating traits and all. The only thing missing for me was the dark comedy that I’ve come to associate with Mina’s work but as this novel was clearly an attempt at something brand new I won’t hold it against her. Perhaps not my favourite of Mina’s novels but still a cut above the average crime read.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Bantam Books [2002]
ISBN 0553813293
Length 362 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

Posted in book review, Denise Mina, Scotland | 5 Comments