Books of the month: January 2017

Pick of the month

thedyingdetectiveleifgw28759_fI read 11 books for the first month of the year and had a bit more variety than I normally do with one non-fiction work and a non-crime novel. Baby steps to diversity😁 I’ve found it quite difficult to pick my favourite as there was lots of good reading but I’ve settled on Leif G.W. Persson’s THE DYING DETECTIVE. The story centers on a retired policeman who attempts to solve the cold case murder of a young child from his sick bed.  As well as enjoying the characterisations, particularly of the central character, I liked the restrained and thoughtful way the book explored the issue of justice.

The rest, in reading order 

  •  Tom Keneally CRIMES OF THE FATHER (An Australian national treasure tackles the issue of the Catholic Church’s failure to adequately address the issue of abuse of children by its clergy)
  • Cath Staincliffe THE SILENCE BETWEEN BREATHS (with her usual panache Staincliffe puts us on a Manchester train on which one of the passengers is planning a terrorist act)
  • Sheila Connolly RED DELICIOUS DEATH (a cute cosy in which a young chef is killed while establishing a new restaurant in apple-growing country)
  • Josephine Pullein-Thompson GIN AND MURDER (my crimes of the century read this month took me to England’s hunting set in 1959, the setting had a real ring of authenticity)
  • Kate Dyer-Seeley SCENE OF THE CLIMB (I stopped in Oregon for my virtual tour of the US where things got deadly for a group of reality TV contestants)
  • Bill Crider TOO LATE TO DIE (Another stop on that virtual tour of the US, this time in Texas for the investigation of the murder of a young married woman with lots of visitors, this book was a runner up for my pick of the month)
  • Ariana Franklin & Samantha Norman WINTER SIEGE (a complicated historical mystery set in 1141 and involving a brutal attack on a young girl)
  • Greg Pyers THE UNFORTUNATE VICTIM (based on a true story of a murder in a gold mining town in 1865 this one reeks of authenticity)
  • Rebecca Bradley SHALLOW WATERS (a police procedural investigating a series of murders of young girls and the hunt for one who might still be alive)
  • Megan Norris LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO (the non-fiction book I read about the truly horrendous phenomenon of men who kill their children as an act of revenge against their wives and partners – it’s well written and handles the topic as sensitively as possible but the subject matter is going to be tough going for some)

Progress on bookish goals

aww2017-badgeAustralian Women Writers Challenge: Read & Review 25 books 

1 down, 24 to go. Need to pick up speed

image borrowed and edited from http://theviewfromthebluehouse.blogspot.com.au/2010/02/classic-crime-curriculum.htmlParticipate 8 times in Crimes of the Century

1 down, 7 to go. On track

mount-tbr-2017Read 36 books owned prior to the start of the year and/or reduce the TBR to less than 100 (from 131)

I read 7 books owned prior to the start of the year, but the TBR stands at 128 because some shopping got done as well. Need to work harder.

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

Buy no physical or eBooks from stores outside Australia (Audio books are my exception)

Achieved.

USAFictionChallengeButtonRead at least 10 books eligible for my virtual tour of the US via its fiction (each one set in a different state and by a new-to-me author).

2 of 10 books read. Looking good.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

What about you? How did your reading year start? Are you off with a bang or a whimper?

Posted in Ariana Franklin, Bill Crider, books of the month, Cath Staincliffe, Greg Pyers (Aus), Josephine Pullein-Thompson, Kate Dyer-Seeley, Leif G.W. Persson, Megan Norris (Aus), Rebecca Bradley, Sheila Connolly, Tom Keneally (Aus) | 9 Comments

Review: LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO by Megan Norris

lookwhatyoumademedonor30295_fI am a wuss. Sure I can take just about anything fictional murderers dish out but I am reluctant to read about their real world counterparts. In fiction the bad guys often get what’s coming to them. In reality they often don’t. And even if they do it is difficult to celebrate this when you know that real people have been hurt along the way. There is enough heartache and senseless violence in the news; I don’t feel the need to seek it out in my leisure reading. But I vowed that this year I would at least dip my toe into non-fictional crime as part of my role as wrangler of all-things-criminal for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. So I put on my big girl pants, placed several eligible books on hold at the library and as stoically as possible dove into LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO which came highly recommended and was the first of of my library holds to become available. I relay all of this as a kind of scene-setting I suppose. Letting you know that I did not approach this reading experience with the same hopeful anticipation I normally would and that true crime – or non-fiction about crime (and other things) which is what I feel this book is more accurately classed as – is not really my thing. Read this review in that light.

As book titles go I think LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO: FATHERS WHO KILL might be the best one I have ever encountered. It so utterly and completely encapsulates its subject matter. On a factual level the full title tells you what the book is about (not always a given) but the childish anger and inability to accept personal responsibility implicit in the sentiment of look what you made me do is the neatest summary you’ll find of a book’s central premise. Because this book is not about all types of fathers who kill their children (heaven help us that there are multiple categories but I refuse to be distracted by this right now). This is a book about men who kill their children as an act of revenge against their former wives and partners. The women who’ve dared to escape the abusive, controlling, often violence-filled lives these men impose.

As subject matters go it doesn’t get much grimmer than this. There’s a short, context-setting introduction which includes a survey of some studies on domestic and family violence and what limited research exists on the kinds of murder under the spotlight. This is followed by seven chapters which each focus on an Australian case ultimately proven to concern one or more children being killed by their father as an act of revenge against the mother of those children. Each of these chapters follows roughly the same format. We learn first of the circumstances of the death(s) then of the years of torment that led up to that point. Norris then details the steps taken to build a case against the men which, more often than not, involves truly heartbreaking discoveries of warning signs and lost opportunities for ‘something’ to have been done to prevent the escalation of violence in each case. Finally we learn a little of the lives of the women and remaining family members in the years since their respective tragedies irrevocably changed their lives. One case of this type is difficult enough to read about (as I learned last year reading Helen Garner’s THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF which covers the same case as chapter three of this book) but seven eerily and depressingly similar cases have an almost numbing effect in the end.

As journalist-authors go Norris is squarely on the side of the angels. Using observation of court proceedings and related events, extensive primary source research and interviews with people affected by or involved with each case the book reads first and foremost as truthful. Norris is clearly passionate and knowledgeable about this subject and the broader issue of domestic violence. The fact that she has gained the trust of so many women who are still traumatised by the events they have survived is a testament to her good intentions and genuine care. I can barely imagine how wary such women would be of the intrusion into their lives and potential for their circumstances to be misreported, misinterpreted and judged. And, although this book is harrowing from the first page to the last, it never feels exploitative or sensationalist.

As books go LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO left me feeling vaguely depressed and less vaguely impotent. There’s no doubt that the book’s subject matter is tough but Norris deals with it as sensitively as possible. However I can’t help wondering…what do I do now? Is there a bigger purpose of telling these stories than to shine a light on an almost unimaginable crime? If there is I missed it and if there isn’t, why not? I don’t mean to disrespect the women and extended family members whose personal horrors have been laid so bare but I want to know what someone like me could or should do with this information. Is it enough to be aware that such depravity can exist in the world? The book doesn’t make a compelling case for this as it showed repeatedly how various officials, experts and government agencies had prior awareness of the individuals concerned and/or the existence of a ‘thing’ known as “…spousal revenge in which children were collateral damage rather than the true targets of the offending parent’s rage.” Awareness appears to have been of precious little value in any of these cases.

LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO is well researched, solidly written and provides more evidence than any sane person could possibly need that there are indeed men who use their children as the ultimate weapon of revenge even though most of those men are so juvenile and self-absorbed they will present themselves as the injured party if they live to tell their pathetic tales. That I am uneasy because the book doesn’t do more…doesn’t tell me what to do now…says more about me than it does about the book itself. I hate the sense of injustice and powerlessness that discussion of non-fictional crime generates. That said, there are glimpses of hope here and there that things – things like community attitudes to domestic violence and official means of dealing with the complexities of domestic and family violence – are changing. Though if it feels agonisingly slow to me (the oldest murders discussed in this book occurred more than two decades ago after all) how glacial must it feel to those directly impacted by our communal and systemic failures? But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps awareness is as good place as any to start. And then there is the amazing strength and resilience demonstrated by the real targets of the cruelty and cowardice displayed by the fathers in this book. Such women will surely be an inspiration to many.


aww2017-badgeThis is the first book I’ve read and reviewed for the sixth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Echo [2016]
ISBN 9781760061638
Length 312 pages
Format paperback
Book Series n/a
Source of review copy borrowed from the library

Posted in book review, Megan Norris (Aus) | Tagged | 14 Comments

Review: THE DYING DETECTIVE by Leif G.W. Persson

thedyingdetectiveleifgw28759_fAlthough billed as a standalone novel, with legendary policeman Lars Martin Johansson taking centre stage THE DYING DETECTIVE is not entirely new territory for Persson’s fans. He’s had at least a minor role in all three of the author’s books I’ve previously read and he was the main character in 2015’s FREE FALLING AS IF IN A DREAM. Here he has retired and as the book opens he suffers a stroke and heart damage, the side-effect of a life of excess. While recovering in hospital he meets a doctor with a secret. Her father, a pastor, confessed on his deathbed that he knew the identity of the person responsible for a brutal rape and murder of a child that had gone unsolved for 25 years. Of course he failed to reveal the person’s name. Johansson, the policeman who could see round corners when he was in top form, becomes obsessed with solving the case even though there is scant evidence to go on and his health is not at its best.

Although much of the crime solving here takes place from Johansson’s sick bed, or his sick couch to be more precise, and the tension is not triggered in the usual ways this is the most accessible of Persson’s novels I’ve read. On previous occasions I’ve struggled with the level of detail even when enjoying the book overall but this one is relatively short and seems to have made the acquaintance of a good editor.

Storywise this is not one for fans of non-stop action as the case is closed with a series of tiny clues being quietly pieced together. I found this quite delicious but appreciate that it’s a little slow for some. At about the half-way point of the novel Johansson identifies who he thinks responsible for the murder of nine year old Yasmine Uryegan and I’d argue that’s when the real tension starts to build. How is Johansson going to prove that his gut feeling is correct? And, more importantly, what is anyone going to do if he manages to pull that off given that the statute of limitations on the crime has expired? This last issue proves a particularly thorny one as various characters who have been roped in to the investigation have different ideas about how justice might be delivered in such a scenario. Will they ‘take care of’ the suspect as Johansson’s borrowed muscle would like to do? Or will a lifelong commitment to doing the honourable thing prevail? It’s a thought-provoking dilemma and the issues are well-teased out.

The characters here also seem to shine in a way that hasn’t been the case with past books of Persson’s. Johansson himself could be insufferable – being a hotshot policeman who never made mistakes – but the fact that he is fragile due to his health problems and is facing his own mortality head on gives him a real humanity. I thought it a wonderfully credible depiction of the ageing process and of someone used to being in control of things having to deal with the gradual loss of that control. The minor characters who become embroiled in the investigation are also engaging but the other real standout character is the criminal who even via the mostly second-hand knowledge we have of him becomes a very vivid person. Throughout the book Persson demonstrates true insight into human beings at their most vulnerable.

I’d been tempted to skip this book after really struggling with FREE FALLING AS IF IN A DREAM but I saw it on a couple of trusted bloggers’ best-of lists for last year so decided to give it a go and am very glad I did. It might be my favourite of all his novels though I’ve still got a big soft spot for ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER LIFE. Utterly mislabeled as Nordic Noir, Johansson’s mild self-destructive streak aside he is about as anti-noir as it’s possible for a hero to be, this book is nevertheless an excellent example of crime fiction that mixes the personal and political with police procedure in a very compelling way.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Neil Smith
Publisher Doubleday (this edition 2016)
ISBN 9780857520890
Length 352 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone (sorta)
Source of review copy borrowed from the library

Posted in book review, Leif G.W. Persson, Sweden | 7 Comments

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.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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 | 6 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.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
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