Tuesday, December 23, 2008

You know it's the summer holiday season in Newcastle when ...

... the shops are bedlam; 'car park rage' abounds; there's an eerie glow in the night sky caused by excessive Christmas lighting; the beaches are crowded; Santa goes surfing ... and there's a new Barry Maitland story serialised in the local paper.

This year the story, Blood River, is set on the Danube River and will unfold over 14 episodes.

In an interview last week, Barry said there was "a knack to writing in episodes ... you have to end each part with something that will keep people interested and coming back for more." He certainly did that in Monday's first episode which started with Kate on a cruise on the Danube, one year after a boating accident that left her husband Larry missing, presumed drowned, and her brother dead. While having a quiet drink in a Viennese cafe, a strangely familiar man sits beside her, and she is shocked to find that it's Larry.

This is, I believe, the third year that Barry has written a story for the summer editions of The Herald. Last year's story, Blood Pearl, was set in Broome in the north west of Western Australia. And the 2006 story was Blood in Umbria. I have enjoyed all of them.

The bad news is that unless you can get hold of print copies of the The Herald you won't be able to read it, as the story doesn't appear to be available from the newspaper's website.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Paying for It by Tony Black

Publisher: Preface, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-84809-021-7

First line: Funerals make my eyes water.

Gus Dury is an alcoholic on a downward spiral. He had a promising career as a journalist until he was involved in an unfortunate incident with a member of the Scottish parliament. With no job and no prospects, and his wife starting divorce proceedings, life looks much better through the bottom of glass.

When his mate Col’s twenty year old son, Billy, is killed, the official verdict is suicide. Col knows it was murder and asks Gus to investigate. Gus soon finds that Billy was working for a Russian gangster called Zalinskas and had got himself in way over his head.

As he delves deeper into Zalinskas' business dealings, Gus discovers a people-trafficking operation smuggling in girls from Eastern Europe to work in brothels, and uncovers police and political corruption at the highest levels. He is warned off a number of times, in increasingly violent ways. But Gus is not an easy man to intimidate, and he doggedly continues on to the shocking conclusion.

PAYING FOR IT is a terrific first novel from yet another Scottish crime writer. (What do they put in the water there?!) The Edinburgh that author Tony Black portrays is a very dark place, but it's not just the criminal underworld that is so dangerous and brutal. Flashbacks to Gus's horrendous childhood with an extremely violent and abusive father, show that home isn't always the safe place it should be.

Gus is a hard man with a smart mouth. He has a black humour, and his speech and thoughts are peppered with slang and classic noir-style metaphors. His character develops a depth and complexity that isn't immediately apparent, and despite all his faults, he is a likeable character. His life may be a complete mess, but underneath he's a decent, caring person and a loyal friend. He reminds me a lot of Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor.

I have one minor quibble – the constant naming of cigarette brands. It seemed every time Gus lit up (which was quite often) he smoked a different brand, and for some reason we had to be told this. However, although irritating, it didn't affect my overall enjoyment of the book.

With plenty of action, smart dialogue, a pacy plot, and a group of likeable characters, PAYING FOR IT is a splendid debut.

Tony Black is a journalist living in Edinburgh. He was born in Newcastle, NSW (hey, that's where I live!) but grew up in Scotland and Ireland. PAYING FOR IT is his first novel, and with the second, GUTTED, in the wings, hopefully this is just the beginning of a long series about Gus Dury.

For more information visit Tony Black's website.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Bethlehem Murders by Matt Rees

Published: Atlantic Books, 2006
ISBN: 9 781843 546030

First line: Omar Yussef, a teacher of history to the unhappy children of Dehaisha refugee camp, shuffled stiffly up the meandering road, past the gray, stone homes built in the time of the Turks on the edge of Beit Jala.

When a young member of the Palestinian resistance is shot dead near his home on the outskirts of Bethlehem, George Saba, a Christian, is arrested as the collaborator who led the Israelis to him. As a member of the minority Christian community, he is a convenient scapegoat, but Omar Yussef, his old teacher and friend, is convinced that George has been framed.

With George under threat of imminent execution, Omar takes leave from his teaching job to carry out his own investigation. His enquiries bring him up against the Martyrs Brigade, the resistance fighters who effectively run the town. To Omar, they are no more than a gang of corrupt and violent thugs. Everyone, including the police and legal system are powerless against them, and it seems Omar is the only one interested in the truth. As he moves closer to discovering that truth, he puts himself and his family in danger.

THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS is a fascinating book, as much for its insight into the effect of the ongoing conflict in Palestine on the lives of ordinary people, as it is for the mystery. Rees brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of a town in the middle of a battlezone, and a people living with daily violence, fear and uncertainty.

Rees has created a very different and exceptional hero in Omar Yussef. A middle-aged school teacher with a full set of human foibles, he is a man of great integrity, who ultimately cares more about the truth than his own safety. He hates what has happened to his town, and he mourns the time in the past when Christian and Muslim could live together in harmony.

There are some horrific and brutal scenes, made all the more so by Rees' note at the beginning of the book which states that all the crimes in the book were based on real events in Bethlehem. Omar Yussef 's quiet, cynical humour provides a few lighter moments in an otherwise rather bleak book. Rees is a wonderful storyteller and this beautifully written book brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion. I look forward to reading more of Omar Yussef's adventures.

This book also goes by the title of THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM (USA).

Matt Rees is a journalist who has worked in the Middle East for more than 10 years. He has written two more books featuring Omar Yussef, THE SALADIN MURDERS (or A GRAVE IN GAZA in the USA - why do they do that?), and THE SAMARITAN'S SECRET (which rather surprisingly appears to have the same title on both sides of the pond). You can find more information at Matt Ree's website.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Doors Open by Ian Rankin

Published: Orion, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-7528-9071-5

First line: The open door was only yards away, and beyond it lay the outside world, eerily unaffected by anything happening inside the abandoned snooker hall.

Mike Mackenzie is very rich and very bored, so when a friend suggests the perfect crime he is more than a little interested. Professor Robert Gissing, the head of the Art School, annoyed about the amount of art locked away from public view, in private collections and warehouses, proposes the “repatriation of some of those poor imprisoned works of art”.

Mike, Gissing and another friend, banker Allan Cruikshank, devise a plan to use the annual Doors Open day to steal a number of paintings from the National Gallery of Scotland's warehoused collection and make it appear that nothing is actually missing. As their plans begin to take shape they realise they are going to need some 'professional' help. A chance encounter with Chib Calloway, a local gangster and an old school acquaintance of Mike's, suddenly makes it all possible.

But it all starts to go very wrong when Mike finds he is much more deeply involved in the criminal world than he ever wanted to be. Bringing Chib into the plan may not have been such a good idea after all. But Chib is not their only worry – there's the dogged policeman, the talented but dangerously mischievous student, the greedy girlfriend, not to mention the very large Norwegian bikie called Hate.

DOORS OPEN is the eagerly awaited first post-Rebus book by Ian Rankin. It is not a totally new work, but a reworked and extended version of a serialised story originally written for the New York Times. Set in the Edinburgh art world, it is a very different environment to that inhabited by Rebus, however there are some common themes. The two faces of Edinburgh again feature strongly and the association of characters from both sides has echoes of Rebus and Cafferty, but Mike and Chib are quite different characters, and their relationship is very different as well.

While DOORS OPEN does not have the depth of the Rebus books, it is written with Rankin's usual flair, and so can't fail to entertain. It doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is - a terrific fast paced thriller. Fairly lightweight but with a dark edge, the plot has enough twists and turns to make for a satisfying read. The book really comes into its own in the last third when it becomes much edgier, and I had trouble putting it down from that point. Much as I enjoyed this book, I'm hoping that Rankin was just using it as a palate cleanser before returning to something with a bit more substance.

Ian Rankin lives in Edinburgh and is the author of the wonderful Inspector Rebus series. More information can be found at Ian Rankin's website.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Snowball in Hell by Christopher Brookmyre

Published: Little Brown, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-4087-0062-4
Pages: 393

First line: Ladies and gentlemen, roll up! Roll on up! Step inside!

Are you sick of reality tv? Tired of the endless parade of vapid ‘celebrities’ it creates? Simon Darcourt is, and his response to it is certainly turning (and in some cases, removing) heads. Darcourt, aka the Black Spirit, is a hired assassin who has been keeping a low profile ever since the spectacular failure of his last job. But now he's decided to come out of retirement, and with the help of the Internet, is creating quite a stir with his very own reality show, one that his celebrity contestants are literally dying to be part of.

With the body count rising, the police call in Detective Angelique de Xavia, formerly a Glasgow police officer who is now working with an anti-terrorism task force based in Paris. Angelique has crossed paths with Darcourt before and knows how dangerous he is. She also knows that if she is going to stop him, she is going to need help – the special kind of help only her old lover Zal Innez, bank robber and magician, can provide. But first she has to find him, and then keep him from being arrested.

A SNOWBALL IN HELL brings together characters from two of Brookmyre’s previous books, A BIG BOY DID IT AND RAN AWAY and THE SACRED ART OF STEALING in a story that is a witty, sharp and sarcastic poke at the cult of celebrity. Nothing is as it seems in this book, and just when you think you’ve finally figured out what’s really going on, Brookmyre pulls off another twist. Although it takes a while to set up all the characters and bring them together, the complex and pacy plot makes this darkly comic book a real page turner.

This is Brookmyre in full rant mode and his amusing diatribes on celebrity and media struck a chord with me. He seems to be one of those authors you either ‘get’ or you don’t, and if, like me, you are in the first category, then you’ll love this book. While reading this, I did start to wonder what sort of person Brookmyre had turned me into, as I at times found myself rather guiltily cheering on Darcourt and laughing at some very gruesome, albeit imaginative, murders!

Christopher Brookmyre’s website is well worth a look.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Wallander telemovies bought by channel 7

I read in the SMH today that channel 7 have bought Kenneth Branagh's Wallander series. Filmed earlier this year in Sweden, the three 90 minute episodes are based on the Henning Mankell novels Sidetracked, One Step Behind and Firewall. I'm still not sure about the idea of Branagh in the role of Wallander, but look forward to the series anyway.

Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander
Celebrity photo

This BBC series is apparently due to begin screening in the UK sometime this month, but there is no word yet on a screening date for Australia. Let's hope the network treats the series and its fans with more respect than has sometimes been the case in the past with the commercial networks and non-mainstream series.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Pyramid by Henning Mankell

Published: Harvill Secker, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-846-55098-0

When Kurt Wallander first appeared in 1990 he was a senior police officer, 42 years old and divorced. The five stories in this collection fill in Wallander's back story, from his first years in the police force until the beginning of that first book, Faceless Killers.

The stories begin when a 21 year old Wallander finds his elderly neighbour shot dead. He is still a uniformed police officer in Malmo, but with a transfer to Criminal Investigation pending, his future boss encourages his involvement in the investigation of the apparent suicide.

A routine call on his way home on Christmas Eve 1975 turns into a terrifying couple of hours for Wallander in ‘The Man with the Mask’. In this suspenseful short story Wallander is held hostage by an armed and desperate man. Despite the circumstances, Wallander’s compassion and social conscience are evident.

By the third story, ‘The Man on the Beach’, and after a gap of 12 years, Wallander is settled in Ystad as a Chief Inspector, and all the familiar supporting characters from the books are there. When a taxi driver finds his passenger dead in the back seat, tests reveal he had been poisoned. Wallander discovers the long-standing obsession that led to the man’s death.

A man is found bashed to death in his studio in ‘Death of the Photographer’. Why someone who led such an apparently dull and routine life would be subject to such a brutal attack is mystifying, but the investigation reveals that the man had a secret life.

The last story, which gave the collection its name, is novella length, and takes place in December 1989. It leads right up to the beginning of Faceless Killers - literally. In a clever touch, Mankell brings the beginning of Faceless Killers into the last page of The Pyramid. In this complex story, Wallander and his team are stretched to the limit investigating several seemingly unrelated crimes: the crash of an unidentified small plane, drugs, and several apparently unconnected murders.

I found The Pyramid an extremely satisfying collection of stories. All the elements that helped form the Wallander we have come to know from the novels are here: Mona, the woman he married; his eccentric father, and their difficult relationship; and Rydberg, his mentor. And throughout is the theme common to the books, of a changing society – what was happening to Sweden?

These are typical Wallander stories, with the longer stories demonstrating the complex plots Mankell is known for. From that first case, Wallander displays the investigative style he will manifest throughout his career: the intuitive leaps, doggedness, tendency to make mistakes, and go it alone, often putting himself at risk in the process.

The stories chart the progress of Wallander’s seemingly always doomed relationship with Mona, first as girlfriend, then wife and ex-wife. The conflict between his career and the relationship is clear from the beginning. Even when Wallander is married to her, Mona’s role in the stories is insignificant, and she remains a shadowy figure in the background.

Rydberg, the mentor whose wisdom he constantly refers to in the novels, is likewise hardly any more fleshed out. Wallander’s early years in Ystad, when Rydberg’s guidance would have been most evident, are not covered in any of the stories. Rydberg spends a lot of the time off sick, so we see only a little interaction between them.

According to Mankell’s Foreword to The Pyramid, this collection came into being when he realised that he had started writing stories in his head that took place long before that day in January 1990 when the Wallander series began. Two of the stories have not been published before.

Most short story collections lend themselves to being dipped into, picking a story here and a story there. However, The Pyramid is better read as a whole from beginning to end. The Pyramid is essential reading for fans of the Kurt Wallander series, but reads well on its own, and it would work well as a first introduction to Wallander for newcomers to the series.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Anthony Award winners

It seems to be award season at the moment. The Anthony Awards are presented annually at the Bouchercon mystery convention, which is being held in Baltimore this year. This year's winners are:

Best novel:
Laura Lippman - What the Dead Know

Best first novel:
Tana French - In the Woods

Best paperback original:
P.J. Parrish
- A Thousand Bones

Short story:
Laura Lippmann - Hardly Knew Her (story available in PDF)

Critical work:
Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower and Charles Foley - Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters

Special Services:
Jon and Ruth Jordan - Crime Spree Magazine

Web Site:
Stan Ulrich and Lucinda Surber - Stop, You're Killing Me!

A list of all the nominees can be found at the 2008 Anthony Awards site.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Davitt Award Winners

The winners of the Davitt Awards which were presented last night have already been announced on other blogs, and if you head over to Karen of AustCrime's post you'll find links to further information about all the winners:
  • Best crime novel - Katherine Howell for Frantic.
  • Best young adult - Mandy Sayer for The Night has a Thousand Eyes.
  • Best true crime - Janette Fife-Yeomans for Killing Jodie.
  • Readers choice award - Lindy Cameron for her editing of Scarlet Stiletto: the First Cut.
Congratulations to all!

I've only read Katherine Howell's book, and I can say it was a very well-deserved win. Frantic was a terrific read, and in the reading notes I made at the time I said:
Paramedic Sophie Phillips's life falls apart when her police officer husband, Chris, is gunned down on their doorstep, and their baby son is taken. The police believe the attack was motivated by Chris's involvement in, or knowledge of, police corruption. But Sophie thinks it may be a result of her own actions. With her husband in intensive care, Sophie cruises the streets trying to find her son. As the days wear on, an increasingly desperate Sophie enlists the aid of Chris's partner in a daring and dangerous plan to discover what has happened to her baby. The pace of this thriller was exhausting, and the sense of urgency kept me turning the pages at an ever increasing speed. Excellent first novel from an author to watch.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The 8th Davitt Awards

The Davitt Awards are presented annually by Sisters in Crime Australia for the best crime novel by an Australian woman published in the previous year. This year there are 41 nominees in three categories, adult, young adult and true crime. There will also be a readers' choice award.

The awards will be presented on Friday 10th October at the Celtic Club Restaurant in Melbourne.

This year's nominees for best crime novel are:
  • Sydney Bauer, Gospel (Pan Macmillan)
  • Joyce Berendes, The Fourteenth Day (Zeus)
  • Robin Bowles, The Curse of the Golden Yo-Yo (The Five Mile Press)
  • Lindy Cameron, Redback (Mira)
  • Lindy Cameron, ed., Scarlet Stiletto – The First Cut (Mira)
  • Lauren Crow, Bye Bye Baby (HarperCollins)
  • Kathryn Fox, Skin and Bone (Pan Macmillan)
  • Liz Filleul, To All Appearance Dead (Bettany Books)
  • Leah Giarrantano, Vodka Doesn’t Freeze (Random House)
  • Jane Goodall, The Calling (Hachette Livre)
  • Alison Goodman, Killing the Rabbit (Random House/Bantam)
  • Kerry Greenwood, Trick or Treats (Allen & Unwin)
  • Kerry Greenwood, A Question of Death (Allen & Unwin)
  • Sheridan Hay, The Secret of Lost Things (HarperCollins/4th Estate)
  • Katherine Howell, Frantic (Pan Macmillan)
  • Janette Turner Hospital, Orpheus Lost (HarperCollins/4th Estate)
  • Dorothy Johnston, Eden (Wakefield Press)
  • Wendy Laing, Cock of the Walk (Writers Exchange E-publishing)
  • Wendy Laing, Severance Packages (Writers Exchange E-publishing)
  • Gabrielle Lord, Shattered (Hachette Livre)
  • Pat Noad, Rockhound (Zeus)
  • Susan Parisi, Blood of Dreams (Penquin/Viking)
  • Dorothy Porter, El Dorado (Pan Macmillan/Picador)
  • Leigh Redhead, Cherry Pie (Allen & Unwin)
  • Mandy Sayers, The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (HarperCollins)
  • Felicity Young, An Easeful Death (Fremantle Arts Centre Press)
A full list of nominees in all categories can be found at the Sisters in Crime website.

The Bloomsday Dead by Adrian McKinty

Published: Serpent’s Tail, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-84668-631-3

First line: State LY Plum P. Buck Mulligan.

In hiding from his old enemies, Michael Forsythe is working as head of security in a big hotel in Lima, Peru. Returning to his room one night he is ambushed by two gunmen who, instead of killing him, hand him a phone. The voice on the other end is that of his old girlfriend, Bridget Callaghan. Twelve years ago Michael killed her mob boss fiancé, and ever since Bridget has been trying to settle the score.

However, now she needs his help. Her eleven year old daughter has gone missing in Belfast, and she needs his local knowledge and contacts in the Belfast criminal world to find her. She begs him to help her, promising that, if he gets Siobhan back, the slate will be wiped clean.

Unsure whether he should trust Bridget, Michael nevertheless returns to Ireland, and, from the moment he lands it seems he is a marked man. With Bridget swearing she isn't behind the attacks, he is left trying to work out what other old enemies he left behind him in Ireland all those years ago.

The Bloomsday Dead is the third in the Michael Forsythe trilogy, and again the theme of revenge is strong. Michael is torn between trusting Bridget and protecting himself, but it is clear he still has feelings for her. It is as much for this reason as the chance to rid himself of his nemesis (or one of them anyway) that he goes to Belfast to help her.

Michael is not someone who moves unobtrusively through his world. Whether he is looking for it or not, trouble seems to find him and he leaves a trail of mayhem wherever he goes. He is not a nice person, hurting and killing people without compunction, and is not a character you can warm to easily, yet I somehow found myself liking him anyway. Michael is seemingly indestructible as he overcomes villain after villain in often incredible circumstances. He not only survives being severely beaten up more than once, but bounces back with enough strength to best the next assailant.

The Bloomsday Dead is a brutal and violent book, but with a liberal dose of black humour. The level of over-the-top violence is more than I’m normally comfortable with, but I found myself sucked into the story, and McKinty's writing kept me reading until the thrilling conclusion. This book necessarily refers to events and characters from the first book in the series, so you should definitely read Dead I Well May Be before tackling this one.

Adrian McKinty was born and grew up in Northern Ireland, and lived in the USA for a number of years before moving to Melbourne.

(If you’re wondering about that cryptic first line, it’s code used among the hotel security officers. It’s also a clever reworking of the first line of James Joyce’s Ulysses.)

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel

Published: Quercus, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-84724-366-9

First line: I spent the first summer after the end of the war with distant relations in the country.

On a remote farm in Germany, the Danner family and their maid are found brutally murdered with a pickaxe. Old man Danner was a cruel and overbearing man who ruled his family with an iron fist. His wife, a deeply religious woman, was cowed by his brutality. Their daughter Barbara, also a victim of his abuse, had a daughter from a brief marriage. Several years later she gave birth to a son and although she never revealed her son’s paternity, a neighbouring farmer has always claimed he was the father.

The story of what happened on the farm is interspersed with transcripts of interviews with the local villagers and neighbours of the victims, as well as prayers. This might sound a little odd, but the effect is quite stunning and it creates a hauntingly atmospheric book. The narrative is told from numerous points of view including the victims and the murderer. The interviews give us different perspectives on the Danner family and the other people in their sphere. The prayers are a poignant full stop to events in the story.

The Murder Farm is set in the early 1950s, but based on a true unsolved crime from the 1930s. Schenkel has woven a compelling story around the events, and produced a brilliantly plausible solution. The clever thing that she has done is to write it in such a way that the reader is the only one who discovers the solution.

The writing is beautifully spare, and although The Murder Farm is only 181 pages, it says almost as much between the lines as it does on the page. It is an enthralling story, and one you will want to read in one sitting.

Andrea Maria Schenkel lives in Germany, and THE MURDER FARM is her first novel. It won first place in the German Crime Prize as well as the Friedrich-Glauser Prize.

Andrea Schenkel appeared on a panel with Adrian McKinty and Michael Robotham at the Melbourne Writers Festival this year. I picked this book up after the session and had it signed, which Andrea did with a fountain pen - and that’s something you don’t see much these days! I watched Karen devour this book while travelling on the train to and from MWF that day. She kept looking up at regular intervals to say 'you're going to love this'. And, well, what can I say - she knows me, or at least my reading tastes, too well. happy smiley

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Broken by Karin Fossum

Published: Harvill Secker, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-846-55061-4

First line: I see them in the porch light.

A middle-aged woman awakens one night to find a man sitting in the chair by her bed. She is a writer and the man is Alvar Eide, one of her potential characters. He has been waiting his turn to have his story told, but has become impatient.

Alvar is a contented man with a comfortable flat, an old car he rarely uses, a modest nest egg, and a good job at an art gallery. He has no family or friends, but that's the way he likes it. He is alone but not lonely. This quiet self contained existence has suited him for his 42 years, and he neither expects nor wants anything more than to continue in the same way. Then two things happen to turn his ordered life upside down.

Firstly, Lindys, a young homeless heroin addict, comes into the gallery. Instead of following his usual instincts and sending her on her way, he gives her a cup of coffee. She returns a few weeks later and begins to worm her way into his life.

Secondly he becomes obsessed with a new painting in the gallery. It is called 'Broken' and its breathtaking image speaks to Alvar in a way no other painting ever has. He desires it and can just afford it, but like most things in his life, he is frozen with indecision.

Broken is a fascinating book and it kept me engrossed as it examined the odd relationship between Alvar and Lindys, and explored the 'broken' theme. Although in quite different ways, Alvar and Lindys are both outsiders, social misfits, whose lives can be seen as broken in some way.

Alvar is not equipped to handle this headstrong young woman, and as she insinuates herself into his life, making greater and greater demands, he feels powerless to resist. He sees himself as a 'good person', and so buckles time and again in the face of Lindys' demands.

Lindys challenges everything Alvar has ever believed about himself and his life. They are polar opposites, and yet they are drawn to each other. At one point Alvar confesses to actually liking Lindys, to admiring her approach to life, her devil-may-care attitude, whereas he has order and control but is 'trapped inside myself'.

As his story unfolds, Alvar continues to visit the author, usually in a fairly anxious state, asking what is going to happen and making suggestions. There is something a little surreal about their conversations, and it made me think of the number of authors I have heard speak of their characters as having a life of their own.

The tension builds as you wonder where and how it can end until the shocking and unexpected conclusion is reached. Broken is an extraordinary and poignant book, and one that stayed with me for some time after finishing it. It is not one of Fossum's excellent Inspector Sejer series, and is not really a crime book, but it is certainly suspenseful.

Friday, September 5, 2008

MWF - the first weekend Part Two

A combination of a hectic round of extra curricular activities and a dose of the dreaded lurgy which has laid me low for the best part of a week, has meant that my reports on MWF are just a tad later than expected. And as I took no notes, the time lag and the consumption of considerable amounts of alcohol (medicinal purposes only, of course!) means that details have become a little hazy. But here goes anyway.

The Sunday of the first weekend saw us going to two sessions, only one of which was on crime fiction.

'The Moral of the Story' had Barry Maitland in conversation with Peter Mares. Along with a more broad ranging discussion on aspects of crime fiction, Barry read from and discussed his new stand-alone novel, Bright Air.

This session was recorded for Radio National's Book Show and the podcast is available at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/bookshow/stories/2008/2343718.htm. I don't know if it will be available forever, but it's still there now.

'The Honest Trader', a non crime event, discussed moral responsibility in the global marketplace. The speakers were Duncan Green, Head of Research at Oxfam GB; Kenneth Davidson, a senior business columnist with The Age, and Heikki Patomäki from RMIT and also a Professor of International Relations at the University of Helsinki, Finland.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Melbourne Writers Festival - the first weekend Part One

After arriving in Melbourne on Thursday and successfully rendezvousing with Sunnie from Launceston and Sally from Darwin, Karen from AustCrime drove us to her place in the hills. After a riotous welcome from the dogs, and a slightly more subdued one from Karen's other half (we were pleased he didn't also leap all over us with muddy paws!) we got down to the serious business of having fun. We spent Friday wandering around the local area, visiting a few bookshops, and, er, um, acquiring one or two - ish.

Melbourne Writers Festival started for us on Saturday when we attended two sessions. The first was a non-crime event called 'Getting Personal' with David Sedaris, Judith Lucy and Nam Le. They spoke on using their personal lives as material for their books. David Sedaris and Judith Lucy had us in stitches, and Nam Le, although competing with a professional humourist and a comedian, was able to keep us interested with some amusing anecdotes, and thoughtful comments.

The second session was 'Reading the Landscape' with Barry Maitland, Nick Gadd and David Francis discussing how they used landscape in their mysteries to evoke a mood and create tension. In their latest works they have used a shard of rock rearing out of the southern ocean, a Melbourne suburban level crossing, and the icy splendour of Moscow, respectively. While I only knew of Barry Maitland's work, they were all fascinating to listen to.

Between sessions we wandered up town, and, er, somehow stumbled across a couple more bookshops, the wonderful Readers Feast, and of course, what would a trip to Melbourne be without a visit to Kill City. I think a few more books may have found their way into my bag.

After many years at the Malthouse, MWF moved to a new location at Federation Square this year. So far I've found Fed Square to a rather cold and impersonal environment. It's lacking a central social space to gather between sessions. There is nowhere to sit except in cafes and bars where you are obliged to buy something. I can't help feeling that MWF has lost its soul.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Crime by Irvine Welsh

First line: She’d wanted to tell Momma that this one was no good.

Burnt out Edinburgh cop Ray Lennox is on holiday in Miami with his fiancée, Trudi. He’s on stress leave after his latest case, the abduction, sexual abuse and murder of seven year old Britney Hamil. He is physically and emotionally wrung out and has begun to slip back into his alcohol and cocaine addictions. Trudi is completely focussed on planning their wedding, only seeming to take her attention from Perfect Bride magazine long enough to chide Ray for his lack of interest, and for his drinking.

After an argument with Trudi, Ray goes on the town seeking the alcohol and drugs he craves. In a bar he meets two women, Robyn and Starry, and goes with them to Robyn’s place, where the cocaine flows freely. When two men arrive to join the party, things start to get ugly. After the ensuing altercation, Ray finds himself alone in the apartment with Robyn’s ten year old daughter, Tianna. Next morning, an obviously frightened Robyn phones and asks him to take Tianna to a friend where she will be safe. So Ray and Tianna embark on a road trip across Florida to the Gulf of Mexico.

Ray and Tianna's story is interspersed with chapters which follow the course of the investigation into Britney's death. Ray is still haunted by the case and he feels responsible for not being able to save Britney. As the story unfolds we begin to realise that there is something personal behind Ray’s crusade against the paedophiles.

CRIME’s main themes are paedophilia and the sexualisation of children. Some of the most disturbing scenes are when we see the world through Tianna's eyes. Old beyond her years, with experiences no ten year old should ever have had, her shifts from child to ‘woman’, with accompanying seductive behaviour is confronting and quite shocking. It makes Ray even more aware that, by being with Tianna, he has put himself in danger of being cast in the role of the people he despises.

Ray is drawn to dark side of policing, but it gets to him, and he uses cocaine to help him forget, “to make him not think about dead children.” The trip to save Tianna becomes a personal journey for Ray. He is an extremely complex character, not particularly likeable at first, but as we learn more about him we begin to understand what drives him, and to see just how precarious his mental state is.

One light spot in this rather dark tale is the incongruous image of Perfect Bride magazine which Ray carries with him throughout, determined to return it to Trudi. This beacon of hope and happiness makes a cameo appearance in some of the most sordid scenes, and the contrast is always jarring.

CRIME is not your usual crime story, but then Welsh is not your usual crime writer. It’s an exceptional, if somewhat disturbing and confronting tale, part police procedural, part lone crusader; but mostly it’s Ray’s story, superbly told by a master storyteller.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Voodoo Doll by Leah Giarratano

Published: Random House, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-86325-614-8

First line: Face mashed into the carpet, Joss concentrated on breathing.

Joss Preston-Jones, his wife Isobel, and their young daughter Charlie are spending the evening at the home of Isobel’s boss when they are caught up in a vicious home invasion. Terrorised by the machete wielding, balaclava clad gang, Joss is horrified when he recognises one of them, and even worse he’s certain the moment of recognition was mutual. Joss has his own reasons for not telling the police of his suspicions, but he knows Henry Nguyen, nicknamed Cutter, will not rest until he has hunted down Joss and his family.

This is just the most recent in a series of increasingly violent home invasions in Sydney’s western suburbs. A police taskforce has been set up to investigate the crimes, and the newly promoted Sergeant Jill Jackson is transferred to Liverpool to be part of the team. When the attacks escalate to murder, the pressure is on to try to stop this dangerous psychopath before he can kill again. Jill finds herself partnered with the enigmatic Federal Police officer, Gabriel Delahunt, as they reinterview previous victims in the hope of uncovering a clue to the identity of the gang members.

Voodoo Doll is told from three different points of view: the police, Joss, and Cutter. We know who the killer is from the start, so the tension comes from Joss’s very palpable fear; our knowledge of Cutter’s growing need for violence; and not knowing if the police can stop him before he strikes again.

It is the strong characterisation that really makes Voodoo Doll stand out. Giarratano, a clinical psychologist, brings her experience of working with trauma survivors to her writing.

With the events of the previous book, Vodka Doesn't Freeze, now behind her, we see a more secure, more optimistic Jill in this book; a Jill who sometimes experiences “spontaneity, joy, hope”. Although she still has a long way to go, she is beginning to let people into her life. One of those people is her new partner, Gabriel Delahunt.

Delahunt is an intriguing character with his slightly bizarre manner and unorthodox methods. During interviews, Jill finds his seemingly disinterested attitude irritating, but soon realises it is merely a cover for a very keen observer of human behaviour. He manages to get under Jill’s defences and she is shocked to find herself relaxing in his company after only short acquaintance. It will be interesting to see if this relationship develops in future books.

Joss is an ex-soldier who is still haunted by the horrors he witnessed as part of the peace-keeping force in Rwanda. As the story unfolds we find out more about Joss’s childhood connection with Cutter. Cutter is a very disturbed individual who is largely the result of some terrible lessons he learnt from his grandfather.

Vodka Doesn't Freeze was an exceptional first novel, but Voodoo Doll surpasses it. It is best to read the books in order as there are several mentions in this book of events that occurred in the first.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Recent reads - July

These are just some brief notes on a few books from my personal TBR and non-review pile that I've read in the last month.

El Dorado by Dorothy Porter. Picador, 2007.

First line: The little girl's / dead hand / is sticking stiffly / up / as if reaching / to grab an angel's / foot.

A serial killer who calls themself El Dorado, is murdering children, leaving a gold thumbprint on the victims' foreheads. Unusually, the children are not subjected to any abuse, and they are killed almost gently. This is a killer who cares about children and the innocence of childhood.

Melbourne DI Bill Buchanan calls in his childhood friend Cath, now a Hollywood special affects expert, to help him. He's hoping she can provide a fresh perspective on the case. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that the solution to the case lies in Bill and Cath's childhood. As they reminisce, they slowly uncover the identity of the killer.

El Dorado is a wonderful book, extraordinarily beautifully written, and it grabbed me from that first stunning sentence. Alongside the investigation of the murder, it explores the themes of adult and childhood friendships, outsiders and betrayal, as it races to its dramatic climax.

Rough Trade by Dominique Manotti. Arcadia, 2001 (originally published in French, 1995)

First line: There's a girl sitting naked on the edge of a vast white bed in the middle of the room, with mirrors all around.

A young Thai girl is found dead in a fashion workshop in Paris' Le Sentier district. This is the heart of the city's rag trade, an industry which survives with the use of illegal labour, mostly Turkish. The investigation into her murder takes Superintendent Theo Daquin into the murky underworld of Paris.

Set in 1980, against the backdrop of the Turkish workers' fight for legal rights, this complex but realistic plot takes in drug trafficking, illegal immigrants, sweat shops, police corruption, paedophile rings, and pornographic and snuff videos. Rough Trade is dark, gritty and uncompromising and is a gripping read.

Rough Trade won the French Crime Writers' Association Award, and Dominique Manotti won the Crime Writers Association 2008 International Dagger for her more recent work, Lorraine Connection.

I had never heard of Manotti before finding this by chance at the library only a short time before her CWA Dagger award was announced. If her other books are anything like as good as Rough Trade I can well see how she won this award.

A Deadly Business by Lenny Bartulin. Scribe, 2008.

First line: It was perfectly clear to him now, dangling in the wet tussock cleavage of a broad hill that slid towards the headland cliffs.

Sydney second-hand book seller, Jack Susko is barely scraping a living, so he jumps at the chance to make some real money when the wealthy Hammond Kasprowicz offers him well above market value for as many copies of the books of poetry written by Edward Kass that he can find. What he doesn’t realise is that in doing so he’s going to get himself mixed in one seriously dysfunctional family.

Written in a delightfully wry style reminiscent of the classics of hard-boiled crime fiction, A Deadly Business has everything you could want - a reluctant hero, a femme fatale, nasty bad guys, corrupt police, violence, twists aplenty, and dry humour. Bartulin is currently working on the second book in the series, and I for one, can’t wait.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Cemetery Lake by Paul Cleave

Publisher: Random House, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-86325-598-1

First line: Blue fingernails.

Christchurch private investigator Theodore Tate is attending the exhumation of a man who died two years before. Suddenly bubbles appear on the surface of the small lake in the middle of the cemetery, and several bodies slowly rise to the surface.

When the exhumed coffin is opened, it does not contain the expected occupant. And as the identities of the lake bodies are established, their graves are dug up to reveal further unexpected corpses. Could this be the work of the Christchurch Carver who has been terrorising the city for the past two years, or is there another serial killer on the loose?

The cemetery caretaker has disappeared, and Tate is sure that the priest of the little church next to the cemetery knows a lot more than he is willing to say. The police try to warn Tate away from the investigation, but his curiosity is aroused, and he can’t help but delve deeper and puts his own life in danger as a result. He steps on a number of toes in the process, and even his sympathisers in the police force begin to tire of his interference.

Tate is an intriguing, but very flawed character. A former police officer, who left the force under a cloud, he is still dealing with the consequences of the accident, caused by a drunk driver, which destroyed his family. He drinks heavily, is hardly coping with life, and for much of the book seems bent on self- destruction. The reader shifts between feeling great sympathy for Tate, and utter frustration with him. There are moments of great poignancy, particularly in the scenes with his severely brain damaged wife, when we get a glimpse of the person Tate used to be. There are also moments of incredible stupidity!

Cleave’s Christchurch is a much darker and nastier place than the Christchurch of the tourist brochures. The action is centred on the cemetery and adjacent church, mostly amid swirling mists in the dead of night, creating a very atmospheric mood. There is plenty of suspense in this book, although there is a section in the middle where the plot goes off on a bit of a tangent and the story loses its focus a little. However, it’s not long before things get back on track as we head to the thrilling conclusion.

Cemetery Lake is Cleave’s third book, after The Cleaner and The Killing Hour. It is an exciting thriller, and I look forward to Paul Cleave’s next offering.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Crime and Justice Festival - Sunday

After a two dog night* at Karen's, Sunday started (not so) bright and too early, but after a reviving shot of caffeine, we were ready for our very full day.

A Conversation with Peter Temple. A great start to the day with Temple discussing a wide range of topics from his start as a journalist and editor to his writing crime novels. He had many amusing anecdotes about agents, publishers and dealing with film and television producers. One tale was about finding a publisher who loved his first Jack Irish novel and wanted to publish it, except could he maybe just get rid of the football, and the cabinet making, oh, and the horse racing too. After doing this there would have no book left! Luckily he found another publisher who genuinely loved the book as it was. The good news is he said he's in the final stages of his follow up book to The Broken Shore, and it should be available early next year.

Matters of Procedure with P.D. Martin, Garry Disher and Barry Maitland. All the authors write police procedural novels, or in the case of Phillipa Martin, an FBI procedural. They discussed the methods they used to get their stories to ring true, while avoiding getting bogged down in boring detail. They discussed the research they did (or didn't do) to get their facts right, with Martin showing an impressive range of large reference books she uses to help with the authenticity of her books.

Writing from Life with Leigh Redhead, Angela Savage and Dorothy Johnston. Three very interesting women discussed how their own life experiences have influenced their writing. They all have a background in the sex industry in one way or another. Redhead talked about her days as a stripper, and how she created Simone Kirsch because she wanted to write a book that gave an accurate picture of women in the sex industry, and not as the victims they are usually shown as. Johnston uses her personal knowledge of brothels, particularly the most recent book, Eden. Savage has spent many years as an HIV health worker in a number of Asian countries. Her books feature a female private investigator in Thailand.

Nigel Latta's Darklands. This session was a last minute substitution after the original one we'd booked was cancelled. And what a great session it was! Latta is a forensic psychologist based in Dunedin New Zealand, and his stories of some of the cases he's had to deal with were mind boggling, horrific and hilarious all at the same time. He has a wonderfully dry sense of humour that obviously helps him cope with these difficult cases. His book, Into to the Darklands, has been made into a television series, which has apparently recently been bought by an Australian network. So hopefully we'll get to see it before too long.

Trivia Quiz. The last session of weekend was a crime fiction trivia quiz. There was a disappointing turn out for this, with just the four of us (Karen and her other half, Sunnie and myself). This obviously gave us very good odds for a win, but it would have been more fun with a larger group of participants. Amazingly Sunnie, Karen and I tied for first place. The prize was a large box of books worth several hundred dollars. We carted the winner's spoils off home and proceeded to divide up the goodies between us. Here is a picture of my haul for the weekend - it includes a couple of books that were not part of the prize winnings.

With that, sadly, the Festival was over for this year. We all went home feeling quite elated after a terrific weekend. Thanks to Karen for her wonderfully warm hospitality and to her, her hubby, and Sunnie for the great company.

*Australian bushie expression indicating a very cold night, and yes it was a very cold night (this is Melbourne in the middle of winter after all), but I also mean that Karen's two Australian terriers decided Aunty Helen's bed was the place to be, and spent both nights clamped to my side. They were deliciously warm and the three of us slept soundly all night.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Crime and Justice Festival - Saturday

Back from Melbourne after a fabulous weekend attending the inaugural Crime and Justice Festival. A similar event held last year was the forerunner to this festival. What could be better than spending a weekend immersed in crime fiction, surrounded by like-minded souls (well ok, I could probably think of one or two things that might be better!)

The Festival was held at the lovely old Abbotsford Convent, whose history includes being a home for orphans and 'fallen women'. On arrival, almost the first thing I saw was a sign pointing to the Magdalen Laundry which immediately made me think of Ken Bruen's terrific book 'The Magdalen Martyrs', and made me sincerely hope that conditions here weren't as bad as those he depicted in his book.

The organisers at Reader's Feast Bookstore put together a marvellous programme and should be congratulated. The hour break between sessions gave plenty of time to talk to authors, get books signed or get some nourishment at one of the cafes or the bar. Although attendee numbers were not high, they were quite reasonable for a first time. Hopefully publicity and word of mouth will boost attendance next year. The small numbers helped make the whole event more relaxed and friendly than any other literary festival I've attended. Authors hung around before and after their sessions, attended other authors' sessions, hung around the bookstore and chatted with readers, and were happy to sign books at any time.

The following reports on the sessions are from memory (as appalling as it is), as I took no notes. The sessions we attended on Saturday were:

Keeping it Local with Leigh Redhead, Garry Disher and Jarad Henry. The three authors all set their books in Melbourne and surrounds where they also all live. They talked about how Melbourne inspires their crime writing - it's architecture, it's atmosphere and it's weather were all integral to their stories and their characters. It was felt that if they had set their stories anywhere else they would be very different books. Leigh Redhead is the author of three books in the Simone Kirsch, ex-stripper PI, series. Garry Disher is the author of too many books to mention, most recently the Challis and Destry police procedurals. Jarad Henry is a new author with his second book featuring Detective Rubens McCauley published recently.

Crime and Verse with Dorothy Porter. Porter is the author of numerous books of poetry including two crime verse novels, The Monkey's Mask and El Dorado. One thing she mentioned was the unexpected connection between crime fiction and poetry, about how many crime authors have a passion for poetry, and vice versa. And, as the weekend progressed, we noted a number of the other authors mentioning their love of poetry.

Spotlight on Declan Hughes. Irish author, Hughes was hugely entertaining as he spoke on all manner of topics including his life as a playwright, the frustrations of screenwriting, and what led him to writing crime fiction. He got quite worked up at times, having to stop himself at one point before he got too carried away. :) One of the interesting things he said was that crime fiction brings the high and the low of society together, and this is what makes it fascinating. He is the author of three books in the Ed Loy series.

Crime and Humour with Lenny Bartulin, Robert Gott and Leigh Redhead. This session explored the wit and humour present in many crime novels, whether they are deliberately funny or just use the incidental humour that forms part of our everyday lives.
Lenny Bartulin is a new author with his first book, A Deadly Business, published earlier this year. Written in the style of the old noir hard-boileds it has a hero and a femme fatale, and lots of dry humour. His protagonist, Jack Susko, is a second-hand bookseller who gets mixed up with with a wealthy family's deadly doings.
Robert Gott is the author of three books in the William Power ("dickhead hero") series. According to Gott, the humour in his books comes from the fact that his hero is so completely self-centred that he genuinely has no idea just how clueless he is.
Leigh Redhead's protagonist, Simone Kirsch, is a stripper turned PI. Her stories show us not only the seedy side of Melbourne's adult entertainment industry, but also the inherent humour in it.
Highlight: Leigh Redhead demonstrating how female PIs, errr, manage to, umm, go, while on stakeout. Her shuffling about in her chair while describing the use of funnel and bottle were hilarious and certainly left most of the men in the audience a little flushed.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Crime and Justice Festival, Melbourne

I'm off to Melbourne for the weekend to attend the Crime and Justice Festival. It has a great programme with a mix of real life justice issues and crime fiction. And an added bonus will be meeting up with AustCrime Karen and Sunnie, and if past get-togethers are anything to go by, there's bound to be plenty of food, booze and laughter.

This is the second year the festival has been held. Two of its patrons are Ian Rankin and Kerry Greenwood. The international guest this year is Irish author Declan Hughes, and local authors include: Peter Temple, Barry Maitland, Leigh Redhead, Garry Disher, Jarad Henry, Lenny Bartulin, Robert Gott, P.D. Martin, and more. This should be a fabulous weekend.

So, the packing's all done, the wake up call booked, all I have to do is snatch a few hours sleep ... and decide what books I'm taking. Throwing a few clothes in the bag is no problem, but deciding what books get to make the trip with me is much a much more agonising process. There's the books for reading, and the books for signing. And how much room will I need to leave for new acquisitions?

We're attending nine sessions in all, so I'm bound to be exhausted at the end of the two days, but the really great thing is I get to do it all again in a month's time at the Melbourne Writers Festival. The programme's just out today, and although there are a few bright spots, overall it's rather disappointing for crime fans. Still the gathering of 'the coven' is always a lot of fun, and this time we have a couple of newbies joining us, so I'm sure we'll find fun ways to fill in the time.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Writing Class by Jincy Willett

Published: Scribe, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-921372-11-7

First line: Lumbers into class five minutes late, dragging, along with her yard-wide butt, a beat-up vinyl briefcase stuffed with old notebooks.

Amy Gallup, is overweight, middle-aged and since the death of her first husband and the failure of her second marriage, has lived the life of a recluse with only her basset hound, Alphonse for company. Her only contact with people is the weekly adult education fiction writing class she teaches.

Her class this term has all the usual types, the overly enthusiastic student, the undiscovered talent, the slacker, the politically correct, the lonely. But this class looks like being a particularly good group, everyone seems to be working well together, producing some lively in-class discussion. Unfortunately a malicious prankster, dubbed the Sniper, looks like spoiling it all.

It starts when Amy receives a nasty phone call, then one of her students is sent a spiteful parody of a poem she read out in class, and others receive a vicious peer evaluation and a crude drawing. But things escalate when one of the students ends up dead.

Amy, concerned for the rest of her class, decides to tell them all what has been going on. Everyone decides to continue with the classes, aware that the murderer is one of them, and try to find a way to discover his or her identity.

With 13 students in the class, this book has a large cast of characters, and Willett has done an excellent job of making each of them come alive as distinctive personalities. But it is Amy who really makes the book. She is a wonderful character, a loner who is afraid to be alone. She found success as a writer at a young age, publishing 4 novels before losing her muse more than 20 years ago.

She describes herself on her blog, Go Away, as ‘an aging, bitter, unpleasant woman … who spends her days editing unreadable text and her nights teaching and not writing. Sometimes, late at night, in the dark, she laughs inappropriately.’ I found Amy anything but unpleasant. She may be a little embittered by how life has turned out for her, but her wicked sense of humour, and sharp observations of herself and others reveal her as someone acutely interested in life.

Book addicts will find a kindred spirit in Amy. I envy her book shelves – unable to part with any of her books, and with little floor space, she has built a single shelf book height from the ceiling that snakes around all the walls in her house.

While The Writing Class is alive with humour, there is an underlying poignancy too. With its appealing characters, engaging plot and humour, The Writing Class is a delight to read.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Three authors I couldn't live without

I've been tagged again by Karen over on AustCrime. I don't know how I can limit it to 3, but I'll give it my best shot. I'm spreading my choices around geographically.

Ian Rankin. I've loved Rebus since forever, and now he's retired I'm looking forward to seeing what Rankin gets up to now.
Runners up in the British category: Reginald Hill, Ken Bruen.

Jo Nesbo. Hopefully Rebus won't be jealous, but I've grown rather fond of Harry Hole. He may be a complete mess, but he's my kind of (fictional) guy. Nesbo is a brilliant writer ... and he is sort of dishy in a rugged crop-haired kind of way too. happy smiley
Runners up in the Scandinavian category: Arnaldur Indridason, Karin Fossum.

Peter Temple. Wonderful wonderful writer. The Jack Irish books are fabulous and The Broken Shore was nothing short of brilliant.
Runners up in the Australian category: Michael Robotham, Adrian Hyland.

There we are, I did it, only three!!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Book of Murder by Guillermo Martinez

Published: Abacus, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-349-12092-8

When a young Argentinian writer with a looming deadline breaks his wrist, his editor suggests employing a typist to help him complete his work. Coincidentally it happens that a very competent typist who usually works for the famous but reclusive crime novelist, Kloster, is free for the next month while he is away at a writers’ retreat. And so the young and pretty student, Luciana comes to work for the unnamed narrator of this very unusual story.

Ten years later, he gets a phone call from a distraught Luciana asking for his help. Everyone close to her is dying in unusual circumstances and she is accusing Kloster of murdering them. She claims that Kloster is punishing her because she sued him for sexual harassment, which led to a devastating personal tragedy for him. Luciana begs for his help to stop Kloster before the last two members of her family die.

Against his will the narrator finds himself drawn into Luciana’s problems, and at her insistence, confronts Kloster, who he finds has a credible explanation for all of Luciana’s accusations.

The reader, like the narrator swings between believing and disbelieving Luciana. Is she mad, paranoid or completely sane? Is Kloster totally innocent or an extremely clever killer? The line between fact and fiction became extremely blurred, and by the end it was really no clearer.

The characters didn’t really engage me, none of them being particularly likable, and the story was strange and a little confusing. The Book of Murder kept me reading, although ultimately I found it a little unsatisfying.

Guillermo Martinez has a PhD in Mathematics and lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The Book of Murder is his second novel.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Ned Kelly Awards reading update

The Ned Kelly Awards long list was announced a while ago, and some of us have decided to try to read as many as we can before attending the award night at Melbourne Writers Festival in August. Karen and Sunnie over on AustCrime have a head start on me, but I'm going to do the best I can. If you look at how many books are on the full list, you'll see that my efforts to date have been pretty pathetic, so I'm going to have to lift my game. happy smiley

So far I've read:

Best First Fiction
Frantic, Katherine Howell
Vodka Doesn't Freeze, Lea Giarratano

Best Fiction
Sucked In, Shane Maloney
Appeal Denied, Peter Corris
The Calling, Jane Goodall
Shatter, Michael Rowbotham

I have in my TBR
Cherry Pie, Leigh Redhead
Blood Sunset, Jarad Henry
Redback, Lindy Cameron

I prefer my crime fictional so haven't read any of the non-fiction/true crime, and probably won't. Let's see how I go with the others ...

Sunday, June 29, 2008

A couple of recent reads

I took a break from my review books and read a couple of books from my personal TBR pile. Unfortunately this coincided with a time when life interfered with my reading time, so it’s taken me longer to get through them than I would have liked.

The first was A Cure for All Diseases by Reginald Hill, the latest in the Dalziel and Pascoe series. Andy Dalziel is still recovering from the bomb blast that put him in a coma for most of the previous book, The Death of Dalziel, and he checks into the Avalon Clinic in seaside Sandytown to continue his convalescence.

A group of local business people is behind the town’s renaissance as a centre for healing. However they don’t agree on the direction this should take. We get to know the large cast of characters and observe the escalating tensions through the eyes of Dalziel, via ‘Mildred’, his mp3 recorder; and the visiting Charley Heywood, a young newly qualified psychologist, who writes long detailed emails to her sister.

When one of the town’s prominent citizens is murdered in a rather macabre way, DCI Peter Pascoe arrives to lead the investigation. Dalziel and Charley provide unwelcome assistance.

This took me a little while to get into. The first part of the book is apparently Hill’s tribute to Jane Austen’s unfinished work, Sanditon, and to my mind was rather too long. It wasn't until well past the 100 page mark that it started to truly engage me. However from then on, it was fabulous, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The other book was Appeal Denied by Peter Corris, the umpteenth (31st I think) in the Cliff Hardy series. Hardy has been stripped of his investigator’s licence and his appeals against the decision have been denied. When someone close to him is murdered, he can’t just leave it to the police to investigate. For a start, there’s more than the whiff of corruption about the police unit in charge of the investigation.

Part of the attraction of the Cliff Hardy books is the location, they are very Sydney. While I don’t live there, I know it well enough to be familiar with most of the places Corris mentions, and I enjoy all the references to local personalities and events.

I used to read Corris way back, but for some reason he slipped off my list of authors. I think that was at a time when I joined some crime related email lists, and started discovering so many new authors that some of the old ones fell by the wayside. Then a couple of months ago I picked a Cliff Hardy, my first in probably over 10 years, and found I still liked Cliff a lot. He’s aged and changed with the years but he’s still an interesting character, and Corris still knows how to turn out a well written story. Hardy may be beginning to feel his age, but Corris is certainly not showing his!

Now back to that review pile ...

Friday, June 13, 2008

Dead Man's Footsteps by Peter James

Publisher: MacMillan, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-230-70377-3

First line: If Ronnie Wilson had known, as he woke up, that in just a couple of hours’ time he would be dead, he would have planned his day somewhat differently.

Failed businessman and perennial loser, Ronnie Wilson is in New York on a last ditch mission to secure funding for his latest venture. His car is about to be repossessed, his credit cards are maxed out, and he’s got an expensive wife back in England. It’s 11th September 2001 and he’s heading to an early appointment in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. A very very bad day has just opened up an undreamed of opportunity for Ronnie.

Six years later, Abby Dawson has just returned home after some years in Australia. She has moved into a luxury flat in Brighton which she has fortified with steel reinforced doors, triple deadlocking, double safety chain, and she keeps pepper spray, a knife and baseball bat within easy reach. To say she is living in fear for her life is an understatement. When she receives a text message on her pay-as-you-go phone saying ‘I know where you are’ her terror reaches new heights.

At the same time, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace is investigating the discovery of the skeleton of a woman found in an old stormwater drain unearthed during excavations for a new development. She was apparently strangled.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, another woman’s body is found decomposing in the boot of a car resting on the bottom of a river near Melbourne. She was apparently strangled.

As this brilliantly complex tale moves between Brighton, New York and Melbourne, the threads binding these stories together become more and more tightly woven. Dead Man’s Footsteps is a masterpiece of plotting; it is police procedural at its best, with clue building on clue, and connections being made through a combination of good solid detective work and a little luck.

The 9/11 part of the story was handled factually and sensitively. James did not dwell overly on this part of the story, but there were several short intense chapters that brought back memories of those days we all spent watching the television in disbelief and horror. Initially told from Ronnie’s point of view as a bystander caught up in the chaos of that day, it later also touched on the ongoing effects, physical and mental, on the people of New York, particularly those involved in the rescue effort.

A subplot sees a new Detective Superintendent, Cassian Pewe, previously of the Met, appointed by the Assistant Chief Constable to Brighton and Hove CID. Grace, who has an uneasy relationship with the ACC, isn’t the only one who is unhappy about the appointment, and as he and his colleagues try to find a way to work with this arrogant and ambitious man, it soon becomes clear that Pewe has his own agenda.

Grace and his team of officers are a wonderful mixed bag of personalities of the sort that could be found in almost any workplace. From the rather awful Norman Potting with his sexual innuendos and the exhausted new father Nick Nicholl, to Glenn Branson with his marital difficulties and the Malteser eating Bella Moy, James has created a very believable cast of secondary characters.

Roy Grace is still haunted by the disappearance of his wife Sandy nine years ago, but he has moved on a little. For a start he seems to have given up visiting psychics and mediums in the hope of discovering his wife’s fate. And his relationship with the pathologist Cleo has become quite serious, although it is still threatened by the ever present ghost of Sandy.

The book starts with one of the best first lines I’ve ever read, and it ends with a corker of a last line! Dead Man’s Footsteps is the fourth in the Superintendent Roy Grace series, and I hope there are many more to come.

Peter James website: http://www.peterjames.com/

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Gallows Lane by Brian McGilloway

Publisher: MacMillan New Writing, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-230-70061-1

First line: James Kerr returned to Lifford on a blustery morning in May, shuffling under the heavy clouds that scudded across the sky towards the North.

When James Kerr crosses the border from Northern Ireland, Garda Inspector Benedict Devlin is there to meet him. Kerr has just been released from prison after serving eight years for his part in an armed robbery. Devlin’s boss Superintendent Olly ‘Elvis’ Costello, doesn’t want any trouble on his patch this close to his retirement, and asks Devlin to convince Kerr to return to the North.

Kerr, who has always protested his innocence, has found God while in prison. Although Costello is somewhat sceptical - “If Jesus knew Kerr was looking for Him, He would’ve hid” - Kerr claims to have returned because he wants to atone for his sins.

A young girl, Karen Doherty, is found brutally murdered in a nearly finished house on a new development. She had been on a hen night at a local nightclub, and was last seen getting into a car after being thrown out of the club for being drunk. However, her blood showed the presence of the date-rape drug, GBL.

When a break-in at the local pharmacy, another attempted rape and more murders follow, Devlin has to work out how these apparently unrelated crimes are connected and what they have to do with the old armed robbery case of which Kerr had been convicted. The investigation takes Devlin into the world of bodybuilding, steroid abuse and its affects.

At the same time a possible case of police corruption, old rivalries and the arrival of a team from NCIB to take over the murder investigation, make the atmosphere at the police station volatile. There is a lot going on in this book, but the complex plot elements all come together superbly and in a way that still surprised me.

Set in the town of Letterkenny, Donegal on the border between the North and South of Ireland, Gallows Lane has a strong sense of place that goes beyond the geographical and includes the historical and political background of the location. The police need to cooperate with each other across the borders is sometimes undermined by the political remnants of the old conflict.

Devlin is a different kind of character than most fictional police protagonists. He has a happy marriage and a young family he adores. He struggles to balance his work and his family life, and isn’t always successful in keeping the two separate. Devlin is all too human - he makes mistakes, and is tempted to bend the rules, both in his work and his relationships. Gallows Lane is a terrific book, combining an intricate and satisfying plot with wonderful characters, and I look forward to reading more about Devlin.

Gallows Lane is the second in the Inspector Benedict Devlin series, the first being Borderlands.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Killing Hour by Paul Cleave

Published: Random House, 2007
ISBN: 978-1-74166-853-7

First line: They come for me as I sleep.

Charlie Feldman wakes up aching all over, with a large painful bump on his forehead, and his blood spattered clothes on the floor. When he turns on the tv, he learns two women he was with the night before have been brutally murdered. The police evidence links Charlie to the crime. Charlie knows that Cyris is the murderer, but he's the only one who believes Cyris exists. When he goes to his ex-wife Jo for help, she doesn't believe him either, so he feels he has no option but to kidnap her. As his memory of that night slowly comes back, Charlie tries to work out why the murders occurred.

Inspector Bill Landry has just found out he is dying from cancer, and wants to end his career with a big success. He keeps vital evidence to himself, and sets out on a one man crusade to track down Charlie, and see justice done.

As Charlie and Jo are pursued by the police and the murderer, and as horror follows horror, the tension keeps mounting, and you wonder just how much more these people can take.

The story is told from multiple points of view, with each chapter shifting to a different character. This could have made for a very disjointed story, but works brilliantly here.

Before you read this book you should make sure you have turned on all the lights and checked all the doors and windows - twice. This is a seriously scary book.

White Nights by Ann Cleeves

Published: MacMillan, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-230-01445-9

First line: The passengers streamed ashore from the cruise ship.

It's midsummer in the Shetland Isles, when the sun never quite sets, and the white nights make many people go a bit crazy.

In the remote village of Biddista, Detective Jimmy Perez is attending the opening of an art exhibition at the Herring House with his friend Fran Hunter, when an unknown Englishman suddenly collapses in tears. He claims to have forgotten who he is and why he is there. Perez tries to help the man, but when he briefly leaves him alone, the man disappears. The next morning he is found wearing a clown mask and hanging from a rafter in a boat shed. It doesn't take Perez long to realise that this is not suicide.

The squad from Inverness headed by Inspector Roy Taylor is called in. Taylor is still feeling put out that Perez solved the previous case they worked on together, and is determined that the solution to this case will be down to him. Their investigative styles are complete opposites, with Perez's slow methodical ways irritating the hyperactive Taylor. Surprisingly, they do end up working well together, although it takes a little time for them to get back to the easy camaraderie they had in the previous book.

The investigation centres on Biddista, a community of about half a dozen homes, where almost all the inhabitants are connected by family or childhood friendships. Perez believes the dead man may not have been as much of a stranger as everyone is claiming. He suspects the murderer is a local, and that the death is related to events in the past. A second murder seems to confirm this theory.

The investigation is intriguing, as the hunt for clues to the victim's identity, and the subsequent search for the connections that would lead to his murderer moves from the Shetlands to Yorkshire and back again. Cleeves kept me guessing until the last moment. But it is the characters and their stories that make this such an absorbing read. From the prickly relationship between Perez and Taylor, to Perez's developing relationship with Fran Hunter, to the inhabitants of Biddista and their intertwined histories, they are all fascinating and very real people.

White Nights is the eagerly awaited second book in the Shetland Quartet, and it doesn't disappoint. The first, Raven Black, won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award for best crime novel in 2006.

Ann Cleeves' website: http://www.anncleeves.com/

A warning if you don't like to know too much before reading a book: The back cover blurb, at least on my copy, contains a spoiler, mentioning an event that doesn’t occur until more than halfway through the book. For me, a blurb should give specifics of the plot for things that happen in the first 20-30 pages only. After that it needs to be quite vague. It's ok to say that there are more murders, but not to let on who may be on the victim list.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The joys of stepping outside your comfort zone ...

... and discovering everyone was right after all!

For years people have been telling me about this Terry Pratchett fellow, giving him nothing but the highest praise. But, well he writes sort of science fiction / fantasy stuff doesn't he, I'd say with curled lip. That's not really my kind of thing you know. Well I've started listening to the unabridged audio versions of his Discworld series, and I'm loving them. They are wonderfully funny satires with a large cast of fabulous characters. My favourite is the Librarian at the Unseen University - he has some of the best lines!

I've 'read' the first 3 so far, The Colour of Magic, Light Fantastic, and Equal Rites, and am about to start the 4th, Mort. The reader for the first two was Nigel Planer (the hippy Neil from The Young Ones), and his voice was perfect. Equal Rites was read by Celia Imrie, an excellent actor whose work I admire, but it took me a while to get over my disappointment that it wasn't Nigel again. Equal Rites is about a young girl striving to be the first female wizard, and all the main characters are female, so it was more appropriate that it was read by a female reader, but I still had this niggling feeling all the way through that it wasn't as good as the first two. I was pleased to see that Nigel Planer is back for Mort.

This got me to wondering whether I prefer Nigel's reading because he is better, or just because I heard him first. I think Nigel has an inherently funny voice, and is able to inject just the right note of sarcasm into his words.

Anyway, I'm loving these stories, and I can heartily recommend them, even if like me you think you don't like sci fi/fantasy. I'm now determined to work my way through the whole series, and luckily there are quite a lot of them.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Reunion by Simone van der Vlugt

Publisher: Text Publishing, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-921351-32-7

First line: She cycles the last part alone.

Sabine and Isabel had been best friends when they were young, but in high school, Isabel started hanging out with a new group of friends and Sabine became the target of her merciless tormenting and bullying. When they were fifteen Isabel disappeared one day on the way home from school. Ever since then Sabine has been unable to remember anything of that day, but now nine years later, the long suppressed memories are starting to surface.

It seems she knows more about what happened than she thought. Did she actually witness what happened? Does she know who was responsible? Why did her mind repress the memories? And is her knowledge dangerous?

Returning to her dreary job at large Amsterdam bank after a year off suffering from depression, Sabine meets Olaf, a school friend of her older brother, Robin. This contact with someone from her past, as well as an upcoming school reunion leads to more flashes of disjointed memory which slowly fill in the shadows in her past.

Sabine is initially a very sympathetic character. The scenes describing her isolation at school painfully depict the misery suffered by victims of bullying. Her return to work finds her again isolated and victimised by her supervisor. However, as Sabine reveals more of herself and her story, doubt begins to creep in. The slow building of tension as the memories fall into place ultimately leads to a somewhat unsettling ending.

Simone van der Vlugt is a Dutch writer known for her young adult novels. The Reunion is her first novel for adults, and I hope it won’t be her last.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Lonelyheart 4122 by Colin Watson

First line: Arthur Henry Spain, butcher, of Harlow Place, Flaxborough, awoke one morning from a dream in which he had been asking all his customers how to spell 'phlegm' and thought - quite inconsequentially: I haven't seen anything of Lilian lately.

Inspector Purbright is investigating the disappearance of two respectable middle aged ladies. They both had recently availed themselves of the services of a local marriage bureau, Handclasp House. At the same time, Miss Lucilla Teatime arrives in town on the lookout for a suitable ‘business’ opportunity. In the course of the investigation Purbright discovers a trail of deception and murder, with a little blackmail on the side.

Flaxborough is a fictional English town populated with some remarkable and delightfully eccentric characters. Nothing is ever as it seems in this wonderful series. Watson combines quirky characters and dry humour into a well-plotted story.

Lonelyheart 4122, first published in 1967, is the fourth in Watson’s Flaxborough series. For a list of all 13 titles see Fantastic Fiction. I've managed to pick up all but one or two titles at second hand bookshops, and I’m slowly working my way through them.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Still Waters by Camilla Noli

Publisher: Hachette Australia, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-7336-2250-2

First line: It is early evening. I am suckling my infant son.

A stay-at-home mother of two small children is feeling trapped in her life. As a successful career woman she was used to being in control, but now she feels that control slipping away. The demands of caring for her children leave her constantly exhausted. She resents the attention her husband gives to the children, particularly the eldest, Cassie, with whom he is especially close. She is determined to get her life - and her husband - back, to make things the way they used to be. And she is willing to sacrifice anyone in the pursuit of her aims.

The main character, who is never named, is one of the most unlikeable characters I’ve ever read. She is cold, distant, self-centred and manipulative. In fact I really didn’t like any of the characters, including her husband. This may in part be due to the fact that we only see them through the eyes of the narrator, who seems to be scornful of almost everyone else. Even her intimate relationship with her husband is based on power and control.

The themes of this book are meant to be controversial, to challenge our beliefs of what mothers and motherhood should be like. But this woman is more than an exhausted new mother at the end of her tether, she is a seriously disturbed psychopath. Anyone who stands in the way of her regaining the life she wants, is dealt with one way or the other.

Noli writes well and kept me turning the pages, almost against my will, but I was very uncomfortable spending so much time inside the head of this cold-blooded woman. This was a deeply disturbing book, and not a pleasant read.

Camilla Noli lives on the Central Coast of NSW with her husband and children. This is her first novel.