Review: Sweet Jimmy by Bryan Brown

 

Title: Sweet Jimmy

Author: Bryan Brown

Published: 31st August 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

 

You’ve probably seen Australian actor Bryan Brown on the big screen, perhaps in Hollywood blockbusters like F/X, Cocktail, Gorillas in the Mist, Breaker Morant, or in any of the other dozen movies he has made an appearance in, particularly if you are of a certain age. Sweet Jimmy, an entertaining collection of crime fiction short stories, is his first foray into publishing.

Primarily set within the streets of suburban Sydney, Brown’s stories combine humour, violence, and pathos. There are seven in all, and include an angry father seeking the man responsible for his daughter’s death, a thief who steals more than he bargains for, a cop investigating a serial killer, and a man hunting for the woman that betrayed him. Vengeance, betrayal, redemption, and survival are common themes, exposing men pushed to their limits. There was actually not a single tale I didn’t find engaging.

I’m not sure Sweet Jimmy would translate well to an international audience, but for me there was a definite sense of cultural familiarity. I feel Brown captures an aspect of the elusive essence of the Australian character particularly well, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn some of the characters and events are inspired by real people Brown has known.

The writing strongly reminds me of the late Robert G Barrett’s work, it’s spare but still expressive, and perhaps more importantly, honest. The audio version of of the book is narrated by Brown himself, which I think would be a real treat with his distinctive voice.

Sweet Jimmy is colourful, bold, and cheeky collection of suburban Aussie noir stories.

++++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: The Deep by Kyle Perry

 

Title: The Deep

Author: Kyle Perry

Published: 2nd July 2021, Penguin Books Australia

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy Penguin Australia

++++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

“Black wind at morning, sailors take warning. Black wind at night, death is in sight.”

On the southern coast of Tasmania, the Dempsey family empire in Shacktown has been built not only on their monopoly of abalone fishing licenses but on their illicit drug importation business. Davy Dempsey has been the head of the family operations since his older brother, Jesse and his wife and son, vanished seven years ago, but when Jesse’s son, Forest, washes up on the beach, exhibiting signs of physical and emotional trauma, the Dempsey’s are thrown into crisis. Sensing vulnerability, a fearsome rival makes a move while family loyalties are tested and unraveling secrets threaten to swamp them all.

Kyle Perry’s second novel, The Deep, plunges readers into a turbulent, gritty, atmospheric story of betrayal, corruption, loyalty and redemption. It offers more than one mystery and several stunning twists as the members of the Dempsey family take sides in a battle for the business, and their lives. Issues such as morality, masculinity, family violence, the drug trade, and addiction are explored through a fairly large cast of characters.

The tale unfolds primarily from the perspectives of Mackerel (Mackenzie) Dempsey, the younger brother of Jesse and Davy, and the black sheep of the family; the Dempsey brothers uncle, Ahab Dempsey, who despises the drug business; and the now teenage Forest Dempsey. The Dempsey family speak of a curse that plagues their men – great success will be followed by a spectacular fall – but it’s hardly a surprise given the dangerous businesses the Dempsey’s are in, not to mention their disturbingly dysfunctional family dynamic. Perry’s characters are complex, and mostly deeply flawed, some irredeemably so, such as the Dempsey matriarch Ivy, and her two eldest sons.

I didn’t find The Deep to be as compelling as The Bluffs if I am honest, it was a little slow to start and I was probably close to halfway through the novel before I was fully invested, but from that point on, I was reluctant to put it down.

++++++

Available from Penguin Books Australia 

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Review: The Long Game by Simon Rowell

 

Title: The Long Game

Author: Simon Rowell

Published: 3rd August 2021, Text Publishing

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy Text Publishing/Netgalley

++++++

 

My Thoughts: 

 

After racing through The Long Game, I’m hoping it is the start of a new crime fiction series from South Australian author Simon Rowell.

The first homicide Detective Sergeant Zoe Mayer is assigned on her return to work seems to be open and shut with the evidence clearly pointing towards Dwayne Harley stabbing his best friend, Ray Carlson, after discovering he was sleeping with his wife. Zoe’s partner, Charlie, is happy with the easy solve but something doesn’t sit right with Zoe. With her colleagues wary of her instincts given her recent extended absence, she has no choice but to investigate with only her service dog, Harry as back up.

I found myself totally invested in the fast paced, suspenseful plot of The Long Game. The motivation for the crimes are believable, and their execution is clever and original. I could easily believe that the murderer could have got away with it if Zoe hadn’t been so observant, and determined. I appreciated the procedural details that leant the police investigation authenticity, and enjoyed the action of confrontations and near misses.

The mystery behind Zoe’s extended leave adds further interest to the story. It’s obvious that she experienced something traumatic, and she’s still vulnerable to particular triggers, which is where Harry, a golden retriever, comes in. As a service dog, Harry provides support when Zoe experiences vivid flashbacks that cause her to lose awareness, but his emotional intuition also proves to be a useful investigative tool.

Zoe seems to be a determined investigator, with great instincts. I like that she is willing to back herself, though I’m not overly fond of protagonists that go it alone, I understood her need to prove herself. I thought Zoe’s partner, Charlie, was a little bland, but I liked the analyst, Anjali. Zoe has a romantic relationship with a lawyer, which seems to be fairly stable but there a sense of underlying tension which may be explored if there is a sequel.

The Long Game played just right for me with its smart plot, appealing characters and compelling pace.

++++++

Available from Text Publishing

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Review: The Enemy Within by Tim Ayliffe

 

Title: The Enemy Within (John Bailey #3)

Author: Tim Ayliffe

Published: 28th July 2021, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster/Netgalley

+++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

The Enemy Within is Tim Ayliffe’s third exciting thriller to feature investigative journalist John Bailey.

After a young Sudanese man is beaten into a coma only streets away from where a white supremacists rally was held just hours earlier, Bailey, writing a piece on the rise of right wing extremism for the launch issue of a new independent magazine, finds himself in the middle of a deadly conspiracy determined to start a race war.

Fast paced and offering plenty of action, elements of the plot are recognisable from headline events including the emboldening of various hate groups (supported by political, media and law enforcement leaders), the cull of experienced investigative media, and the AFP raid on a journalist. I really like the way that Ayliffe (a former journalist himself) grounds his stories so that events seem plausible, and are relevant to Australian society. I found it easy to guess who was behind the direct actions of the extremists, but the identity of other players came as a surprise.

Up against a well resourced and connected enemy, Bailey gets some help in The Enemy Within from his former newspaper colleagues, Gerald Summers, and Marjorie,  plus ex-CIA agent (among other things) Ronnie Johnson. Unable to trust the police, when they learn of the supremacists end game Bailey and Ronnie physically take on the threat in a tense showdown.

Bailey is in a fairly good place in this third novel,. He remains sober, he has grown closer to his daughter, he has adopted a dog, and his PTSD from his time as a captive in Iraq is rarely close to the surface. Though he is still mourning the death of his girlfriend (in State of Fear), there is a hint of possibility of a new romance in forthcoming books when Bailey reunites with a former lover, TV journalist Annie Brooks.

The bushfires raging along the coast of NSW, which creates a pall of smoke over Sydney, and a throwaway line that refers to the incipient pandemic dates the timeline at January 2020. Set in Sydney, readers familiar with the city will recognise locations such as the Lindt Cafe and Bondi Beach.

The Enemy Within is a gripping, tense and entertaining read. It’s not strictly necessary to have read the previous novels, The Greater Good and State of Fear, to enjoy this novel but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them.

+++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Review: The Last Guests by J.P. Pomare

 

Title: The Last Guests

Author: J.P. Pomare

Published: 30th July 2021, Hachette Australia

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Hachette

++++++

My Thoughts:

Hugely impressed by In The Clearing, I’ve been looking forward to reading J.P. Pomare’s newest release, The Last Guests.

Set in New Zealand, The Last Guests is told primarily from the perspective of Lina, a paramedic married to Cain, an ex-SAS soldier turned personal trainer. Though their five year marriage has had its up and downs, stressed by PTSD, a gambling addiction, infertility and the resulting debt, the couple remain committed to each other, and their plan for a family. When friends of the pair, who aware of their financial struggle, suggest Lina rent out the home she inherited from her grandparents at Lake Tarawera through the short-stay accomodation site WeStay, Cain is enthusiastic about the idea. Lina is less so, the house is to eventually be their family home and she’s uncomfortable with the risks of opening it up to strangers, but let’s herself be persuaded. She relaxes when the first few guests come and go without incident, but Lina is about to discover the real threat to their future comes from closer to home.

The Last Guests is probably one of the more unpredictable thrillers I’ve read in a while. Though not quite flawless, convincingly led in one direction, I almost developed whiplash as the plot twisted and turned offering more than one surprise as Pomare unraveled the secrets held by his characters.

Lina is particularly vulnerable as her secret threatens to surface, and her anxiety is palpable as she attempts to stop it from happening. I liked the complexity of her character, Lina may initially be judged harshly and she doesn’t make the wisest of choices, but there isn’t any malice in her, so I was invested in her fate.

One of the elements I think Pomare excels at is creating an atmosphere of anticipation that ebbs and flows from uncertainty and unease to dread and shock. In part this stems from the way he turns the intimate and ordinary into provocation and a threat.

This novel is certainly guaranteed to make you think twice about booking a short-stay rental in a private home. There are known risks in using services like AirBNB, Stayz and FlipKey, most often they are fairly benign -the accommodation may not live up to its description, or the host may try to extort extra charges, but there have been incidences where guests have learned of hidden cameras, not just in spaces like the living room and kitchen, but also in private areas, such as bedrooms and bathrooms. In The Last Guests Lina discovers not only have such camera’s been secreted into her lake house without her knowledge, which is creepy enough, but the feed is one of thousands being live streamed to a site that offers paying subscribers a voyeuristic window into the lives of unsuspecting people.

Tense, thrilling and compelling, The Last Guests is another stunning novel from Pomare.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: Gun To The Head by Keith Banks

 

Title: Gun To The Head: My life as a tactical cop. The impact. The aftermath.

Author: Keith Banks

Published: 20th July 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

 

+++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

Gun To The Head follows on from Drugs, Guns and Lies by former Queensland police officer, Keith Banks, detailing his years of service in the Queensland Police Force during the 1980’s.

Banks offers readers personal insight into policing during a period that can probably be best described as transitional. In the 1980’s the Queensland police force was exposed as a hotbed of corruption, which had little tolerance for officers who played it straight. After several years serving as an undercover operative in the Drug Squad, Banks was forced out when he declined an invitation to participate in a corrupt enterprise.

Transferring to the Criminal Investigation Branch as a Detective Senior Constable, Banks enjoyed the work but found himself missing the adrenaline rush of his former position and leapt at the chance to become a member of the part-time  Emergency Squad, which eventually morphed into the full-time Tactical Response Group.

Keith Banks (left) and Steve Grant at Cunungra Training Camp 1986 (courtesy Allen & Unwin)

 

Banks played a role in some of Queensland’s most high-profile operations, including the hunt for notorious bank robber, Russell ‘Maddog’ Cox, and the MLC Siege, where Banks personally convinced the would-be bomber to surrender, but everyday he and his team put their lives on the line to apprehend violent criminals. Banks insights into the groups daily operations are fascinating, it’s often intense, thankless work that requires a huge commitment and courage. The public generally only hear of such incidents when something goes wrong, as it did when Senior Constable Peter Kidd was shot to death by an armed robber who had escaped from prison, during a raid to recapture him. I knew vaguely of the case but it was very impactful to hear it from Banks first hand viewpoint and I was horrified to learn of the role bureaucratic interference had in the tragedy.

Emergency Squad training exercise at Cunungra 1986 (Keith Banks is on the left). Courtesy Allen & Unwin


Banks, who was a team leader in the raid, was dogged by undiagnosed PTSD after the death of Kidd. Banks is honest about his increasing struggles with alcohol, anxiety, guilt and anger in its wake. I really felt for him, and was appalled by the lack of support available from the force not just after a tragic incident like this, but also in other instances, such as re-entry from undercover work. I certainly hope the situation is much improved now. Sadly it cost Banks his first marriage, his police career, and very nearly his life.

Raw, thrilling and often dark but not humourless, Banks presents as personable and truthful. Gun to the Head is a compelling memoir exposing life behind the blue line.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: When You Are Mine By Michael Robotham

 

Title: When You Are Mine

Author: Michael Robotham

Published: 1st July 2021, Hachette Australia

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

Michael Robotham draws from recent news headlines to create a timely, gripping crime fiction novel dealing with domestic violence, toxic relationships, obsession, and police corruption in When You Are Mine.

Called to a complaint of domestic violence, London police constable Philomena (Phil) McCarthy is unimpressed when the abuser, who claims he is detective, threatens her career will be finished, and then takes a swing at her. Though his mistress, who Phil is surprised to recognise, refuses to press charges, she follows protocol and arrests him, only to be reprimanded by her superiors for her poor judgement in arresting a decorated officer, and then suspended. Phil is both disappointed and angered by the cover-up, and despite being ordered to leave it alone, she digs a little deeper into the Detective Goodall’s history, and learns that Tempe is not his only victim.

I’m always impressed that Robotham demonstrates such astute insight into his female characters. Determined and principled, with a touch of youthful righteous idealism and naivety, Phil sincerely wants to do good as a police officer, and has worked hard for the right to do so. Unfortunately her motives will always be considered suspect because her father, from whom she is estranged, is linked to organised crime. This means she is especially vulnerable when she refuses to accept the official line.

In refusing to back down, Phil risks not only her career, but her safety, especially when she offers support to both Tempe and Goodall’s family. As recently as last month, a Former Scotland Yard Deputy Assistant Commissioner stated that domestic abuse perpetrated by police officers was at epidemic levels, and victims report a culture of minimisation and coverups. I thought Robotham very effectively showed how intensely vulnerable women, and children, in that position can be. Goodall is not about to simply let go, but then neither is Phil.

There’s a twist in the tale as Tempe, grateful to Phil for her help, tries to repay her. She offers to help with Phil’s impending wedding to her firefighter husband, Henry, then she begins to take care of the everyday tasks Phil, intent on helping Alison Goodall, doesn’t have time for. I really liked how Robotham subtly developed this thread which presents some of the biggest surprises.

Robotham is an accomplished author who knows how to hook his readers and keep them interested not only with a fast pace and the twists expected of the genre, but also characters that are dynamic and interesting. When You Are Mine is a exciting and satisfying read.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: The Others by Mark Brandi

 

Title: The Others

Author: Mark Brandi

Published: 30th June 2021, Hachette

Status: Read June 2021 courtesy Hachette

++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

The Others is a haunting coming-of-age novel from award-winning Australian author Mark Brandi.

On his eleventh birthday Jacob’s father gifts him a diary, encouraging his son to write about their life on an isolated farm in rural Tasmania. The boy writes of the sheep they tend, the goats they hunt and eat, the drought that destroys their crops, the foxes that lurk in the hills. Of his dead mother, whom he misses but can’t remember, of the whites of his father’s eyes, of the questions he has about ‘the town’, the plague, and the Others.

Jacob’s voice is captivating, Brandi pitches it perfectly to project the curiosity and innocence of a young boy whose understanding and experience of the world is limited to what his father tells him, supplemented by a dictionary, an incomplete encyclopaedia, and a faded Women’s Weekly magazine.

Jacob is reluctant to ask his father too many questions, wary of his father’s temper or alternatively afraid that the ‘soft eyes’ will return, which means his dad may not talk or move for days. There are subtle clues for the reader that what Jacob’s father tells him about life outside the farm may not be true, small details that the boy doesn’t recognise as incongruous. Tension builds as Jacob’s curiosity grows, and he secretively begins defying his father’s edict to remain within the confines of the farm. Brandi conjures dread and anxiety as a confrontation, either between Jacob and his father or Jacob and the ‘others’, seems inevitable.

The writing is spare, yet evocative, I was clearly able to visualise the farm and it’s immediate surrounds. Some of the graphic scenes in the novel have more impact because the description is so stark. Unexpectedly, the story is also enhanced by small sketches, drawn by Jacob in his diary.

Powerful and unsettling, The Others is a gripping novel with an ending that left my heart pounding.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: Still by Matt Nable

 

Title: Still

Author: Matt Nable

Published: May 2021, Hachette Australia 

Status: Read June 2021 courtesy Hachette/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

 

“They killed him because he saw.”

 

Still is an atmospheric noir crime fiction novel from Australian Matt Nable, a former professional rugby league footballer turned film and television broadcaster/actor, and novelist.

Set in Darwin in 1963, Nable exposes a barely civilised, nascent city plagued by racism, violence and corruption. It’s mid summer, the tropical weather alternates between searing and brooding, as oppressive and threatening as the work it takes to survive in the Territory.

When Senior Constable Ned Potter finds the body of a man beaten and shot twice in the marshland of Darwin’s outskirts, he resents being told to stand down by his venal boss, Senior Sergeant Riley, who promptly declares the the death a suicide. Ned is quietly furious but resigned to doing nothing until he stumbles upon the bodies of another two men buried in a shallow grave. They too have been beaten and shot, and yet again Riley, this time backed by the Mayor, presents Ned with a fair accompli. But this time Ned can’t let it go.

Ned is a well-realised, complex character. Nable portrays a man wrestling with conscience, caught between what he knows is right and the risk of consequences, not only to his career, which he expects, but to his wife and newborn daughter. Burning silently at the injustice, he punishes himself for his perceived lack of control and courage, drinks excessively, not sure whether he is trying to forget his principles, or his fear.

Meanwhile, on her way home from visiting her father in his nursing home, Charlotte Clark finds a bleeding, broken man who begs her to hide him. Charlotte sets him up at her father’s empty property, instinctively concealing the man from her firefighter husband, who shares a cosy relationship with Senior Sergeant Riley.

For Charlotte, caring for the badly injured Michael is not only the right thing to do, despite society’s prevailing derogatory view, supported by her husband, of Australian aboriginals, but also provides her with a sense of control in a life where effectively she has none. Charlotte is a women representative of the era, a restless housewife with no practical means of escape from an unhappy marriage. The consequences of being discovered are dire not only for her, given the propensity for violence of her husband, but also for Michael, whose life is at risk.

The stakes are high for just about every character in Still, and with lives, and livelihoods, under threat the tension rarely wavers. While I do think the pacing was perhaps a little slow, my only real complaint with the novel relates to the timeline. There is a lack of immediacy in the resolution, which was necessary for one specific element of the plot, but I feel it didn’t work particularly well overall, and resulted in the conclusion losing some of its impact.

Nevertheless, Still has a lot to recommend it. I found it to be a compelling novel – superbly atmospheric, with nuanced characters and a strong mystery.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia 

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Review: The Nancy’s by R.W.R. McDonald

 

Title: The Nancy’s {The Nancy’s #1}

Author: R.W.R McDonald

Published:3rd June 2019, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read May 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

 

My Thoughts:

I’ll be honest, as a preteen I much preferred Trixie Belden to Nancy Drew but I would leap at the chance to join The Nancy’s who feature in this delightful debut from New Zealand-born Australian author R.W.R McDonald.

Eleven year old Tippy Chan lives in a tiny town in South Otago. Her mother, Helen, a nurse at a local hospital, has won a two week cruise and so Tippy’s Uncle Pike, and his boyfriend Devon, have flown in from Sydney to look after her. It’s been a difficult year for Tippy after the death of her beloved father, and Tippy is a little anxious about her mother’s absence, increasingly so when first one of her best friend’s is badly injured in a fall from the town’s single lane bridge, and then her teacher’s naked headless body is discovered nearby. Tippy, a fan of the Nancy Drew mystery series, has the idea to investigate both incidents, a pursuit Pike and Devon indulge with a murder board written on a living room window in permanent texta, a mantra (Everyone’s a suspect), and matching t-shirts designed by Devon (after several attempts).

Calling themselves The Nancy’s, the three rely on their charm, insider’s knowledge (Pike grew up in Riverstone) of the town and its residents, and a little luck to try and solve the mystery but investigating a murder isn’t quite as easy as Nancy Drew makes it seem. The closer they get to finding the truth, the less Tippy is sure she really wants to know. I’m not sure how I feel about the mystery element of the novel, I thought the manner of death and the behaviour of the killer was unnecessarily outlandish, and it wasn’t as strong overall as I expected it to be, though it was satisfyingly resolved.

Whatever weakness there may be in the plot, I adored the main cast of The Nancy’s. Tippy is a delightful narrator – bright and quick, but still appropriately childish. She admires Nancy Drew for a number of reasons, so it’s no surprise she wants to emulate her. Still grieving the sudden loss of her father, the investigation is a way for her to gain some control over her life, and the things that scare her.

Uncle Pike, who looks like Santa Claus, only with tattoos, and Devon, described as Ken wearing Barbie, are outrageous characters with larger than life personalities. Irreverent, with a penchant for drink, swearing and innuendo, they are not really appropriate guardians for a child, but are warm, supportive, and fun which is exactly what Tippy needs. I found them absolutely hilarious, though I recognise their potential to offend.

There is variety in the supporting characters from elderly neighbours Mr and Mrs Brown and their granddaughter Melanie, an unctuous real estate agent, and a toothy tv presenter (who is also Pike’s ex-boyfriend), to a hard nosed journalist, a closeted policeman, and Tippy’s other best friend, Sam, and his family. The tiny community of Riverstone allows McDonald to explore the ironies of small town life, particularly as Pike and Devon make over goth girl Melanie to enter the annual beauty contest.

A murder mystery laced with mirth, The Nancy’s is a witty, warm, and wildly entertaining novel. I can’t wait to read about The Nancy’s next adventure in McDonald’s Nancy Business.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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