Review: The River Mouth by Karen Herbert

 

Title: The River Mouth

Author: Karen Herbert

Published: 1st October 2021, Fremantle Press

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Fremantle Press

 

++++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

In Karen Herbert’s accomplished crime fiction debut, The River Mouth, a mother resumes her search for answers to the unsolved murder of her teenage son when the decade old case is reopened in the wake of the death of her best friend.

Sandra Davies is stunned when the police advise her that not only has the body of her best friend, Barbara Russell, been found in the Pilbara desert, but that routine tests discovered Barbara’s DNA matched a sample taken from the under the fingernails of her late son. Darren was shot dead by an unknown assailant while swimming in the river with friends ten years earlier, but what possible motive could explain Barbara killing a fifteen year old boy?

As Sandra tries to make sense of this unexpected development, convinced Barbara is blameless, Herbert unravels the past from the perspective of Barbara’s son, and Darren’s best friend, Colin. Darren is a high-spirited teenager, full of teenage bravado, with a sharp tongue, while Colin is more reserved and thoughtful. When Darren is not helping out his dad, a successful cray fisherman, the boys spend much of their time together, at school and on weekends, often joined by Tim, and occasionally Amy. While they occasionally cause mischief, and push against their parents’ rules, the group are fairly typical teenagers. I thought Herberts characterisation of the teens was realistic, and felt that she deftly captured their dialogue, attitudes and behaviours.

It becomes clear as the story unfolds that the insular Western Australian costal community in which Sandra lives harbours more than one secret that could have led to Darren’s murder, and Herbert uses these red herrings to good effect. The novel is well paced, with the suspense managed effectively across both timelines. Though the ambiguous circumstances of Barbara’s passing remains an irritant to me, I think the mystery of Darren’s death is satisfactorily resolved, even if the aftermath is somewhat non-traditional.

The River Mouth is an impressive debut, and a fine addition to the growing oeuvre of rural Australian crime fiction.

++++++++

Available from Fremantle Press

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Review: The Housemate by Sarah Bailey

 

Title: The Housemate

Author: Sarah Bailey

Published: 31st August 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

The Housemate is a standalone crime novel from Australian author Sarah Bailey, best known for her popular series featuring Detective Gemma Woodstock.

When the body of a woman is found on a property in rural Victoria, interest is revived in a decade old mystery. Olive Groves was a junior reporter when the ‘Housemate Homicide’ – where a dispute among three young housemates led to the murder of one and the disappearance of another – occurred, and now rumour suggests that the missing woman has resurfaced. Given her familiarity with the case, Oli is eager to investigate further, but annoyed when her editor insists she works with a young podcaster, Cooper Ng.

In what is a well-conceived and interesting plot, Oli, aided by Cooper, digs into what really happened between the housemates on the night of the murder, and slowly uncovers a cabal whose elite members are willing to kill to keep their secrets. While I found the complex mystery intriguing, I did feel the pace of the first two thirds or so of the novel was quite slow, with much of the tension and action being confined to near the end.

Oli is an intuitive, driven investigative journalist, her methods to unearth the story are sometimes uncomfortable, but I appreciated her determination to uncover the truth. I liked how Bailey explored the tension between old and new media through the relationship between Oli and Cooper.

Oli’s personal life is a bit of a mess though, and becomes more complicated when elements of the Housemate case forces her to face some difficult truths about her relationship, and herself. I wasn’t always sympathetic to her issues, but I thought she was a well-realised, complex character.

With its cleverly plotted, absorbing mystery, The Housemate is compelling crime fiction.

++++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$32.99

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Review: The Attack by Catherine Jinks

 

Title: The Attack

Author: Catherine Jinks

Published: 31st August 2021, Text Publishing

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy Text Publishing

 

++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

“I took one look at him and it all came flooding back. Otford. Joyce. The lies. The police. I’d fled to a deserted island, but I couldn’t seem to escape Aaron Rooney.”


Robyn Ayres is the caretaker of Finch Island /Buangan Pa, a former leper lazaret, repurposed for the use of campers and organised groups. The basic facilities and lack of phone/wifi service dull the island’s appeal to holidaymakers, but Vetnet, a boot camp for troubled teen boys run by ex military officers, are one of the island’s few regular bookings. When Shaun and his staff arrive with the latest group of delinquent recruits, Robyn is shocked to realise she recognises one of the boys. He is ten years older than the last time she saw him, and using a different name, but she is sure it is Aaron Rooney, who indirectly led to her self-imposed exile on the island. The knowledge leaves Robyn on edge and her anxiety worsens as she is targeted by a series of malicious pranks.

The story of The Attack unfolds over over two timelines, Robyn’s past as a kindergarten teacher in a small town caught between two warring families locked in a custody battle, shows why the sudden appearance of a now sixteen year old Aaron is so destabilising.

There is tension as Robyn wonders if Darren/Aaron remembers her, which builds with a series of worrying incidents, among them rubbish dumped on her bed, deliberately broken plumbing, and a kitchen fire. Robyn considers Aaron the most likely suspect, but there are fourteen other troubled teens on the island who might think that harassing Robyn would force the VetNet operators to send them home.

Though the pace for much of the book is quite restrained, there is a definite sense of anticipation that develops in both timelines. Everything comes to a head in the last quarter of the novel where Jinks provides a thrilling, action-packed climax as Robyn is forced to confront the past.

I really enjoyed The Attack for its original premise, interesting setting (inspired by Queensland’s Peel Island) and characterisation. This is a well written, absorbing and satisfying thriller.

++++++++

Available from Text Publishing

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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 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 Devil’s Advocate by Steve Cavanagh

 

Title: The Devil’s Advocate {Eddie Flynn #6}

Author: Steve Cavanagh

Published: 27th July 2021, Orion

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

+++++++


My Thoughts:

 

Conman turned lawyer Eddie Flynn and his team find themselves in Alabama fighting for the life of a young man facing the death penalty in The Devil’s Advocate by Steve Cavanagh.

When the body of college student/bar waitress Skylar Edwards is found partially buried in a lot behind a truck stop, the corrupt local sheriff is quick to arrest her young colleague, Andy Dubois, and the sadistic county District Attorney to guarantee the death penalty. Despite damning evidence to the contrary, it’s clear to Eddie that Andy has been framed, and he has no chance of a fair trial in Buckstown.

Always one to side with the underdog, Eddie is really up against it the small minded town harbouring corrupt officials, racists, extremists, and more than one killer. No one is interested in justice, just vengeance and power. The conspiracy, and it’s extent, is terrifying, with a vein of plausibility I found very disturbing. Cavanagh seems to draw some inspiration from the classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as current events. The plot is layered, offering some plenty of tense moments and surprises, and unfolds at a good pace.

Eddie’s nemesis in the case is Randal Korn, who presents as a diligent, successful  District Attorney, but is a sadist who revels in having the power over life and death and will do anything to keep it. A great legal defence isn’t going to be enough to ensure justice for Andy against such a man, and Eddie and his team, which includes fellow lawyer Kate, investigator Bloch, and mentor Harry, have to play smart and dirty if they are going to save their clients life. Eddie doesn’t mind taking risks when he needs to, but is reluctant for his colleagues to do so. I really enjoyed the team dynamic in this instalment, and that they each have a crucial role to play in the story.

Despite this being the sixth instalment of the Eddie Flynn series, I think it can work as a stand alone. A great read, The Devil’s Advocate is a gripping, dramatic and disturbing legal thriller.

++++++

Available from Hachette 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: All Her Fault by Andrea Mara

Title: All Her Fault

Author: Andrea Mara

Published: 22nd July 2021, Bantam Press UK

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Penguin/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

In All Her Fault by Irish author Andrea Mara, Marissa Irvine arrives at 14 Tudor Grove to collect her four year old son, Milo, from a play date, only to discover the occupant is a stranger who knows nothing about her son.

It’s a scenario that becomes ever more nightmarish when it’s clear there has been no simple mistake. Jenny, with whom Marissa organised the playdate over text, claims to know nothing about the plan, and when no ransom demand is forthcoming, the police have few leads to follow.

The longer Milo remains missing, the higher the tension rises. Mara develops plenty of plausible red herrings as suspicion falls on strangers and those closest to the Irvine’s alike. Cleverly, though the identity of the abductor is eventually revealed, their motivation remains obscured, until a final shocking reveal that I really didn’t see coming. A couple of the twists are a bit of a stretch but in general I thought All Her Fault was well plotted, pacey and suspenseful.

Mara’s portrayal of Marissa’s journey from confusion through to panic and despair is well portrayed. I empathised with her devastation, and her determination to find her son. Gossip and speculation run rampant as the news of Milo’s kidnapping spreads, there are some particularly passive-aggressive characters – school gate mums (and a Dad)- who are eager to suggest Marissa is somehow to blame for the tragedy. Jenny is the only one who reaches out to Marissa and offers her genuine support, despite her unwitting role in the abduction.

With a compelling premise, well drawn characters and a rather spectacularly satisfying ending, I thought All Her Fault was a gripping read.

++++++

Available from Penguin UK


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Review: The Children’s Secret by Nina Monroe

 

Title: The Children’s Secret

Author: Nina Monroe

Published: 13th July 2021, Sphere

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Hachette

 

+++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

In The Children’s Secret by Nina Monroe, a back-to-school party in the small New Hampshire town of Middlebrook, is marred by tragedy when an eleven year old guest is shot in the chest, and the children, whom were out of sight of the adults in a barn, refuse to explain how it happened.

Unfolding from multiple perspectives, the narrative explores the impact of the shooting and its aftermath.

The characters are diverse, which I appreciate, but it does feel a little contrived, in that the cast tick just about every minority box.

As the parents look to lay, or deflect blame, they find themselves wrestling with various concerns, not just those that relate directly to the tragedy, but also personal problems, ranging from a crisis of faith to a troublesome pregnancy, as well as social issues such as racism, prejudice, media distortion, and political expediency. I felt the personal issues were largely unnecessary distractions though, given the complex and divisive subjects related to the main subject at hand.

I think Monroe manages to be fairly even-handed in her examination of the gun control debate. Studies show that in the US around 3000 children are killed or injured per year in incidents where a gun is accidentally/unintentionally fired by a child under the age of 17*. I believe in gun control. In an ideal world I do not believe any ordinary citizen should own a gun except in very specific instances, and no semi or automatic weapons without exception. I believe in gun registration, background checks, age restrictions, licences/permits, storage requirements, and limits on ownership.

Though as The Children’s Secret shows, none of that necessarily precludes a tragedy (though it was still avoidable, and could have been worse). As the nine children, aged from four to thirteen, steadfastly repeat the same story about the shooting that explains almost nothing, the mystery of the novel rests in discovering how the children gained access to the gun, exactly what happened in the barn, who fired the shot that struck the victim, and why. I found my need for answers to be sufficient motivation to keep reading.

The novel’s tight timeline (it unfolds over the period of about a week) and short chapters helps the story to progress at a good pace. I did feel there were some some flaws in the writing, but nothing egregious.

Provocative and thoughtful, The Children’s Secret has the potential to elicit strong reactions among its readers.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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https://www.childrensdefense.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Protect-Children-Not-Guns-2019.pdf

 

Review: Catch Us The Foxes by Nicola West

 

Title: Catch Us The Foxes

Author: Nicola West

Published: 7th July 2021, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster

++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

Catch Us the Foxes is a dark, enthralling thriller from debut Australian novelist, Nicola West.

The novel opens with a prologue where Marlowe ‘Lo’ Robertson, is being introduced to an audience at the Sydney Opera House. She is to speak about her best selling true crime book, ‘The Showgirl’s Secret’, an account of the tragic death of a young woman, Lily Williams, seven years previously.

Marlowe was a 22 year old intern at the local paper when she found Lily’s body in the stables of the town showground. When her father, the town police chief, asked Lo to lie about some of the details of the crime, including the symbols carved into the young woman’s flesh, she reluctantly agreed, but then she is given Lily’s journals which suggest Lo’s father, and other prominent citizens, may have a reason to have wanted Lily dead.

West presents a compelling, intricate mystery where the truth is shockingly elusive to the very last page. Lily’s diaries suggest a frightening cult is operating in their small coastal town, and while the allegations seem absurd, Lo is prompted to dig further when a carnival worker is arrested for Lily’s murder on threadbare evidence. If what Lily has written is true, there are plenty of possible suspects among the townsfolk, and West cleverly portrays them with an interesting ambiguity. Suspense builds as trust is eroded, and Lo attempts to ascertain the truth.

Lo presents as smart, resourceful and ambitious but there is an edge to her character that is disquieting. Doubt is thrown on the validity of her investigation when other characters suggest Lo is suffering from PTSD, and the possibility is a nag as she continues to piece information together, so that her reliability as a narrator is in question. It’s a clever conceit that West manages well.

The plot makes good use of the setting, small towns seem capable of hiding secrets behind their bucolic facades. I’ve been to Kiama (on NSW’s south coast) where Catch Us the Foxes takes place, and it’s a pretty coastal town, not so different from the one I live in now, but West successfully paints it as a claustrophobic, corrupt community.

With its clever structure and twisting, gripping plot, Catch Us the Foxes is an impressive read. The stunning final reveal seems to divide readers, but I thought it was terrific.

+++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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