Review: In the Clearing by J.P. Pomare

 

Title: In the Clearing

Author: J.P Pomare

Published: July 23rd 2020, Hodder & Staughton

Status: Read July 2020 courtesy Hodder & Staughton/NetgalleyUK

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My Thoughts:

In the Clearing is an intense and unnerving read from J.P. Pomare, whose debut novel, Call Me Evie, won the 2019 Ngaio Marsh Award for best first novel.

Divided into six parts and unfolding from two shifting perspectives we are introduced to Amy, a young teenage girl who knows only life in The Clearing, a tiny isolated community led by the charismatic ‘Queen’, ‘Mother’ and ‘Deity’ Adrienne; and single mother Freya, who is determined to provide love and security for her young son, Billy, in their riverside home on the outskirts of Melbourne, but is haunted by her past mistakes.

Examining the role of nature vs nurture in a manner that suggests we may never truly escape our past, Pomare draws inspiration from the doomsday cult known as ‘The Family’, active in Australia for roughly twenty years in the 70’s and 80’s. In the Clearing he presents a complex and unpredictable plot that is skillfully crafted and insidiously compulsive. From the novel’s first pages the author grows a sense of unease which intensifies as the story progresses. Though the pace is measured, Pomare builds to shocking twists, and yet never quite allays our anxiety.

I’m loathe to spoil the experience for readers, but it seems responsible to warn that In the Clearing has its dark moments, alluding to the abhorrent abuse of children, and the occasional explicit, but not gratuitous, description of violence.

Provocative, clever, and powerful, In the Clearing is a stunning and devastating novel which will be difficult to forget.

++++++

Available from Hodder & Staughton UK

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Review: Radio Girl by David Dufty

Title: Radio Girl: The Story of the Extraordinary Mrs Mac, Pioneering Engineer and Wartime Legend

Author: David Dufty

Published: 28th April 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read May 2020, courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

Radio Girl by David Dufty is, as the tag line says, the story of the extraordinary Mrs Mac, pioneering engineer and wartime legend.

(Florence) Violet McKenzie née Wallace, who later came to be known affectionately to many as Mrs. Mac, was born in Melbourne in 1890, married in 1924, and died in 1982. While her childhood in Austinmeer, south of Sydney, was largely unremarkable she went on to make an outstanding contribution to Australian society over her lifetime.

Radio Girl is a fascinating tribute to an amazing woman who deserves far more recognition than she has ever been given. I was quickly absorbed in the tale of Mrs Mac’s life, inspired by all she achieved, and frankly annoyed that I’ve never heard of her.

Some of Violet’s many accomplishments included becoming Australia’s first woman to earn a diploma in electrical engineering, owning and operating a successful store, the ‘Wireless Shop’, catering to amateur radio enthusiasts, and establishing the Electrical Association for Women.

However Violet’s most significant achievement was her contribution to the war effort. In 1939 Mrs Mac, as she was by then commonly called, created the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps, ultimately training around 3000 women in Morse code. She became the driving force behind the creation of the Women’s Royal Australian Navy Service in 1941, which employed as many as a third of ‘her girls’ during WWII, and also trained thousands of enlisted and civilian men, from more than half a dozen countries, in signalling.

Suitable for the general reader, as well as those with specific interest in Australian military history or womens history, Dufty’s narrative reads well, it’s detailed without being dry, and informal in tone. Progressing chronologically through Violet’s lifetime, Dufty includes a dozen or so photographs, which I always appreciate. While it is unfortunate though that Violet could not directly contribute to this biography as I‘d be interested in the addition of a more personal perspective, the story of the Radio Girl and her achievements is nevertheless fascinating.

Radio Girl is interesting and informative and I’d like to thank David Dufty for ensuring Mrs Mac, and her admirable accomplishments are recognised in the present day, and recorded for history.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

Also available from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Review: Southern Cross Crime by Craig Sisterson

Title: Southern Cross Crime: The Pocket Essential Guide to the Crime Fiction, Film & TV of Australia and New Zealand

Author: Craig Sisterson

Published: April 23rd 2020, Oldcastle Books

Status: Read April 2020 courtesy Oldcastle Books/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

I excitedly leapt at the opportunity to explore Southern Cross Crime, a long overdue guide to the crime fiction, film and television of Australia and New Zealand. Written by Kiwi Craig Sisterson, whose blog Crime Watch I’ve been following for close to a decade, Southern Cross Crime presents a comprehensive listing of authors, movies and TV shows from the last quarter of a century, with the inaugural Ned Kelly Awards as his starting point.

In the first section of Southern Cross Crime, Sisterson introduces authors whose settings range across the cities, suburbs and rural areas of not only Australia and New Zealand, but also international locales from Antarctica to Iceland. Long being a fan of crime fiction, I expected to be familiar with all but a few of the authors introduced by Sisterson, but just a few pages in I had a list of three author’s names to look up, and eventually added dozens more based on his succinct and tantalising descriptions of their work. You’ll not only find reference in Southern Cross Crime to internationally renowned author’s such as Michael Robotham (who also provides the Foreward), Jane Harper and Paul Cleave, but many others that may have slipped under your radar, as they did mine.

In the past year I’ve binge watched Blue Heelers, Water Rats, Rush, Murder Call, City Homicide and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (and none for the first time), which are a handful of the television series highlighted in the second section of Southern Cross Crime exploring some of the Antipodean produced and set crime on-screen TV and film over the past 25 years. Sisterson provides a short synopsis for each series or film, many of which are available to watch on various streaming services for both local and international audiences. Of those Sisterson has not mentioned I’d like to recommend Harrow (2018 – ), a TV drama featuring forensic pathologist Dr. Daniel Harrow, played by Ioan Gruffudd, and Stingers (1998-2004) which chronicled the cases of a deep undercover unit of the Victoria police.

The final section of Southern Cross Crime features thirteen well-known crime fiction authors whom Sisterson has interviewed, or reported on, in the last decade or so. This includes Ned Kelly Lifetime Achievement Award winner Peter Corris, newcomer Emma Viskic, ‘The Kiwi Godfather’ Paul Thomas, and Sisters in Crime co-founder and President, Lindy Cameron. I very much enjoyed this section, learning a little more about the author’s I admire, and of whose work I have read.

I’ve been pleased to witness the growing popularity of Australian & New Zealand crime fiction over the last few years, and I’m thrilled that Craig Sisterson has taken the initiative to develop this essential guide which will further promote the genre both within our two countries, and on the international stage. Southern Cross Crime is a valuable and Illuminative resource for crime fiction fans everywhere.

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Southern Cross Crime is currently available as an ebook, with the publication of the paperback delayed because of Covid-19

To pre-order the print edition -available in September 2020

Oldcastle Books I Book Depository I Hive UK I via Booko

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Review: Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon

Title: Code Name Hélène

Author: Ariel Lawhon

Published: March 31st 2020, Simon & Schuster Australia

Read: March 2020 courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia

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My Thoughts:

Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon is an exciting and absorbing novel of historical fiction based on the extraordinary wartime experiences of Nancy Wake.

The story unfolds from Nancy’s first person perspective over two timelines. The first, beginning in 1936, focuses on her life in Paris as a journalist, as a newlywed, and as a people and document smuggler known as Lucienne Carlier, which earns her the moniker of ‘The White Mouse’ with a bounty of five million francs in her head. The second timeline reveals her incredible role with the Maquis in southern France as a British Special Operations Executive where she is known as Madam André, code name Hélène, and leads a Resistance force of thousands during the last months of World War II.

Lawhon takes only minor liberties with the facts to tell Nancy’s amazing story whose courageous actions earned her a dozen wartime medals from four countries. Nancy, who died in 2011 aged 98, was an intelligent, attractive, and feisty woman who wore Victory Red lipstick as armour and a cyanide pill on her cuff. She could drink like a fish, and swear like a sailor, or sip cocktails and make polite conversation in a spine revealing cocktail dress. She was a friend, a smuggler, a wife, a spy, a fighter, a leader, she was, and remains, a hero.

All but one of the major characters in Code Name Hélène were real people, from Nancy’s contacts in the Resistance, to her beloved husband. She married wealthy industrialist Henri Fiocca just before Germany invaded France but they were soon separated when he was sent to the border to fight and again, when shortly after his return, Nancy’s actions attracted the attention of the Gestapo and she was forced to flee Paris. Their relationship is a significant and moving element of the novel.

I was completely caught up in Code Name Hélène from its first pages. I thought it very well paced as it moved between timelines, both of which built a sense of anticipatory tension, though there is more outright action during Nancy’s tenure with the Maquis.

Code Name Hélène is not just a story of adventure and romance, but also one of friendship, courage, tragedy, and hope. Until now I’ve known nothing of Nancy Wake, but I have every intention of tracking down a copy of her autobiography to learn more. Nancy Wake was an extraordinary woman, and Lawhon has written an extraordinary story which honours her.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Review: Truganini by Cassandra Pybus

Title: Truganini: Journey Through the Apocalypse

Author: Cassandra Pybus

Published: March 3rd 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read March 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

Inspired by her ancestors connection to the woman known as the ‘last Tasmanian Aborigine’, Truganini by Cassandra Pybus, is a stunning historical biography.

Born around 1812 on Bruny Island, Truganini survived the capture, forced relocation, attempted assimilation and sanctioned extermination of the First Nations population of Tasmania, before dying in 1876. Drawing on a number of historical sources, including personal journals, oral histories, government records, and newspaper archives, Pybus pieces together the story of Truganini’s extraordinary life.

Placed under the ‘protection’ of Christian missionary George Robinson as a teenager she was induced to behave as his emissary/guide aiding in his self-appointed task to ‘save’ the indigenous peoples, by leading them Into exile. She was to spend more than a decade with Robinson, accompanying him to ‘New Holland’, before fleeing his patronage, only to be accused of murder and be sent into exile on Flinders Island, and later Oyster Cove. Even in death she was denied self-determination, her wish to be cremated and her ashes spread over the D’Entrecasteaux Channel ignored for over a hundred years.

Honestly I have no words to communicate the deep sorrow I feel for the fate of Truganini and all of the indigenous peoples. This harrowing narrative reveals a spirited and courageous woman who suffered unimaginable losses – the annihilation of her country, her culture, her kin, and her identity. Pybus’s account is rendered with honesty and empathy, shedding light on the shameful history Australia is yet to reconcile.

Profound, poignant, and perceptive, Truganini should be required reading for all Australian’s to aid in our understanding of, and acknowledgement of, our past.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin. RRP AUD $32.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Review: The Good Turn by Dervla McTiernan

 


Title: The Good Turn (Cormac Reilly #3)

Author: Dervla McTiernan

Published: 24th February 2020, HarperCollins Au

Status: Read February 2020 courtesy HarperCollins/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

One of the significant plot lines of the series so far is brought to a close in The Good Turn, the third book to feature Irish Garda Detective Cormac Reilly in Dervla McTiernan’s brilliant police procedural series, though not before Reilly nearly loses everything.

It begins when a young girl is abducted from a suburban street and Murphy’s refusal of resources to properly investigate leads Garda Peter Fisher to make a fatal error in judgement. As his supervising officer, Cormac is held responsible for Peter’s actions and suspended, while Peter, threatened with criminal charges, is banished to the small village station his estranged father runs on the Irish coast. Cormac is less worried about his own fate than restoring Peter’s reputation but it soon becomes clear the only way to do so is to take a stand against the corruption that infests not only his station, but the entire Galway police force.

McTiernan skilfully builds the tension as Cormac’s attempts to expose the conspiracy are repeatedly thwarted. A lesser man might simply walk away, as Emma, his girlfriend, encourages him to do, but Reilly simply can’t allow Murphy and his cronies to operate unchecked. The twists and turns of his struggle to bring his corrupt colleagues down, even when it seems inevitable that his twenty year career will end in ignominy, are thrilling.

Meanwhile Peter, resentful in exile, ignores his father’s advice to leave well enough alone when the details in a case of a double murder on the village outskirts don’t quite add up. I really enjoyed Peter’s character development as he is forced to make some difficult choices, and consider what type of police officer he wants to be.

McTiernan’s pacing of the concurrent story threads, of which there are several, is perfect, and the icy setting of a freezing Irish winter artfully reinforces the notion that both Cormac and Peter are ‘out in the cold’.

With it’s stellar characterisation, intricate plotting and vivid description, The Good Turn, like its predecessors, The Ruin and The Scholar, are a must read. I can’t wait for the next.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins Australia

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Review: The Darkest Shore by Karen Brooks

 


Title: The Darkest Shore

Author: Karen Brooks

Published: February 24th 2020, HQ Fiction

Status: Read February 2020 courtesy Harlequin/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

The Darkest Shore by Karen Brooks is a compelling, fascinating, and disturbing historical fiction novel inspired by true events.

“Twas the sea and its siren call and the men to whom they cleaved that made sisters of all the fishwives, regardless of who their mothers were, where they hailed from, and whether their husbands, fathers or brothers were alive or dead.”

The story begins on Hogmanay (New Years Eve) 1703 as Sorcha McIntyre returns home to Pittenweem, a small fishing village on the east coast of Scotland, after a fraught few months spent with her sister in St. Andrews. Despite a rude homecoming, Sorcha is happy to be back amongst her close friends, the fishwives of the ‘Weem, and quickly resettles into the rhythm of village life.

“He would put his mind to how to tame Sorcha McIntyre. Her and the rest of the fishwives.”

It’s not long however until the local minister, Patrick Cowper, who considers the independence of the fishwives and in particular Sorcha, an affront to God, takes advantage of an ill young man to turn the community against the women with accusations of witchcraft.

“All of them are wicked, wicked women, every last one of them.”

Drawing on a wide range of primary and secondary sources, (quotes from which chapter introductions are drawn), Brooks seamlessly blends historical detail with informed imagination to create a spellbinding story that explores the true events that occurred in Pittenweem, where seven women (and one man) were imprisoned and tortured after being accused of witchcraft.

While the true motives of the minister who led the persecution of the ‘Pittenweem Witches’ are unknown, Brooks offers an explanation that certainly seems plausible. Her portrayal of Cowper feels authentic (and frighteningly familiar) as he manipulates the Word of God to satisfy his lust for power and control, and to deflect his own personal shortcomings.

Sorcha is a young woman who has defied custom by circumstance. Both her parents are dead, her eldest brother is presumed to have been killed overseas while soldiering, and having been recently widowed, she is the sole owner of a large fishing vessel. The combination of her financial independence, her beauty, and her refusal to heed his demand that she remarry, are in part what infuriates Cowper and makes her a target of his rage.

Though Sorcha is a wholly fictional character, the other women (and one man) who also stand accused as witches in The Darkest Shore were once real people. Brooks breathes life into these tragic figures in a manner that I think honours the strength and dignity with which they seem to have faced Cowper’s vendetta in order to have survived it. The harrowing experiences of the accused, particularly at the hands of ‘The Pricker’ during their imprisonment, and the cruel fate that befell two of them, made for uncomfortable reading at times, more so when you are reminded that there is truth in their suffering.

While there are many dark and troubling events depicted in the novel, there are also inspiring and heartening moments as the fishwives refuse to surrender hope, supporting and comforting one another as best they can through their prolonged ordeal. There is even a touch of romance when Sorcha finds a champion, and love, with an army Captain, and the ending (though Brooks admits it deviates from the official facts) is eminently satisfying.

Beautifully written, with authentic characterisation and vivid description, I found The Darkest Shore to be a captivating, even if sometimes confronting, read.

++++++

Available from Harlequin/HarperCollins

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Review: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

 


Title: The Mercies

Author: Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Published: January 28th 2020, Pan Macmillan Australia

Status: Read January 2020, courtesy Pan Macmillan/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

The Mercies is a historical fiction novel from Kiran Millwood Hargrave, an award winning poet, playwright, and children’s author.

As Hargrave explains in a note, The Mercies is inspired by historical fact. In 1618 King Christian began a crusade to convert his subjects to his own religious persuasion and employed an enforcer to expose non-believers, particularly amongst the indigenous Sámi in Finnmark (Northern Norway). In all, fourteen Sámi men were executed, accused of sorcerery, but the Lensmann wasn’t satisfied with his remit, and over the next few years he was responsible for the trial, and execution of, 77 Norwegian women named as witches.

Hargrave begins her story in 1617 as a freak midwinter storm hits Vardø, Norway’s north-easternmost point, leaving the women of the island devastated as their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons perish in the vicious squall. As the bodies of their men, dragged from the sea, lay shrouded awaiting spring’s arrival for burial, the womenfolk grieve, but once they are laid to rest they must confront their need for survival. Defying convention a small group take up the menfolk’s duties, among them twenty year old Maren Bergensdatter. For nearly three years the village manages in this way, led by Kirsten Sørensdatter, who also lost her husband.

The author skilfully evokes the isolated and harsh environment of Vardø, with its subarctic climate where the land is frozen solid during winter, and summer brings the midnight sun. The conditions in which the villagers live are generally basic, entire families live in one room huts, with fish, reindeer meat and potato bread providing the bulk of their diet, relying on infrequent opportunities for trade for additional resources.

All of the community attend church (kirke) weekly, but the beliefs of the indigenous Sámi have a place in the life of many. In the wake of the tragedy, with the absence of someone to blame for their misfortune, some women seek refuge in the teachings of the church, and their righteousness, born in part from the bitterness of grief, begins to divide the community. The arrival of Lensmann Absolom Cornet, an ambitious and pious Scotsman directed by the King to quash the ‘sorcery’ practiced by the Sámi, along with his new bride, Ursula, serves only to deepen the rift.

The Mercies unfolds from the perspectives of Maren and Ursula, both of whom are struggling with the changes in their lives. Maren, who lost her father, brother, and betrothed, must step up to support her widowed mother and pregnant sister-in-law who are consumed by their grief, and play peacemaker as the two women turn on each other. Ursula quickly discovers that her new husband is a prideful and often hateful man, and she is ill prepared for both the duties of a wife and life in Vardø. Despite their differences, the two young women unexpectedly find comfort in each other. Hargrave’s portrayal of their evolving friendship is achingly tender, and a counterpoint to the rising tension in both Ursula’s marriage and Maren’s community.

When it comes, the conclusion of The Mercies is powerful and devastating. Eloquent and beautifully crafted, this is a captivating novel about love, fear, obsession, and evil.

++++++

Available from PanMacmillan Australia

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Review: Peace by Garry Disher

Title: Peace (Paul Hirschhausen #2}
Author: Garry Disher
Published: November 5th 2019, Text Publishing
Status: Read December 2019

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My Thoughts:

I deliberately chose to read Peace as my last book of 2019 for a few reasons but notably because it’s set over the Christmas/New Year period in Australia, and because I thought the title was a positive message of sorts to end the year on.

However, I finished it a little later than I had hoped to get a review posted in a timely manner, so for the moment these comments are a placeholder of sorts.

In summary this is an excellent book, certainly on par with Chris Hammer’s Scrubland and Jane Harper’s The Dry. I think it is a little darker and grittier than both, as is the first book featuring police officer Paul Hirschhausen, Bitter Wash Road. The mystery’s are interesting and paced well. The descriptions evoke the isolated, hot, economically depressed South Australian regional town in which it’s set, and the characterisation is well done.

Compelling reading, definitely recommended…more later.

Read a Sample Chapter

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Available from Text Publishing

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Review: Darkness for Light by Emma Viskic

 

Title: Darkness for Light {Caleb Zelic #3}

Author: Emma Viskic

Published: December 3rd 2019 Echo Publishing

Status: Read December 2019, courtesy Echo Publishing

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My Thoughts:

Darkness for Light is the third book in Emma Viskic’s outstanding crime fiction series featuring Caleb Zelic.

Following the tumultuous events of Resurrection Bay,Resurrection Bay, and And Fire Came Down, security consultancy Caleb Zelic is attempting to make better decisions. With the help of a therapist he has begun reconnecting with the Deaf community, reconciling with his pregnant wife, and rebuilding his company after his partner’s betrayal.

Meeting a new client at an urban children’s farm might be unusual, but in need of the business Caleb isn’t suspicious of the arrangement until the moment he stumbles upon the man’s body. Caleb is prepared to make the right decision and walk away from the mess, but the dead man’s colleague, an AFP officer, refuses to let him. She needs to find Caleb’s ex-partner, Frankie, and she isn’t above using blackmail to ensure his cooperation. Caleb has no qualms about turning Frankie over to the agent, until her nine year old niece, Tilda, is violently abducted, and the only decision he can make is the one which will save the child’s life, for better or worse.

From the opening chapters, Darkness for Light sets a breathtaking pace of twists and turns. It’s not only the escalating violence that keeps you on the edge of your seat as the body count rises, but the complexity of the situation that Caleb finds himself struggling to unravel. Skilfully crafted, the main plot revolves around a hidden ledger that could expose the illegal financial machinations of Melbourne’s elite. There are several parties who will do anything to get their hands on it, and Caleb is caught in the middle with no one to trust. Viskic definitely kept me guessing.

Caleb is not just under pressure from the rogue AFP agent, Frankie’s reappearance, and Tilda’s kidnapping, Kat is nearing a critical point in her pregnancy, and Alberto Conti, a deaf restaurant owner who has become a friend, has asked for his help. All of this threatens to undo the progress Caleb has made in therapy to deal with his demons. Viskic’s character development with Caleb has been uniformly excellent in previous instalments, but I particularly admired how she handled his emotional conflict in Darkness for Light.

Darkness for Light is an exhilarating crime fiction novel, personally I’d recommend reading at least books one or two (though preferably both) before reading it, you’ll find the investment is worth it.

++++++

Available from Echo Publishing

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Indiebound 

Also reviewed at Book’d Out by Emma Viskic

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