Review: The Liars by Petronella McGovern

 

Title: The Liars

Author: Petronella Govern

Published: 30th August 2022, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read September 2022 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

 

“They never talked about the cave in Wreck Point National Park. No-one did.”

From Australian author Petronella McGovern comes her third gripping novel of psychological drama and suspense, The Liars.

On the outskirts of Kinton Bay, hidden in the dense bush of Wreck Point National Park, lies the Killing Cave. In recent decades it’s served as a haven for teenagers looking for somewhere to party but 15 year-old Siena Britton is determined that its history as a site of an unrecorded massacre of First Nations families by shipwrecked colonists who then went on to found the town, be acknowledged and reclaimed. When she and her boy friend Kyle, discover a skull near the cave’s entrance Siena is certain she’s found proof and uploads a video to ensure the tragedy can’t be swept under the carpet, sparking the concern of her parents and the wrath of the town.

Unfolding from the perspectives of Siena, her parents Meri and Rollo, local DCI Douglas Poole, and an anonymous killer, The Liars is a layered novel that explores family secrets and community tensions as a murderer stalks the town.

Siena’s mother, Meri, isn’t sure what upsets her more, the fact that Siena has been to the Killing Cove, the site of her own adolescent regrets, or that her daughter’s activism highlights the compromises she has made in her own journalistic career. Meri is a complex character with unresolved issues from her past that affects many aspects of her present.

Rollo understands when the local business owners complain that Siena’s crusade could affect the tourist trade they rely on, his own whale watching company is struggling to recover after the pandemic, but he is worried that the skull his daughter has found could be a threat to more than just his livelihood.

DCI Poole’s perspective centres the investigation to identify the skull, the subsequent questions it raises about the fate of four missing persons, and the concern that Kinton Bay is home to a serial killer.

I enjoyed the development of the mystery, or more properly mysteries, since there is more than one secret exposed, and more than one murder to be solved. McGovern’s plotting and pacing is well thought out, and distracted by several red herrings, I didn’t guess the identity of the anonymous character for some time.

Exploring themes of regret, resentment and revenge, McGovern raises a number of issues in The Liars including the whitewashing of Australian history, corruption, media bias, homophobia, and violence against women, which the author handles with realism and sensitivity. She also touches on themes of identity, family and friendship, which are also reflected in the information about whales that introduces the five sections of the novel.

With its intriguing mysteries, complex characters and thought provoking contemporary themes, The Liars is a compelling read.

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Review: Conspiracy by Tom Phillips and Jonn Elledge

 

Title: Conspiracy: A History of Boll*cks Theories, and How Not to Fall for Them

Author: Tom Phillips and Jonn Elledge

Published: 12th July 2022, Wildfire

Status: Read September 2022 courtesy Hachette Australia 

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My Thoughts:

 

“Conspiracy theories may be having A Moment right now, but that doesn’t mean they are new.”

An informative and entertaining book, Tom Phillips and Jonn Elledge offer insight into  the history and evolution of conspiracy thinking and theories in Conspiracy: A History of Boll*cks Theories, and How Not to Fall for Them.

The authors begin by attempting to define what a conspiracy theory is, the forms conspiracy theories take, and the evolutionary and social reasons humans indulge them. It quickly becomes clear that few, if any of us, are exempt from conspiracy thinking but while some theories are reasonably benign and have no or few mild consequences, others can risk the mental and physical well-being of their adherents, and pose a danger to society at large. Unfortunately, evidence shows that often the further you go down the rabbit hole, the faster you fall, as to justify one belief, others are folded in to support it, creating a type of superconspiracy.

As Phillips and Elledge delve into the history of conspiracy theories it’s interesting to realise that the roots of some of today’s conspiracies stretch back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The authors explore how theories have began, gained traction and adapted to suit the desired narrative of their proponents with specific examples. It is both horrifying, and yet not at all surprising, to discover the motives for some of the most damaging theories stemmed from the selfish desires of a single person or small group of people, though others were borne simply of fear, ignorance, and even, occasionally, a desire to do some good.

In light of current events, the chapter titled Viral Misinformation is particularly fascinating. Many of the same conspiracy theories that have surrounded the CoVid pandemic arose during other pandemics centuries ago, for example the elite were accused of introducing cholera to cull the lower classes, foreigners were blamed for spreading the Black Death by poisoning wells, and some suggested the ‘Spanish flu’ was created by the Russians as a weapon transmitted through electric lights. Just as now, the media were lambasted for perpetuating ‘lies’, government bodies argued about the best way to handle the consequences, and there were those who declared the disease of the day was a scam, or at the very least a distraction from some nefarious purpose.

I think Conspiracy presents its information clearly, and is well structured. Thankfully the authors’ humour takes the edge of what could otherwise be a dry, and depressing read, it’s important to note however they don’t make fun of those caught it in the web of conspiracy thinking.

Conspiracy is an interesting read, though it’s not exactly comforting to realise that such theories are common throughout human history as it challenges notions of human enlightenment and progress. I feel like I gained a better understanding of what drives someone to embrace conspiracy theories, how easy it is to become enmeshed, and how difficult it can be to escape, its a shame that most in need of the books insights are unlikely to pick it up.

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Review: After the Flood by Dave Warner

 

Title: After the Flood {Dan Clement #4}

Author: Dave Warner

Published: 2nd August 2022, Fremantle Press

Status: Read September 2022 courtesy Fremantle Press

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My Thoughts:

 

Set in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, After the Flood is the fourth book by Dave Warner to feature Detective Inspector Dan Clement, though it also works effectively as a stand alone.

As his team handles a spate of petty crimes including an unruly protest, the theft of explosive materials, and vandalism of a vaccination clinic, DI Dan Clement, lonely and missing his teenage daughter, is feeling restless and longing for a distraction. Fate obliges with the discovery of a body, naked with tire tread marks on his chest and railroad spikes driven through his palms in a remote area of a cattle station, and Clement finds himself in a race to prevent a deadly scheme.

In what is a tightly plotted, engaging police procedural, Clement and his squad’s challenge is to identify the dead man, and then methodically gather evidence that might explain the reason for his gruesome murder, and reveal his killer. Warner offers several red herrings leading to a succession of dead ends that frustrate the officers, but just as the case seems to stall, a surprising connection is made. The tension rises sharply as the pieces then rapidly fall into place, leading to an explosive finish.

Themes explored in After the Flood include family, trauma, grief, revenge and disenfranchisement. Warner also raises topical issues such as corporate greed, social justice, and eco-terrorism.

The setting of After the Flood is well realised. Clement’s Major Crime Squad are based in Broome but their territory is extensive, and both its geographical and social features can complicate their investigations.

Offering intrigue and excitement, After the Flood is a well written police procedural that I sincerely enjoyed.

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Review: Do As I Say by Sarah Steel

 

Title: Do As I Say: How Cults Control, Why We Join Them, and What They Teach Us About Bullying, Abuse and Coercion

Author: Sarah Steel

Published: 28th June 2022, Macmillan Australia

Status: Read July 2022 courtesy PanMacmillan

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My Thoughts:

Sarah Steel, the creator and host of the popular ‘Let’s Talk About Sects’ podcast, examines the dynamics of cults and the people involved with them in Do As I Say: How Cults Control, Why We Join Them, and What They Teach Us About Bullying, Abuse and Coercion.

The definition of a cult is not always clear, but most of us are certain we would recognise one, so I found it interesting that many of the former members (who weren’t born into one) interviewed by Steel claim they didn’t join a cult, they joined ‘a group’ or ‘a movement’ or’ a community’, and it was only much later, some not until after they’d left, that they recognised they had been recruited into a cult. They’d often been vulnerable at the time, not because they were naive or unintelligent as people are wont to think, but because they were at a turning point in their lives and searching for purpose or a sense belonging.

Toxic cults, Steel demonstrates, are incredibly adept at promising to have the answers for those seeking them, and irrespective of country, culture or belief system, share similar unhealthy traits designed to impose control on their followers. Steel explores the tactics they exploit to recruit and keep members, and why people, especially women, find it so difficult to leave once they become enmeshed. It’s far more complicated than you might think and Steel, sharing fascinating firsthand accounts and meticulous research, provides thoughtful insight into the issues.

Steel also addresses the elements of cultic behaviour that can be found in a range of societal organisations including mainstream religion, MLM companies, political groups, fandoms, and street gangs. There is some discussion about conspiracy theories including those that have arisen due to the pandemic. I appreciated the focus on cults operating in Australia, somewhat surprised to how many have a foothold here, though often these are an offshoot of North American or British groups imported via the global reach of the internet, and disappointed to learn that Australia’s weak whistle-blower laws offer them so much protection.

Written in an almost conversational tone, Do As I Say reads well. I particularly like that Steel allows for individuals to share their personal stories. I do think the book could benefit from some boxouts to highlight or summarise points made in the narrative though.

Do As I Say is an interesting, thought-provoking read that should suit a range of readers interested in the topic. In her conclusion, Steel suggests transparency, empathy, bridging and education, especially in regards to understanding coercive control, is a way to not only combat unhealthy cults, but will also help those caught in abusive intimate relationships. Certainly something needs to change as society increasingly veers towards absolutism.

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Review: Unmask Alice by Rick Emerson

 

Title: Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries

Author: Rick Emerson

Published: 5th July 2022, BenBella Books

Status: Read July 2022 courtesy BenBella Books/Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

I was about eleven when I read Go Ask Alice, which I think it came into my possession via a friend’s much older sister. It was a cheap early paperback edition, already quite worn my guess is it had already passed through a few sets of hands in the way that certain books (like Flowers in the Attic) did when I was at school. Presented in the form of a diary, I read Go Ask Alice with a mixture of fascination and horror, aghast at how easily Alice, a bright, pretty, American suburban teenager spiraled into drug addiction, prostitution and homelessness, before dying from an overdose. I believed it was a true story, after all it said so right on the cover, and it was the mid eighties, so the ‘War on Drugs/Just Say No’ campaign was in full swing, providing plenty of reinforcement. Alice’s example must have lodged deeply into my psyche, I’ve never even been tempted to try hard drugs, too certain that her fate could be mine.

It was probably only a decade or so ago that I learnt Go Ask Alice was not a true story at all, but was written by a middle aged Mormon woman named Beatrice Sparks. When the fraud was exposed, Sparks insisted it was based in truth, inspired by her work as a youth counsellor. I remember being annoyed by the deception, but I’m furious having now read Emerson’s book, Unmask Alice.

Unmask Alice is a seemingly thoroughly researched, exposé of Beatrice Sparks, revealing her background, how she came to write ‘Alice’, and her subsequent deceits, including the publication of Jay’s Diary, which fed the ‘satanic panic’ of the late 1980’s. Sparks purpose for writing Go Ask Alice may not have been entirely bereft of good intentions, but the same definitely can’t be said about Jay’s Diary. Convinced of her own righteousness, Sparks presents as manipulative and narcissistic, with a disdain for truth and a hunger for recognition. She claimed demonstrably false education and experience, and wielded a wholly dismissive attitude toward anyone affected by her hubris.

By today’s standards, Go Ask Alice, Jay’s Diary, and Sparks other works are obvious in their hyperbole, but in their time they appealed to the conservative elements of society reeling from social upheaval, fed by the naivety of sheltered suburbanites and a dearth of understanding about youth and mental health. Even if you have never read Go Ask Alice or Jay’s Diary, (though you probably should for context), Unmask Alice offers fascinating insight into how and why the books gained such recognition and support, and the enormous cultural impact which still reverberates fifty years later.

Though the narrative style of Unmask Alice ensures it is a compelling read, it can be said to be somewhat problematic. Emerson does not always make a clear distinction between the evidence he gathered from first hand sources and his own editorial input. I’m inclined to trust the author did his research and isn’t deceptive, but then I wholeheartedly believed Alice was a real person too.

It’s disappointing to have been duped by Sparks, who died in 2012, and her enablers, including her publishers who still perpetuate the fiction of her ‘true stories’. While Go Ask Alice could be recognised as having a positive effect of scaring young girls into rejecting drug taking, I have enormous sympathy for the family of Alden Barrett, and the many lives Sparks’s fictional account of ‘Jay’s Diary’, damaged.

Provocative and intriguing, I found Unmask Alice to be an absorbing read that was informative,surprising and entertaining which I’d recommend to anyone interested in social history or literary hoaxes.

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Review: Someone Else’s Child by Kylie Orr

 

Title: Someone Else’s Child

Author: Kylie Orr

Published: 1st June 2022, HQ Fiction

Status: Read July 2022 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Debut author Kylie Orr explores friendship, betrayal, and trauma in Someone Else’s Child.

With traditional approaches failing to treat eight-year-old Charlotte’s brain tumour, everyone agrees that securing her a place in an overseas clinical trial that offers help is essential, despite the exorbitant costs involved. While Lottie’s heartbroken father Jeremy continues to work to support the family, and her devoted mother Anna, takes sole responsibility for her care, Ren, Lottie’s loving godmother, does what she can to help them all cope with the strain, and is an eager supporter of the fundraising efforts.

As the story unfolds from Ren’s perspective, it’s clear she admires Anna, though they are quite different from one another. Orr’s skilful portrayal of their dynamic, which is integral to the plot, is very believable. In their nine years of friendship, Ren has never had reason to suspect Anna capable of deceit or cruelty. If Anna is lately occasionally sharp and demanding, Ren readily accepts the stress and exhaustion of the circumstances as an excuse. While she may not always agree with her friend’s decisions, Ren tells herself she is not a mother, and she trusts that Anna knows what is best for her daughter.

Orr stirs a range of strong emotions as the story progresses, from sadness and compassion, to dread and anger, but there is nuance to be found too. Though there is no surprise in regards to the direction the main plot takes, there is growing tension as Ren begins to suspect something is wrong which eventually builds to a dramatic confrontation. I like that Orr also briefly explored the aftermath of events, with an epilogue set three years later.

Subplots also add texture to the characters and enhance the story, in particular Ren’s struggle, as a Respite Coordinator for the town council, to find help for a young single mother of disabled son at the end of her rope.

Well-written, with complex characterisation, and an emotive plot,  Someone Else’s Child is a strong debut. I couldn’t help but consider how I, compared to Ren, would reaction at various points, suggesting this would be a great choice for a book club.

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Review: Nothing But the Truth by The Secret Barrister

 

Title: Nothing But The Truth: Stories of Crime, Guilt and the Loss of Innocence

Author: The Secret Barrister

Published: 10th May 2022, Pan Macmillian Australia 

Status: Read July 2022 courtesy PanMacmillan Australia

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My Thoughts:

Having read and enjoyed Fake Law: The Truth about Justice in an Age of Lies defending judicial independence, penned by The Secret Barrister, I was curious about their new release, Nothing But The Truth: Stories of Crime, Guilt and the Loss of Innocence.

In Nothing But the Truth, The Secret Barrister shares their journey through the UK system to gain their qualifications and their early experiences of working as a criminal barrister. Largely presented chronologically, they expose the weaknesses and strengths of the process, and the need for change to better support the legal profession to serve their clients, with their particular witty irreverence.

“Four in five of you will never practise as barristers.”

The first quarter or so of the book explains how a person becomes eligible to serve at the Bar, from studying law at university, to competing for a place at Bar school, and then for pupillage (a kind of internship). It’s a long, expensive process steeped in tradition, pageantry, and nepotism, and The Secret Barrister describes it with a mix of humour, contempt, and nostalgia. They make several interesting observations, one of which is the way the current system results in a lack of diversity, among criminal barristers particularly, which disadvantages their clients.

“The verdict you seek from the jury is, after all, ‘not guilty’, not ‘innocent’.”

It’s under the supervision of pupillage in court that students begin their career as a barrister, the first six months is spent largely observing their pupil master and assisting with paperwork. For The Secret Barrister the period exposes the discrepancy between theory and practice, and challenges many of their long held beliefs about guilt, innocence, punishment and justice.

“If I were a victim of crime, or accused of a crime, this is the very last place I would want my case to be tried.”

As promised there are stories of crime, guilt and the loss of innocence, but they reference not just their clients, but themselves and their colleagues. The Secret Barrister presents a system in crisis, and all parties involved in the judicial system are suffering. Decades of funding cuts to the courts and related services including Legal Aid, CPS and the police increase the pressures. For criminal barristers, hours of work have notably increased while earnings are stagnant, contributing to a high attrition rate. Their vignettes reveal confusion, negligence, ego’s, corruption, exploitation, stress and exhaustion barely tempered by hard won victories. They are informative, interesting and affecting.

“Most days I am not an advocate; I’m a firefighter,…”

While Nothing But the Truth is an insightful and honest insiders view of the overburdened English and Wales legal system, its relevance, in part, extends to the practice of law in other countries. This is a fascinating and entertaining read if you have any interest in learning about legal representation, law or crime.

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Review: The Guncle by Steven Rowley

 

Title: The Guncle

Author: Steven Rowley

Published: 1st June 2022, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Simon & Schuster/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

Steven Rowley’s The Guncle was a hit in the USA upon its release in mid 2021, but it’s taken a year for it to be picked up by an Australian publisher so I’m a little late to the party.

Patrick, a reclusive former television celebrity, is completely unprepared when his brother asks him to take care of his children, nine-year-old Maisie and six-year-old Grant for the summer while he attends a rehab facility. Given they’ve just lost their mother to cancer, Patrick doesn’t think he is the right person to take charge of his niece and nephew, but Greg is insistent, GUP (Gay Uncle Patrick) is exactly what they need.

Patrick has no real idea how to manage the children on a daily basis, and his general sense of irreverence and sarcastic sense of humour makes him a poor role model, but while he makes mistakes, he does commit to helping them deal with their grief.

There are plenty of hilarious conversational exchanges and situations, like Grant’s midnight encounter with Patrick’s very fancy toilet on their very first night. Some may say sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but it rarely fails to raise a laugh from me.

The Guncle is more than just funny though, it offers surprising emotional depth as both Patrick and the children grapple with their losses. There are some truly poignant moments as Patrick talks to them about their late mom, Sara, and recalls his own lost love, Joe.

While Patrick is on the verge of being a larger-than-life character, the children are portrayed realistically. Grant is voluble, full of boundless curiosity and energy, while Maisie is still a child but a little more vulnerable and serious. I really enjoyed the dynamic between these three characters and the journey of their relationship.

Written with warmth and humour, The Guncle was a delightful and heartwarming read.

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Review: The Fallback by D.L. Hicks

Title: The Fallback

Author: D.L. Hicks

Published: 31st May 2022, Pantera Press

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Pantera Press/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

The Fallback is the second crime novel from Australian police officer and author, DL Hicks, and while there are loose links with his debut, The Devil Inside, it reads well as a stand alone.

When Detective Senior Constable John Darken learns that the body of Eric Johnstone, a former CI placed in the witness protection program, has been found tied to the oyster beds in the small town community of Point Imlay, he volunteers to help the locals investigate. Teamed with city homicide detective Emma Capsteen, early evidence suggests that Eric (aka Rufus O’Keefe) may have blown his second chance and gotten on the wrong side of a local bikie gang, but then a second body is discovered with similar injuries and the police struggle to see a connection.

This is a well paced police procedural, as Darken, Capsteen and their local colleagues try to discover why Eric was killed and who is responsible. The drug dealing members of the Sixers and Niners are an obvious suspect, given Eric is a junkie, but Hicks presents several plausible red herrings that muddy the officers investigation. There are some tense moments for the main characters and some interesting surprises as the story unfolds, but it’s just as it all seems resolved, that Hicks makes a stunning reveal I didn’t see coming.

Darken is a likeable lead character. He is a little fragile, dealing with the recent death of his partner in the line of duty and in the midst of a divorce, but a good investigator, and a good man. I liked Emma too, she’s smart and no nonsense, and I enjoyed the hint of romance that developed between them.

I thought Eric’s perspective was an interesting facet of the novel that provided insights the police investigation couldn’t. He is a surprisingly sympathetic character, more self destructive, than villainous.

Well crafted with a gripping mystery and interesting characters, The Fallback is a great read, and I hope to read more from Hicks.

++++++++

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Title: Wrong Place Wrong Time by Gillian McAllister

 

Title: Wrong Place Wrong Time

Author: Gillian McAllister

Published: 12th May 2022, Michael Joseph

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Penguin UK/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

Jen’s relief at her teenage son’s return home late one October Friday night, turns to horror as she witnesses him stab a man just meters from their front door. Todd is promptly arrested, and Jen, along with her husband, Kelly, are left stunned, unable to speak with him until the next morning when they can return with a solicitor. The last thing Jen remembers of that night is dozing on the sofa, but when she wakes she is in bed, Todd is in his bedroom, Kelly is at work, and it’s Friday morning …again.

Jen is confused, her son and husband are bemused by her story, and Jen allows herself to be convinced she dreamed the whole thing, but nevertheless insists Todd stays home, and as she’s falling asleep she is confident she’s avoided a nightmare scenario. So why, when she next wakes, is it the day before the day before?

Every time Jen wakes, she finds herself further back in the past, sometimes days, weeks and even years, eventually realising that to change the future, and save her son, she has to determine where everything went wrong. I felt sympathy for Jen as her whole life slowly began to unravel, her past revealing crushing secrets, and admired her determination to find the answers.

The plot is intricate, though not unfathomably so, once you become comfortable with the time slips. While I’m not a fan of time travel generally, I found I was quickly absorbed in this high concept story. The novel unfolds at a compelling pace, despite moving backwards from the crime to its cause, and offers plenty of surprising twists. The epilogue too is quite the stunner.

Intriguing and clever, Gillian McAllister presents an original premise executed with impressive skill in Wrong Place Wrong Time.

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