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

 

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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.

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Available from Fremantle Press

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Review: The Woman They Could Not Silence by Kate Moore

 

Title: The Woman They Could Not Silence: Elizabeth Packard’s incredible fight for freedom, and the men who tried to make her disappear

Author: Kate Moore

Published: 28th September 2021, Scribe Publications

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Scribe Publications

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My Thoughts:

 

“I, though a woman, have just as good a right to my opinion, as my husband has to his.”

The Woman They Could Not Silence is the remarkable and inspiring story of Elizabeth Packard’s fight to be recognised as more than her husband’s property, and against the laws that allowed it, by Kate Moore.

In June of 1860, Elizabeth Packard, a wife of 21 years, and a mother of 6, was forcibly committed to the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane in Jacksonville, Illinois by her husband, Theophilus Packard, a Presbyterian preacher. In recent months 43 year old Elizabeth had begun to object to being silenced by her husband whenever she dared to venture a thought or opinion of her own, behaviour “so different from her former conduct,” that Theophilus claimed she was suffering an “attack of derangement….the result of a diseased brain.” Furious with “his newly outspoken wife, with her independent mind and her independent spirit”, he made plans, as was his right by law, “to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement”, arranging for Elizabeth to be committed to an asylum for the insane. No doubt Theophilus expected Elizabeth would quickly repent and return home throughly chastened and made docile, but instead her incarceration became the catalyst for a life long campaign for the rights of women, and the mentally ill.

“It shall be one of the highest aspirations of my earth-life, to expose these evils for the purpose of remedying them,” she announced. “It shall be said of me, ‘She hath done what she could.’”

Drawing upon varied resources, including Elizabeth’s journals written on, “tissue paper, brown paper, and even scraps of cotton cloth”, during her time at the asylum, correspondence, reports, court documents, and news articles, Moore details Elizabeth’s revolutionary challenge of a society permitted to declare women insane upon the whims of their husbands or fathers. She provides insight into the operations of asylums in the late nineteenth century, the understanding of and treatment (or more accurately the lack of) for mental health conditions, and how Elizabeth not only survived but thrived in an environment designed to break her.

“It is hereby ordered that Mrs. Elizabeth P. W. Packard be relieved of all restraint incompatible with her condition as a sane woman.”

By the time of her death in 1897 Elizabeth could claim responsibility for the passage of at least thirty-four bills in forty-four legislatures across twenty-four states resulting in law reform, and widespread, long-lasting change, related to the operation of Insane Asylums, including granting married women the right of jury trial before being commitment. Her legacy should not be underestimated nor forgotten, especially as the battle is still far from won given outspoken women are still labeled ‘crazy’ in an effort to silence them.

Meticulously researched with a readable narrative, The Woman They Could Not Silence is a fascinating expose of history and powerful biography of a courageous, noteworthy woman.

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Available from Scribe Publications

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Review: Larrimah by Caroline Graham & Kylie Stevenson

 

Title: Larrimah: A missing man, an eyeless croc and an outback town of 11 people who mostly hate each other

Author: Caroline Graham & Kylie Stevenson

Published: 28th September 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

“The police poster has all the grim details. Full name: Patrick (Paddy) Moriarty. Approximately 178 centimetres tall. Black and grey hair. Age seventy. Last sighted at dusk on Saturday, 16 December 2017, when he left the Larrimah Hotel on his quad bike with his dog, Kellie. She’s pictured on the sign too -the red-and-brown kelpie looks young, friendly, with her tongue sticking out.”

To be honest I requested this thinking it was fiction, however Larrimah is non-fiction, a true crime investigation into the fate of a missing man, and the town he lived in.

Larrimah is a tiny outback town, spread over an area less than 1kmsq, in the Northern Territory on Wubalawun land, and at the time of Paddy’s disappearance, the population numbered just 12. It was a few days before he was officially reported missing, and wherever he had gone, he had taken nothing with him but the dog, not even the hat that rarely left his head.

Paddy’s disappearance may have gone largely unremarked by the wider world except no one can make sense of it. In essence this is a ‘locked room’ mystery. A thorough forensics investigation turned up no clues, neither did days of searching by foot, or from the air. Despite extensive police interviews, international media scrutiny, and an inquest, there has yet to be any answers.

There are theories of course. One of the most enduring is that 1 (or more) of the remaining 11 Larrimah townspeople murdered Paddy. Fran Hodgetts, whose home and tea house is situated across from Paddy’s house, was immediately a prime suspect. The two had a long history of acrimony – trading barbs and claims of harassment, but Larrimah is no stranger to feuds. At any one time it seems half of the town is at war with the other, whether it’s over the provision of pies to the passing trade, the leadership of local ‘progress’ committees, the massacre of a buffalo, or the theft of Mars Bars. There is also speculation that Paddy was abducted by drug dealers, swallowed by a sinkhole, or simply did a runner and has started a new life elsewhere.

In an attempt to understand the case, and hopefully solve the mystery, journalists Graham & Stephenson spent five years investigating the story (before this was a book, it was a Walkley award winning podcast called Lost in Larrimah), spending time with the residents of Larrimah, while also endeavouring to piece together a clearer picture of who Paddy was. In trying to answer their questions, this book develops into a portrait of both the missing man and the town of Larrimah, the two seemingly inseparable.

Rich with detail, whimsical and poignant, Larrimah reads like an Aussie yarn with its abundance of colourful, eccentric characters and unlikely sounding events, except this is a true story… well, in so far as the truth can be known.

++++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$32.99

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Review: Happy Hour by Jacquie Byron

 

Title: Happy Hour

Author: Jacquie Byron

Published: 31st August 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

 

Written with warmth, sensitivity, and humour, Jacquie Byron explores grief, guilt, forgiveness and atonement in her debut novel, Happy Hour.

In the three years since the sudden death of her beloved husband, Franny Calderwood has created a solitary life that suits her. Avoiding the company of those she and her husband once called friends, she passes the time with painting, solo excursions, gourmet cooking, and caring for her dogs, Whisky and Soda, often with a glass of wine or a cocktail at hand.

When the Salerno family – newly single mother Sallyanne, teenager Dee and eight year old Josh move in next door, Franny surprises herself by welcoming them in her life, but bad habits are hard to break, and when Franny reverts to her old ways, she must finally confront everything she has lost, to keep what she has gained.

I feel the storyline of Happy Hour is somewhat reminiscent of Fredrik Backman’s ‘A Man Called Ove’, but it definitely has its own unique tone, and doesn’t suffer in the comparison. Happy Hour offers heartfelt emotion and light, funny moments, but Bryon also explores difficult feelings associated with loss, and touches on serious issues including domestic violence, addiction and neonatal loss. I was worried that Byron would favour forgiveness over atonement , and I was very glad that this was not the case.

Franny, a 65 year-old artist and children’s book author, is an appealing character. Despite her heartbreak, she is quick-witted, cultured, generous, as well as a touch eccentric, particularly after a drink or three. It’s said that there is no wrong or right way to grieve, but it’s clear that Franny’s way of coping is not exactly healthy, and her behaviour could even be construed as selfish. Byron successfully walks the line though, so that Franny evokes sympathy, even when she acts badly. I loved the relationships Fanny formed with the Salerno family, encouraging self-belief in both the rebellious Dee, and sensitive Josh.

Funny, charming and poignant, Happy Hour is a sparkling novel.

++++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$32.99

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Review: Billy Summers by Stephen King

 

Title: Billy Summers

Author: Stephen King

Published: 3rd August 2021, Hodder & Staughton

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy Hachette

 

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My Thoughts:

 

“He’s thinking of all the movies he’s seen about robbers who are planning one last job. If noir is a genre, then ‘one last job’ is a sub-genre. In those movies, the last job always goes bad.”

Billy Summers is a killer read from Stephen King, a crime thriller featuring a surprisingly likeable assassin.

 

(More to come…)

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Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: The Garden of Hopes and Dreams by Barbara Hannay

 

Title: The Garden of Hopes and Dreams

Author: Barbara Hannay

Published: 3rd August 2021, Michael Joseph

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

 

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My Thoughts:

 

Barbara Hannay’s The Garden of Hopes and Dreams is a delightful, uplifting story of love, friendship, connection and community.

Centering around an apartment block in central Brisbane, neighbours become friends as the residents of Riverview bond over the creation of a rooftop garden.

 

(More to come…)

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Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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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

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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

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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: Triflers Need Not Apply by Camilla Bruce

 

Title: Triflers Need Not Apply

Author: Camilla Bruce

Published: 5th August 2021, Michael Joseph

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy Penguin UK/NetgalleyUK

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My Thoughts:

 

Blending fact with fiction, author Camilla Bruce has been inspired by the life of Belle Gunness, born Brynhild Paulsdatter Storset, who was a Norwegian-American serial killer active in Illinois and Indiana between 1884 and 1908, in Triflers Need Not Apply (released in the US with the title ‘In the Garden of Spite’).

Bruce, who herself was born in Norway near the small town that was home to Brynhild, gives voice to a woman who stands accused of killing as many as 40 people, including two husbands, children in her care, and men she lured to her farm with a promise of marriage before killing them for their money.

Much of the narrative is presented from the first person perspective of Belle, it reveals a childhood and adolescence marred by grinding poverty, abuse, and a horrendous event. Desperate to escape, Brynhild reinvents herself as Bella when she joins her older sister, Nellie, who has settled in America, and sets out to find a respectable, monied husband. Though marriage to a churchgoing hotel clerk with a comfortable living pacifies Belle for a short while, her avarice cannot be sated, and he eventually becomes her first American victim.

In a testament to Bruce’s skilled writing, it’s uncomfortable to be in the mind of Belle, who is petulant, manipulative, cold and often cruel, harbouring a seething rage beneath her public veneer. Fury and spite was the driving force behind her several of the earlier murders, but those committed later in La Porte, were calculated, motivated by an insatiable greed. Many of the details Bruce fictionalises tries to provide context for Belle’s motives and behaviour. The narrative suggests she is a sociopath, but questions if she was born or made that way, and there is the implication of mental illness, as Belle imagines dirt and rot clinging to walls and objects in homes where her mood has soured.

The intermittent perspective of Bella’s sister, Nellie, provides additional insight to her character, though I thought her contribution to the narrative was often repetitive and hindered the pace of the story. Nellie, a quiet, pious, hard working woman whose wants are modest, loves her sister and feels guilty when she suspects Belle of various misdeeds, but it’s many years before she is able to face the truth of what her sister is capable of.

I felt the settings in the novel, from a Norwegian hovel, to a Chicago tenement, and a farm in Idaho, were well rendered, and the historical period represented accurately. It’s clear, and confirmed by the Author’s Notes, that Bruce undertook a great deal of  research and while there is plenty of invention in this novel, it feels grounded in truth and plausibility. There are some pacing issues, but the writing is of a high standard.

Triflers Need Not Apply has the potential to appeal to a wide audience, including those who enjoy crime and historical fiction, and the true crime genre. A disturbing, and darkly enthralling read.

+++++++

Available from Penguin UK

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Review: The Last of the Apple Blossom by Mary-Lou Stephens

 

Title: The Last of the Apple Blossom

Author: Mary-Lou Stephens

Published: 28th July 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

The Last of the Apple Blossom by Mary-Lou Stephens is a sweeping Australian tale that begins in 1967 as bushfires ravage southern Tasmania. Braving smoke and flames, school teacher Catherine Turner rushes from Hobart to her family’s apple orchard in the Huon Valley, devastated to find her younger brother has been killed and their crop razed. Despite her father’s objections to women working the land, Catherine is determined to contribute to reestablishing the orchard.

The dramatic start to The Last of the Apple Blossom immediately captured my attention, and it held as Catherine fought for the future she wanted in an era where women were allowed few options. All Catherine has ever wanted is to work alongside her father in the orchard, and eventually take over the running of it. That her dad denies her the opportunity is a continual source of frustration and sadness for Catherine which Stephens portrays well. I admired Catherine’s determination and resilience.

Stephens also gives voice to two other characters. Annie, Catherine’s neighbour and closest friend, is a loving wife and busy mother. After five boys, she finally has the daughter she’s always longed for but she harbours a secret she is terrified will tear her family apart. I guessed what Annie was hiding easily, but there was suspense involved in waiting for it to be discovered. Mark, and his young son Charlie, are guests of Annie’s husband. Mark has an interesting background, which throws up challenges when he and Catherine develop a romantic relationship.

I found the history, and operation, of the apple growing industry in Tasmania to be surprisingly interesting. Stephens deftly integrates fact gleaned from her meticulous research into the story, and honours the contribution of the industry to Australia.

Well-written, I felt the author captured the setting beautifully, vivid description led me through a landscape scarred by fire, and under shady trees laden with apples. Much of the story takes place during the 1960’s and 1970’s and the attitudes of the era are accurately represented.

A story of family, love, tragedy, and resilience, The Last of the Apple Blossom is an engaging, accomplished debut novel.

+++++++

Available from Harlequin Australia

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