Review: In the Blink of an Eye by Jo Callaghan

 

Title: In the Blink of an Eye

Author: Jo Callaghan

Published: 10th January 2023, Simon & Schuster Au

Status: Read January 2023 courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia

++++++++

My Thoughts:

Crime fiction with a speculative twist, In the Blink of an Eye is an impressive debut from British author, Jo Callaghan.

DSC Kat Frank, newly returned from bereavement leave, is unhappy when her boss directs her to lead a pilot program to test the suitability of using an AIDE (Artificially Intelligent Detective Entity) in a police investigation. Professor Okonedo, determined to better the operation of the force, asserts that the AIDE is not only capable of collating and analysing vast amounts of data in a fraction of the time required by a human, but has been programmed to filter out the bias and prejudice that can taint investigations. Kat doesn’t believe algorithms can truly account for the vagaries of humankind, or replace the experience and instincts she, like most good police officers, often rely on.

With input from her small handpicked team, consisting of DI Ryan Hassan and DS Debbie Browne, along with AIDE Lock, who presents as a lifelike hologram with the default appearance is as a fairly nondescript 6ft tall white male, and Professor Okonedo as an observer, Kat selects two missing person cold cases for them to review. Unexpectedly the investigation’s into the current whereabouts of university student Tyrone Walters and wanna be actor Will Robinson converge when the team discovers a sinister link in their disappearances.

Essentially In the Blink of an Eye is a police procedural, Kat and her squad conduct interviews, investigate clues and gather evidence to explain the fate of the missing men. Callaghan develops a solid mystery and I thought it played out well. There’s plenty of tension, enhanced by the anonymous perspective of a young man suffering at the hands of shadowy figures, and effective twists in the plot.

The speculative elements of the novel are thought-provoking. The conflict inherent in Kat and Lock’s different approaches to investigation, and how each affects the case, is fascinating, with the strengths and weaknesses of both methods fairly illustrated. Lock’s superior ability to gather and analyse information is undeniable but Kat proves that empathy, discretion, and an understanding of nuance are also valuable investigative tools.

I really enjoyed the unique dynamics of Kat and Lock’s partnership. Kat is a likeable lead character. As a decorated police officer, with 25 years of experience in the force, Kat is a dedicated investigator who has confidence in her abilities, but she is a little emotionally fragile given the recent death of her husband, caused in part by of a misdiagnosis by an AI, which fuels her antagonistic attitude towards the AIDE. Kat is also a mother, with her teenage son on the cusp of relocating to begin university, and as such there are aspects of the cases that she strongly relates to. It’s surprisingly difficult to refrain from ascribing human motivations and emotions to AIDE Lock. Solely driven by statistics and logic, though capable of deep learning that gives it the ability to adjust its behaviours, it nevertheless has a distinct character which I really grew to like.

With its clever, provocative premise and appealing, complex characters, In the Blink of an Eye is a compelling novel, and I believe only the first of what promises to be a great series.

++++++++

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Review: Seven Sisters by Katherine Kovacic

 

Title: Seven Sisters

Author: Katherine Kovacic

Published: 4th January 2023, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read January 2023 courtesy HarperCollins/Netgalley

++++++++


My Thoughts:

 

Australian author Katherine Kovacic delivers on a powerful and provocative premise that explores grief, guilt, justice and vengeance in Seven Sisters.

“Each one met her eye, and in each face there was grief and understanding and something else – a reflection of the bleakness she saw whenever she dared to look in a mirror.”

Struggling to cope with her feelings of rage and frustration in the aftermath of her sister’s murder at the hands of her abusive partner, for which he received only a suspended sentence, Naomi doesn’t expect group therapy will be much help. She is stunned when Mia, her psychologist, introduces her to the five other members and learns that not only do they sympathise with her loss, but understand it. Like her, Gabrielle, Brooke, Katy, Olivia and Amy have each lost a beloved sister as a result of domestic violence, and similarly, the perpetrator faced few consequences.

Drawing inspiration from the classic film ‘Strangers on a Train’, the women all agree these men must be stopped, and carefully devise ways to exact justice in a manner that will seem accidental. No plan is perfect however and there are several very tense moments as each woman attempts to fulfil their task by creative, but plausible, methods. I enjoyed the suspense generated by each situation, especially when things threaten to go awry, and then a lone detective begins to grow suspicious about the string of deaths.

I sympathised with each woman, easily imagining the depth of their loss, and the anguish of knowing that the person’s responsible escaped serious repercussions. I can’t really fault them for their desire for revenge especially when the law has failed so badly at meting out justice. Kovacic addresses the moral issues thoughtfully, but honestly it’s hard to muster up any outrage for their actions. Though this is fiction, and I don’t condone murder, I indulge in a little revenge fantasy myself whenever I read in the news of yet another man who receives a ludicrously light sentence or none at all for an assault on a woman.

Compelling, bold and fast paced, Seven Sisters is a well written and exciting revenge thriller.

++++++++

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Review: Retribution by Sarah Barrie

 

Title: Retribution {Lexi Winter #2}

Author: Sarah Barrie

Published: 30th November 2022 courtesy HQ Fiction

Status: Read December 2022 courtesy Harlequin Australia

++++++++

My Thoughts:

 

Retribution is the thrilling sequel to Unforgiven, in which Sarah Barrie introduced Lexi Winter.

Once a lone vigilante, after the events of Unforgiven, Lexi, the survivor of pedophile network that included her parents, has joined the police force and now is a probationary Constable. Working within the rules is not easy for her, but she’s doing her best to honour the commitment she made, at least during work hours. Lexi is still hunting for Damon Vaughn, the sociopath who delivered Lexi to the orchestrator of her childhood abuse, and is secretly playing a dangerous game designed to find him.

Lexi’s two worlds collide after she and her training officer chase a pair of teenage drug dealers. Tightly plotted with plenty of action that includes plenty of tense situations, violence, and several murders, Retribution is fast-paced and exciting. Set between the central coast area of NSW and Sydney, three seperate investigations, plus Lexi’s personal project, eventually intertwine, reuniting Lexi with Detective Inspector Rachael Langley and her Homicide squad, which includes Detective Sergeant Finn Carson.

Working with the team in an official capacity is a challenge for Lexi. Given her extraordinary talents, Lexi’s struggle humanises her, and I liked the role it plays in her personal growth. Barrie also provides more insight into the lives of Rachael and Finn, and I’m liking the hint of a possible relationship developing between Finn and Lexi.

Retribution is a gripping page turner and I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

++++++++

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Review: No Country for Girls by Emma Styles

 

Title: No Country for Girls

Author: Emma Styles

Published: 30th August 2022, Sphere

Status: Read September 2022 courtesy Hachette Australia

++++++++

GOLD. THEFT. MURDER.

A ROAD TRIP TO DIE FOR.

‘It’s not exactly how I imagined the week starting. An accessory to murder. On the run in the victim’s vehicle . . .’

Charlie and Nao are strangers from different sides of the tracks. They should never have met, but one devastating incident binds them together forever.

A man is dead and now they are unwilling accomplices in his murder there’s only one thing to do: hit the road in the victim’s twin cab ute, with a bag of stolen gold stashed under the passenger seat.

Suddenly outlaws, Nao and Charlie must make their way across Australia’s remote outback using only their wits to survive. They’ll do whatever it takes to evade capture and escape with their lives . . .

Thelma & Louise for a new generation, No Country for Girls is a gritty, twisty road-trip thriller that follows two young women on the run across the harsh, unforgiving landscape of Australia.

My Thoughts:

Tense and exciting No Country For Girls is an excellent crime fiction debut from Emma Styles.

Told primarily from the alternating viewpoints of Nao and Charlie, I enjoyed the contrast of the unlikely pairing. The characters are distinctive but familiar, and read authentically.

There are plenty of twists in the fast-paced plot as their escape becomes a pursuit. Styles pushes the bounds of credibility a little but not so much that it becomes farcical. Though compared to the blockbuster movie Thelma and Louise, I think it has a fair bit in common with the Australian TV series, Wanted, (though I’ve only watched the first season).

Themes include friendship, addiction, police corruption, domestic violence, and also touch on Australian First Nations issues including the Stolen Generation and mining rights.

Vivid descriptions deftly evoke the varying Australian landscapes, particularly the outback areas of Western Australia. Styles use of Australian vernacular also firmly grounds the book in its setting.

No Country For Girls is a well-written, thrilling read I’m happy to recommend.

++++++++

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Review: The Torrent by Amanda Gearing

 

Title: The Torrent: A True Story of Heroism and Survival

Author: Amanda Gearing

Published: 30th January 2017, UQP

Status: Read November 2022

++++++++

My Thoughts:

The Torrent by Toowoomba journalist Amanda Gearing relates the events of the flooding that devastated the Lockyer Valley in 2011 and the extraordinary stories of survival, rescue and loss revealed in the aftermath. First published in 2012, this 2017 edition also includes updates on the lives of the original interviewees and reporting about the inquiries into the disaster held in later years.

During the summer of 2010/2011 Queensland experienced weeks of monsoon rains, causing widespread flooding across the southern half of the state. On January 10th 2011, the weeks of heavy rain forced a torrent of water through the town of Toowoomba, over the ranges and into the Lockyer Valley. With almost no warning, a wall of water, described as an ‘inland tsunami’, descended upon the communities of Spring Bluff, Murphy’s Creek, Postman’s Ridge, Withcott, Helidon and Grantham. Homes and buildings were swept away, crops and stock were decimated and tragically, twenty four people died.

Though the prose is delivered without flourish, the narrative is absolutely harrowing. I found my pulse accelerating and my body tensing as I read of the water raging through the valley, changing so many lives in its wake. Catherine, her husband Selwyn and their six year old daughter, Katie, were attempting to leave when their property at Murphy’s Creek was hit by a surge of floodwater. Catherine eventually found purchase on a tree about a kilometre downstream to which she clung for several hours before being rescued. Neither her husband nor daughter survived. After their car was swept off the road at Helidon, James Perry, his wife Jenny Thorncraft and their son Teddy climbed onto the roof of the vehicle and clung to the roof racks as it was tossed around by the churning waters. When high voltage live power lines began grazing the waters surface, the family were forced to abandon the car and were separated. Jenny was eventually rescued from a tree, and nine year old Teddy was found on top of a cattle feeder several hours later, over 6km away. The body of James Perry has never been found. Elderly couple Peter and Marie were trapped in their Grantham home for hours after it filled with water and was then swept nearly 2km downstream. These are a summary of just a few of the staggering stories of survival, tragic sacrifices and heroic rescues related in The Torrent.

Gearing goes on to explore the aftermath of the disaster, following up with survivors, witnesses and their communities to reveal how they have fared in the days, weeks, months and years since. The confidence of some residents that the flooding was unlikely to ever be repeated is heartbreaking given they have been, most recently in Feb 2022, though less dramatically. Gearing also discusses the findings of various official inquests and inquiries held, and their attendant controversies. Though the flash flooding was a result of excessive rain due to a La Niña weather event, multiple failures in planning, preparedness, and communication contributed to the loss of life.

Informative, insightful and powerful, The Torrent is both an important record of a natural disaster, and a compelling tribute to the individuals affected.

++++++++

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Review: Day’s End by Garry Disher

 

Title: Day’s End {Paul Hirschhausen #4}

Author: Garry Disher

Published: 1st November 2022, Text Publishing

Status: Read November 2022 courtesy Text Publishing/Netgalley

++++++++

My Thoughts:

 

‘One hopes,’ Dr Van Sant said, ‘but suffers misfortune—and so is desolate.’

Day’s End is the fourth book in Garry Disher’s stellar crime fiction series featuring South Australian police officer Paul Hirschhausen.

Driving back from a large station on the edge of his rural beat with the mother of a missing Austrian backpacker, Hirsch is diverted to a fire in a culvert where he discovers a body in a smouldering suitcase. He doesn’t recognise the man, but is relieved at least he bears no resemblance to the son of his passenger. Though Hirsch is curious about both cases, neither are his direct responsibility, and there’s plenty else to keep him busy. A new family in town is causing a few headaches; Kate is being cyber-bullied, though she’s refusing Hirsch’s help; a white supremacist group is recruiting local teens; and Hirsch is in trouble after losing his temper with an abusive anti-vaxxer.

Disher’s plotting is masterful as always, and in Day’s End, the crimes Hirsch investigates often overlap and connect in unexpected ways. Disher manages the multiple threads skilfully, connecting seemingly disparate people and events in a manner that feels credible. There’s plenty of well timed action that drives the story at a good pace but without sacrificing suspense, or emotion. The book’s final scenes in particular are very tense and exciting.

Set roughly in the present day, Disher incorporates current social issues into the story including the rent crisis, increased economic pressures, and the rise in hateful rhetoric and actions stimulated by the Covid pandemic. This helps to ground the story in time and place, and enhances its sense of authenticity.

After three years in Tiverton Hirsch is feeling more comfortable and confident, both professionally and personally. He is a methodical investigator who believes in the law but also understands the importance of community policing, and adapts easily to the differing demands of the job. Usually easygoing and even tempered, there are events in Day’s End that shake him (TW: infant death), and it will be interesting to see how that might play out in future instalments.

Like it’s predecessors, Bitter Wash Road, Peace and Consolation, Day’s End is a gripping read, and this brilliant series remains as one of my favourites.

++++++++

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Review: The Tilt by Chris Hammer

 

Title: The Tilt (DS Ivan Lucic & DC Nell Buchanan #2)

Author: Chris Hammer

Published: 5th October 2022, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read October 2022 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

The Tilt is the second stunning crime fiction novel from bestselling author Chris Hammer to feature Detective Sergeant Ivan Lucic and Detective Constable Nell (Narelle) Buchanan, who were introduced in Treasure and Dirt (Opal Country).

“A skeleton in the bottom of the regulator. All this time. I couldn’t believe it when I read about it. A skeleton. Who could have known that?”

Following their successful resolution of their case in Finnegan’s Gap, Detective Sergeant Ivan Lucic and Detective Constable Nell (Narelle) Buchanan have been partnered to form a rural homicide flying squad. Though they are to be based in Dubbo, Lucic and Buchanan are required to respond to any case in regional or remote NSW the brass deem appropriate. Their first assigned case coincidentally sends them to Nell’s hometown near the Victorian border along the Murray River, where the skeleton of a homicide victim has been unearthed after a river regulator was blown up.

Ivan takes a step back in The Tilt, leaving Nell to take the lead in what becomes a very personal investigation after a second skeleton is found. Old grudges are revived and dark secrets are exposed revealing tales of theft, assault, corruption, love, loss, betrayal and revenge. Weaving through the narrative of Nell’s present day investigation is the transcript of a statement made to the police by an elderly man, and the account of a romance between a teenage girl and a young charismatic journalist in the 1970’s. As the novel unfolds the links between the seemingly disparate threads grow clearer, in what is an impressive and compelling feat of plotting.

While I missed Ivan’s presence, I enjoyed gaining more insight into Nell’s character. She’s not entirely comfortable with being back in her hometown, convinced her family, especially her mother, doesn’t support her career choice. Things only grow more complicated for Nell when her investigation seems to indicate the involvement of members of her family.

Readers familiar with Hammer’s Martin Scarsden series will recognise one of the characters who makes an appearance in the novel, playing the part of a ‘twitcher’, he’s keeping an eye on the growing camp of ‘cookers’ nearby. Hammer also introduces another character in The Tilt Senior Constable Kevin Mackangara, the lone residential officer in Tulong, who it seems will join Ivan and Nell in future books.

Though the investigation plays out over only a week, the story spans decades. Hammer touches on historical events of note such as the diversion of the Murray River, and the POW labour camps established during WWII.

With its gripping, multi-layered mysteries, vivid characters and atmospheric setting, The Tilt is an immersive read, I highly recommend.

++++++++

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Review: Meredith, Alone by Claire Alexander

 

Title: Meredith, Alone

Author: Claire Alexander

Published: 9th June 2022, Michael Joseph

Status: Read September 2022 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

++++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

In this poignant character driven novel, author Claire Alexander introduces us to Meredith Maggs. Meredith is 39 years old, a freelance writer who lives in Glasgow, and hasn’t stepped over her threshold for 1,214 days.

It’s not that Meredith chose to not leave, one day she simply couldn’t.

As the narrative progresses in the present, we learn Meredith hasn’t stopped living exactly. She has her work, her routines, and anything she needs can be delivered to her door. She may be alone, but Meredith claims she isn’t lonely, she has her beloved cat, Fred, to keep her company, her best friend, Sadie, often stops by with her two small children, and her friendship circle is slowly expanding. Holding Hands volunteer, Tom, insists on regular visits, and through her online support group, Meredith bonds with newbie Celeste.

But there are things Meredith misses. Like swimming, hugs, and her sister, Fee.

Flashbacks provide glimpses of Meredith’s past including her difficult childhood, illuminating her relationship with her mother and sister, whom she hasn’t seen for years, and the accumulation of the heartbreaking circumstances that led to Meredith’s agoraphobia.

Beautifully told, written with warmth, compassion and a touch of humour, this is a tender story about trauma, survival, friendship and ultimately, about hope.

++++++++

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Review: The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman

 

Title: The Bullet That Missed {The Thursday Murder Club #3}

Author: Richard Osman

Published: 15th September 2022, Viking

Status: Read September 2022 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

++++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

I’m delighted by the return of the Thursday Murder Club in Richard Osman’s third book featuring four elderly residents of a luxury retirement village, The Bullet That Missed.

The Thursday Murder Club -Elizabeth, a former MI5 intelligence operative; Ibrahim, a mostly retired psychiatrist; Ron, once a union boss who enjoys playing devil’s advocate; and Joyce, a former nurse; are drawn into a cold case involving the disappearance of an investigative reporter a decade earlier, primarily because Joyce has a small crush on the victims former South East Tonight colleague, Mike Waghorn. Bethany Waites was working on uncovering the mastermind of a mobile phone scam, and the whereabouts of the scheme’s billion dollar profits, when her car went over a cliff. Though Bethany’s body was never found, it was assumed she got too close, and was murdered.

As the Thursday Murder Club try to unravel Bethany’s fate, Elizabeth is receiving anonymous vaguely threatening text messages which she declines to share with the others, until Elizabeth and her husband Stephen, are kidnapped by a mystery man they call ‘The Viking’ who then demands Elizabeth kill an old frenemy, a ex-KGB spy turned money launderer, or forfeit Joyce’s life.

The stakes seem a little higher in this story than the last, given the plethora of seriously bad dudes, and the direct threats to Joyce’s life, but The Thursday Murder Club bluff, charm, and outwit their enemies with ease. Sure events stretch the limits of credibility somewhat, but Osman’s plotting really is on point as the two mysteries unfold, and eventually intersect in an unexpected way. There’s a good mix of action and tension which helps to sustain the pace, though at 400+ pages it probably could have been a little shorter.

There are plenty of laughs in The Bullet That Missed, I really enjoy the author’s sense of humour, but Osman also touches on some poignant issues such as the accelerating cognitive decline of Elizabeth’s husband, loneliness, and past regrets.

My affection for the Thursday Murder Club members hasn’t waned at all, they are such an endearing group. Series regulars DCI Chris and PC Donna are back to lend a hand on occasion, though Donna is distracted by her new romantic relationship with the enigmatic Bogdon. The Club also barter for some assistance from Claudia Johnson, the imprisoned crime gang boss whom the group caught out in The Man Who Died Twice, and expands to include television makeup artist Pauline, who seduces a willing Ron, among others.

Charming, funny, and smart, The Bullet That Missed is another addition to a thoroughly entertaining cosy mystery series which I look forward to continuing.

++++++++

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Review: Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivener

 

Title: Dirt Town

Author: Hayley Scrivenor

Published: 31st May 2022, Pan Macmillan Australia 

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Pan Macmillan

++++++++

My Thoughts:

Dirt Town (published in the US as Dirt Creek) is an impressive crime fiction debut from Hayley Scrivenor.

When twelve-year-old Esther Bianchi fails to return home from school one afternoon, the small country town of Durton is horrified. The reader knows from the outset that Esther is dead, though it’s five long days before the town learns her tragic fate.

Dirt Town unfolds from multiple perspectives, most notably the poignant voices of Esther’s best friends, Ronnie and Lewis; the missing girl’s devastated mother, Constance; investigative officer Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels; and a dramatic ‘Greek chorus’ that represents the children of the community.

This is an absorbing, tense mystery where Esther’s disappearance prompts the revelation of several secrets. It’s not just the girl’s killer who is desperate to hide wrong-doing from Michael’s investigation, and untangling the mistakes, deceits, scandals, and crimes that cloud the case is a challenge for an outsider. With so many viable suspects, I did not guess the answer as to who, or why, until it was revealed.

Sensitive readers may find particular scenes disturbing, but I did not feel they were gratuitous, and spoke to character.

The insular nature of the community, it’s remote location and hot, energy-sapping weather create an atmospheric read. The characters anxiety supports the momentum of the narrative, which is measured, but not slow.

Skilfully crafted, Dirt Town is a gritty, intense, and moving novel that exposes a tragedy and its aftermath.

++++++++

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