Review: Either Side of Midnight by Benjamin Stevenson


Title: Either Side of Midnight

Author: Benjamin Stevenson

Published: 1st September 2020, Michael Joseph

Status: Read September 2020, PenguinRandomHouse Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

 

“How can it be murder when the victim pulled the trigger?”

I somehow overlooked Benjamin Stevenson’s debut novel, Greenlight, shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Award for Best Debut Crime Fiction in 2018, which introduces true crime documentary producer, Jack Quick, but i was intrigued by the premise of Either Side of Midnight, and assured it could stand on its own.

It seems events in Greenlight didn’t go particularly well for Jack Quick. When he is introduced in Either Side of Midnight, Jack is in prison on multiple charges related to perverting the course of justice. Just before his release, he is visited by the identical twin brother of a TV presenter who had recently shot himself live on air. Despite the suicide being witnessed by millions of viewers, Harry Midford is convinced his brother was murdered, and offers Jack a substantial sum to prove it. Jack, who has his issues with his own brother, reluctantly agrees to investigate and begins by poking around the studio where ‘Mr Midnight’ was filmed and Sam killed himself. What he learns piques his interest, and as he digs deeper, Harry’s claim doesn’t seem so outlandish after all.

Inspired in part by a recent-ish landmark case in the US involving the use, or rather misuse, of technology, Stevenson presents a creative and intriguing plot, with an original twist on the ‘locked room’ mystery. I thought the storyline of Either Side of Midnight was very clever, I generally had no idea how the plot would unravel until the moment Stevenson intended it, with red herrings deftly distracting from the culprit and their motive. The action ramps up as Jack grows closer to understanding why Sam died, culminating in a exciting confrontation.

I do feel that in not having reading Greenlight, I may have missed some of the nuances of Jack’s character. He is certainly an interesting protagonist, with a unique vice. Traditionally male crime solvers tend to be alcoholics, or womanisers, or handy with their fists, or all three, Jack is bulimic. In Jack’s case the eating disorder was triggered in early adolescence by his brother’s accident, and I think the author’s representation of his illness, and his relationship with his brother, is portrayed sensitively.

Though Either Side of Midnight is set on Australia’s east coast, I didn’t think there was really a strong sense of place, which was a tiny bit disappointing.

An entertaining thriller with a complex lead and an original plot, I enjoyed Either Side of Midnight and I’ve added Greenlight to my WTR list.

+++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Review: Gathering Dark by Candice Fox

Title: Gathering Dark

Author: Candice Fox

Published: 3rd August 2020, Arrow

Status: Read August 2020 courtesy Random House UK/Netgalley

+++++++

My Thoughts:

 

I’ve been delighted by the international success of author, Candice Fox, whose novels I have generally found to be creative, compelling and uniquely Australian. Unfortunately I can’t say the same of Gathering Dark which reads like it was written for the lowest common denominator of the US crime/action market.

Actually that sounds a lot harsher than I intend it, in and of itself Gathering Dark offers a fast paced, action packed, entertaining story, but it was so far from what I expecting, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed

Set in L.A., newly paroled felon, Blair Harbour, is doing her best to live quietly in the hope of increasing access to her young son, when ex-cellmate ‘Sneak’ begs her to help find her missing daughter, Dayly. Despite the risk to her liberty, and life, Blair soon finds herself, with a gopher in a shoebox, careening around town in dubious company, and turning to the very detective who put her away for help when she realises she is in over her head.

The story unfolds from the perspectives of Blair, and Detective Jessica Sanchez, which run parallel until about halfway through the book. As Blair is riffling through Dayly’s few belongings, bribing a probation officer who threatens to violate her on a petty charge, and foolishly extracting a favour owed from gangster Ada Maverick; Jessica, a dedicated investigator, is dealing with jealous, venal colleagues after inheriting a multi-million dollar house from the father of a murder victim. Jessica really isn’t interested in having anything to do with Blair at all, except Blair’s son is her new neighbour, which prompts her to take a second look at Blair’s murder conviction, and what she learns, with the assistance of eccentric pathologist Diggy, suggests Jessica has a debt to repay. The situation soon goes from bad to worse in the search for Dayly, and Fox leads us on a madcap and dangerous adventure that pits the group against a mass murderer, corrupt cops, would be thieves, and each other.

Variously tense, funny, violent, poignant and outrageous, Gathering Dark is obviously best approached without preconceptions. If you can manage that then you’ll find this to be an enjoyable crime thriller.

++++++

Available from Random House UK

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

Also by Candice Fox reviewed at Book’d Out

 

  

Review: The Less Dead by Denise Mina

Title: The Less Dead

Author: Denise Mina

Published: August 18th 2020, Mulholland Books

Status: Read August 2020, courtesy Mulholland Books/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

I loved Conviction so I was eager for the opportunity to read Denise Mina’s newest release, The Less Dead.

In the wake of her adoptive mother’s death, newly separated and pregnant. Glasgow GP Margo Dunlop, decides she wants to meet her biological family. She learns that her biological mother is long dead, but her Aunt Nikki, her mother’s older sister, is eager to connect with her. Their first meeting, in a small room at the reconciliation center, leaves Margo reeling when she is told that her mother, Susan, was a drug addicted prostitute who was brutally stabbed to death just months after Margo’s birth, and Nikki wants Margo’s help to solve her murder.

“It’s a cruel story to tell a stranger. Asking for things. Demanding things. It’s not her problem, all these long-ago things. She’s got enough going on.”

A compelling novel with a noir sensibility, The Less Dead sees Margo reluctantly drawn into her Aunt’s quest to hold someone responsible for Susan’s murder. Uncomfortable with Nikki’s intensity and her biological family’s unsavoury past, Margo’s commitment is half-hearted until she too becomes a target of vile, anonymous letters that appear to be from the killer.

“’When we get killed they call us the ‘less dead’, like we were never really alive to begin with.”

‘We’ refers to sex workers, drug addicts, migrants and the poor, women like Susan and Nikki, and ‘they’ the Glasgow police who routinely turned a blind eye when it came to crimes against women on the street. Susan was one of nine sex workers from the same small area murdered in the eighties. The women themselves feared a serial killer, the police were uninterested, Nikki later became convinced the murderer was a cop. Whomever it is, he has continued to taunt Nikki over the last thirty plus years, and now Margo has his attention and the tension rises as the killer grows increasingly obsessed.

“It doesn’t feel as if she’s looking at someone else at all but a younger self, a splinter Margo.”

Honestly I found Margo to be a frustrating character who, even with the recognition she was under an enormous amount of stress, often made inexplicable decisions. However, I was impressed with the way the author explored the contrast between Margo’s adopted middle class life, and that of her struggling biological family through her. Margo may look almost exactly like her late mother but she had no understanding of life she lead, or the environment she grew up in, and the way in which she is forced to confront her own prejudice, assumptions and authority is intelligent and thought-provoking.

“… we made being outsiders the thing we were. They couldn’t break us or make us lie. We knew who we were.”

It was Nikki who I found the most interesting and authentically portrayed, along with Lizzy and Susan (even though she is not actually present). I felt sorry about the hardships the women experienced, but never found them pitiable, in fact I admired them.

Though not a fast-paced book, The Less Dead is thrilling, with a pervasive sense of unease and a steady increase in tension. Gritty, insightful and absorbing, it’s only the character of Margo that unfortunately let it down for me.

++++++

Available from Hachette: Mulholland Books

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

Also by Denise Mina reviewed at Book’d Out

Review: Bush School by Peter O’Brien

 

Title: Bush School

Author: Peter O’Brien

Published: August 4th 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read August 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

In his engaging memoir, Bush School, Peter O’Brien recalls his two years as the teacher of a one-room school in Weabonga, a tiny farming village two days’ travel by train and mail cart from Armidale.

In 1960, aged just twenty years old with barely more than year of teaching experience, Peter was asked to fulfil his rural teaching service requirement and encouraged by the Education Department Inspector, after a false start in Guy Fawkes, to select one of NSW’s remote regions on the western lip of the Great Divide. After an uncomfortable journey, and a worrying introduction to his lodgings, Peter found himself welcoming eighteen students, ranging in age from five years to fifteen, to Weabonga School.

I could not imagine, as a new graduate with limited teaching experience, being placed in sole charge of a schoolhouse, far from everything familiar, with children of varying grades (an experience my mother shared in early 1970’s, but thankfully I escaped in early 1990’s). Peter’s experience may not be unique, but it’s seldom shared and a pi

The first-person narrative is an easy and accessible read, and though I did find the tone slightly formal, there is also a genuine sense of warmth. Peter writes of the challenges and triumphs of his new environment. Professionally he has concerns about his limited experience, his inability to consult with colleagues or a mentor, and the lack of available educational resources, but luckily his pupils prove enthusiastic, and his instinct for a child centered, or ‘open learning’, approach to teaching, serves him well. Personally Peter’s living situation, a spare, paper lined single bedroom in the home of a student where he took his meagre meals alone exacerbated his homesickness, and he was on the verge of giving notice until he received an alternate offer of accomodation. The separation from his sweetheart, who later become his wife, also weighed on his mind.

Bush School is a winsome, interesting and entertaining memoir. As a teacher, I found Peter’s explanation of his pedagogical development interesting, particularly since his theories closely mirror my own, which is why I prefer to work in early childhood education. As someone interested in social history I appreciated his effort to contextualise his experience, and that of his students, amid wider Australian societal events and issues. As a generally curious reader I enjoyed Peter’s affectionate reminisces of unfamiliar people and places.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Review: Tiny White Lies by Fiona Palmer

Title: Tiny White Lies

Author: Fiona Palmer

Published: August 8th 2020, Hachette Australia

Status: Read August 2020 courtesy Hachette Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

Tiny White Lies is an engaging contemporary tale from best selling Western Australian author Fiona Palmer.

When Ashley discovers her fifteen year old daughter is the subject of bullying both at school and online from her classmates, she is heartbroken. Already struggling to cope in the aftermath of her husband’s recent suicide, she suggests that they escape for the school holidays in the hopes of at least temporarily leaving bad memories behind.

After a difficult year that has left her feeling disconnected from herself, her husband and her device-obsessed teenage children, Nikki, inspired by her best friend’s idea for a vacation, suggests Ash and Emily join them at her husband’s cousins farm near Bremer Bay on the southern coast of W.A.

Ash and Nikki are delighted as their children adjust to a new tech-free routine, enjoying the ocean, bushland and farm activities Luke’s farm provides, but for the adults the lack of distractions becomes uncomfortable as the little white lies they have told one another, and themselves, cast a pall over their vacation.

A story of relationships, secrets, lies and love, there is plenty of high emotion, drama and even romance on offer in Tiny White Lies. Palmer briefly examines a raft of serious issues including mental illness, suicide, bullying, cancer, marriage difficulties, and body-image but its strongest focus is on the theme of disconnection.

I found Ash and Nikki to be likeable and sympathetic characters, though I don’t have much in common with either of them, I still felt they were relatable. As a mother of teenagers their concerns about their children, particularly in relation to electronic media use, are familiar, as are their children’s attitudes.

I loved the setting, having spent plenty of school holidays in southern Western Australia, and in both Albany and Esperance, which are west and east, along the coast, of Bremer Bay respectively. Palmer evokes the wild beauty of the area with its dense bushland and gorgeous white sand beaches, spending a few weeks at Luke’s farm would definitely be no hardship.

Written with warmth and insight into the challenges faced by modern families, I enjoyed reading Tiny Little Lies, as I’m sure all fans of Australian rural contemporary fiction will.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Also by Fiona Palmer reviewed at Book’d Out

 

 

 

Review: When She Was Good by Michael Robotham

 

Title: When She Was Good {Cyrus Haven #2}

Author: Michael Robotham

Published: July 28th 2020, Hachette Australia

Status: Read August 2020 courtesy Hachette Australia

+++++++

My Thoughts:

When She Was Good is the second intriguing thriller to feature forensic psychologist Cyrus Haven by bestselling author Michael Robotham.

When Cyrus consults on a retired detective’s suspicious death and learns of a possible connection between the murdered man’s activities and the mysterious past of a girl once known as ‘Angel Face’ and now called Evie, he ignores her plea to leave it alone, and begins an investigation of his own. Evie knows if Cyrus learns the truth of what she endured before she was found hiding in a cardboard box within the walls of a house as a half-starved twelve-year-old, neither he, nor she, will be safe from the men determined to ensure her secrets remain buried.

While Evie Cormac is introduced in Good Girl, Bad Girl, it is in When She was Good that we learn her real identity, and the horrifying secrets of her tragic past. Robotham leads us into a disturbing conspiracy among a vile subsection of society’s elite that exploits young children, one Evie was only able to escape when a driver took pity on her. His brutal murder led to Evie being found by a young special Constable, Sacha Hopewell, and eventually remanded to a secure children’s facility. Now seventeen, Evie has never trusted anyone with the truth of her experience but when Cyrus begins to investigate, he unwittingly exposes Evie to the man who held her captive and is willing to kill anyone to protect himself.

Robotham develops the tension well as Cyrus grows closer to discovering the truth. It quickly becomes clear that the ruthless leader of the paedophile ring has developed an extensive network he can manipulate to insulate himself, which even includes members of the police force. There are several action packed, heart stopping scenes as Cyrus and Evie are targeted by a contract killer.

The complex relationship dynamic, which blurs the line between the professional and personal, between Evie and Cyrus is unusual, but works well. I liked Cyrus, though given both his past and his profession, I thought him somewhat naive about the realities of facing off against a rich and powerful adversary. Evie may have limited experience with the world, but even she knows that men like her torturer are rarely held to account. Evie is cynical, brash and defensive, and I both pitied and admired her. I’d have liked to learn more about her gift for identifying lies, and think Robotham missed an opportunity there. I’ll be interested to see what role Evie plays in this series going forward, especially as there are elements of her life still unexplained.

Fast paced and absorbing, with a satisfying conclusion, When She Was Good is an entertaining thriller sure to appeal to crime fiction readers.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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

Also by Michael Robotham reviewed at Book’d Out

 

 

Review: Boys & Sex by Peggy Orenstein

 

Title: Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hook-ups, Love, Porn, Consent and Navigating the New Masculinity

Author: Peggy Orenstein

Published: July 1st 2020, Profile Books

Status: Read July 2020 courtesy Allen and Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

Negotiating sexuality and relationships today is arguably more complicated than when I was teenager and as the mother of two teenage boys (and girls) I hoped Boys & Sex might provide me with some insights into areas I may have not considered as part of my discussions with them.

The ‘sex talk’ has never been a single conversation in our house, it’s been the subject of casual discourse over the years as they’ve grown, often initiated as the result of news stories, gossip, or issues faced by their peers. We’ve talked about most of the topics explored in this book, though I’ve learnt from Orenstein via the young men that she interviews, that I can do more.

Thankfully my sons are surrounded by good role models, but one of the most significant takeaways for me from the book is that my boys need the men in their life, particularly their father, to better verbalise their experience, opinions and feelings about relationships, sex and masculinity. Despite my best intentions, it will be the other men with whom they connect that will significantly shape their response to the situations raised in Boys & Sex, and my empathy is not a substitute for their shared experience.

I do feel Orenstein’s sampling for her research was quite small (100 young men), and very USA-centric, which meant for me there were elements I didn’t find directly relevant. Racial issues and the experience of college/university life differs here for example, also a Personal Development, Health, and Physical Education syllabus from years K-10 is compulsory in all public schools in Australia. In general this is a medically accurate, current, and inclusive program that explores physical, social and emotional aspects of sexuality in some detail (that abstinence-only is still a feature in any modern day curriculum is absurd). That said I do prefer the anecdotal approach Orenstein has taken, as scientific methodology tends to lack urgency and nuance.

I would recommend Boys & Sex to parents, and suggest it be shared and discussed with teens of both sexes, as both will benefit from the information. An extensive bibliography provides additional resources to ensure we raise “…our boys to be the men we know they can become.”

+++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin Australia RRP. AUD$29.99

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

Review: The Suicide House by Charlie Donlea

Title: The Suicide House {Rory Moore/Lane Phillips #2}

Author: Charlie Donlea

Published: July 28th 2020, Kensington

Status: Read July 2020, courtesy Kensington/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

The Suicide House is the second book from Charlie Donlea to feature forensic reconstructionist Rory Moore, and her partner, psychologist Lane Phillips. It follows The Woman in Darkness (also published as Some Choose Darkness), though it can be read as a stand alone.

“Welcome . . . to The Suicide House.”

It’s been a year since two students were murdered on the grounds of an exclusive prep school in Indiana, and though a chemistry teacher was convicted for the crime, his attempted suicide means there are questions that have never been answered.

The mystery surrounding the gruesome slayings, and a subsequent string of related suicides, attracts the professional attention of an investigative reporter/blogger, Ryder Hillier, a podcast host, Mack Carter, and eventually Lane and Rory.

The story unfolds from multiple perspectives over two timelines, and includes journal entries, transcripts and flashbacks. Surprisingly, Lane and Rory’s entry into the story comes quite late so at first I was a little puzzled by their absence. Rory in particular is such a unique and interesting character I was worried she would be sidelined in this mystery, and though that concern eventually proved unfounded, the resolution is very much as a result of a team effort.

The plot is complex though all threads lead to the reveal of what really happened on the night when the students were killed at the abandoned boarding house. Much of the foundation of the story is provided by Ryder and Mack, though the scene of the murder is introduced by an investigating detective. The two murdered teens were part of a larger group of pupils taking part in a traditional initiation challenge, tied to the supernatural legend of ‘The Man in the Mirror’, to be admitted to a campus ‘secret’ society. The police determined that the chemistry teacher, who had been a target of the society’s pranks, killed the boys in a fit of rage but there are inconsistencies that seem to preclude such a neat resolution, hence the involvement of Rory, who is often capable of seeing what other investigators do not. Donlea skilfully develops several red herrings and alternate suspects that draw attention away from the killer so that their identity is obscured until the characters themselves begin to make the connections.

An engrossing mystery with an atmospheric setting and interesting characters I enjoyed The Suicide House.

++++++

Available from Kensington

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

 

Also by Charlie Donlea reviewed at Book’d Out 

 

Review: Finding Eadie by Caroline Beecham

Title: Finding Eadie

Author: Caroline Beecham

Published: July 2nd 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read July 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

Finding Eadie is Caroline Beecham’s third engaging historical fiction novel set during the period of World War II in England.

It’s 1943 and much of London’s publishing industry is struggling as the war effort’s strain on resources takes its toll. The staff of Partridge Press however are determined to stay afloat, and are hoping an exciting new book suggested by assistant editor Alice Cotton will prove lucrative, but are shocked when she declines the opportunity to oversee the project and instead tenders her resignation, claiming a pressing family emergency.

Alice can’t reveal her real reason for leaving, she is pregnant, and her devout mother insists Alice give birth in secret elsewhere, returning to London with the child only under the pretence of it belonging to a relative. Eager to raise the baby herself, Alice agrees, but within hours of her daughter’s birth her mother betrays her by handing Eadie over to strangers.

Finding Eadie is largely the story of Alice’s search for her daughter among the city’s unscrupulous baby farmers who sell unwanted infants and toddlers with virtual impunity. Beecham shares the darker side of the trade, which flourished particularly during wartime until the Adoption of Children’ Act was passed in late 1943, though I would have liked for the author to explore this intriguing subject in greater depth.

Alice’s anguish over the fate of her daughter is palpable and I could help but empathise with her. Reluctant to admit to the situation due to the circumstances of the child’s conception, and the general disapproval of unwed mothers, Alice has few persons with which to share her heartbreak, or her mission, though two women prove supportive. Rejoining the staff of Partridge Press is a way for Alice to gain access to information about the baby farmers she would otherwise be unable to, the book project she abandoned offering her some cover.

I enjoyed learning something about the publishing industry in wartime. It was a period during which books were in high demand, but a scarcity of resources made operations difficult, especially for smaller presses. The arrival of Theo Bloom, an employee of Partridge Press’s New York office charged with increasing the profitability of the business, allows Beecham to explore the status of publishing in both the UK and USA during the period.

Theo Bloom also serves to introduce a romantic element into the story when he finds himself attracted to Alice’s sharp mind. The development of the relationship is handled quite sensitively, considering the somewhat awkward circumstances.

Finding Eadie is the sort of light historical fiction, with likeable characters and a pleasing blend of drama and romance, sure to have broad appeal.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Review: Better Luck Next Time by Kate Hilton

 

Title: Better Luck Next Time

Author: Kate Hilton

Published: June 16th 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read June 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

Better Luck Next Time is an entertaining and engaging contemporary family dramedy from Kate Hilton.

The story primarily features the women of the Hennessy family -feminist icon Lydia, daughters Mariana, Beata, and Nina, and cousins Zoe and Zack. It begins on Christmas Day as the family gathers to celebrate revealing its own special brand of chaos. Lydia is frantically preparing the perfect Christmas dinner, Zoe is reluctant to admit her marriage is over, Mariana is furious with her husband, Beata is exasperated with her teenage son, Nina is uncharacteristically quiet, and newly sober Zach is looking to make amends.

Unfolding from multiple perspectives, each family member negotiates a series of disappointments, surprises, joys, secrets, and mistakes over a period of a year. The characters have distinct personalities and are easy to relate to as Hilton explores a variety of issues common to midlife including marriage, divorce, motherhood, addiction, and dating.

Hilton’s observations are often incisive, sometimes witty and occasionally poignant. The story moves at a good pace and I liked the balance between the humour and serious themes.

A fabulously funny, feel-good novel.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin. RRP AUD$29.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

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