Review: Unforgiven by Sarah Barrie

 

Title: Unforgiven

Author: Sarah Barrie

Published: 1st December 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read December 2021 courtesy Harlequin Aus/Netgalley

 

+++++++++

My Thoughts:

 

Unforgiven is a compelling, gritty thriller from Australian bestselling author, Sarah Barrie.

When the body of a young girl dressed in a mermaid costume is discovered among bushland on the central coast of NSW, doubt is thrown on the conviction and imprisonment of serial killer and paedophile, Thomas Biddle aka The Spider. Lexi Winter has no such doubts, as a victim of Biddle and his paedophile network which included her own parents, she has never forgotten the man who orchestrated her abuse. Determined to prove the latest murder is the work of a copycat, Lexi is reluctantly reunited with Detective Inspector Rachael Langley, who arrested Biddle 18 years ago.

Offering plenty of tense moments, Unforgiven offers a well crafted, fast paced plot. I was caught up in the hunt for the murderous ‘copycat’ as Rachael and Lexi, along with Lexi’s younger sister Bailee, and the members of the task force, work together to expose the truth and prevent the death of any more innocent children.

I liked Lexi a lot, she’s a complex character, essentially a functional alcoholic, who makes her living as an escort. Hardened by her life experiences she is a survivor, tough, resourceful, and sometimes reckless, but also not without her vulnerabilities. It’s brave of Lexi to become involved in the ‘copycat’ case, given both her past, and present (which includes a dead man in her boot), and her general antipathy for authority.

There’s an interesting backstory between Lexi and Rachael which results in tension between the two women that also spills over into Lexi’s relationship another detective on the case who happens to be Rachael’s nephew, Finn Carson. I found both Rachael and Finn to be appealing characters, and I really liked their dynamic with Lexi.

Though Unforgiven deals with the grim subject of child abuse, there is unexpected levity to be found in Lexi’s sarcastic wit, and the behaviour of her remarkably helpful neighbour, Dawny.

Unforgiven is a terrific, riveting read, I’m left with the impression that there will be more books featuring Lexi and her role as a police consultant in the future, and I really hope there will be.

++++++

Available from Harlequin Australia

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Review: Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia by Anita Heiss (Ed.)

 

Title: Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia

Author: Anita Heiss (Ed)

Published: 16th April 2021, Black Inc

Status: Read November 2021

+++++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

There is no single or simple way to define what it means to grow up Aboriginal in Australia….”

I’m having such a hard time putting together a response to reading Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia. I have such a mix of emotions – I am angered, ashamed, sad, enlightened, inspired and hopeful.

Fifty contributors share their diverse experiences of growing up Aboriginal in Australia. They come from all over country, and are of varied ages, genders, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic class.

Yet there are commonalities in their stories -the weight of intergenerational trauma, the burden of stereotypes and racism, the struggle with identity, the desire to understand and embrace their culture, kin and country.

Though the quality of the writing can be uneven, the honesty of the authors stories are affecting and powerful. They are a generous invitation to learn and gain some understanding of what it is like to be a First Nations person growing up in Australia, both then and now.

“….it’s so obvious that underneath the invisible barriers and expectations we have constructed and placed on each other, we are all brothers and sisters; we are all just pink flesh and bone.”

An informative, thought-provoking, and moving anthology Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is essential reading in the journey to create a new dialogue with and about Aboriginal Australians.

+++++++++

Available from Black Inc

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Review: Wild Place by Christian White

 

Title: Wild Place

Author: Christian White

Published: 26th October 2021, Affirm Press

Status: Read October 2021 courtesy Affirm Press

++++++++

My Thoughts:

I’ve been eager for the chance to read Christian White, whose debut novel, The Nowhere Child, and his sophomore offering, The Wife and the Widow, hit the bestsellers lists.

Wild Place is set in the heart of Australian suburbia during the summer of 1989. When seventeen year old Tracie Reed is reported missing, the police dismiss her as a runaway, despite her mother’s insistent denials. The teen’s disappearance bothers Tom Witter, Tracie’s high school English teacher and a neighbour of a sorts. Worried about the vulnerability of his own two boys, he involves himself in a search for the missing girl, and finds a suspect in the teenage son of a neighbour, Sean Fryman, whose sullen manner, black clothing, and love of heavy metal music marks him as a possible threat.

The titular wild place is a strip of dense bushland that is commonly found in the midst of Australian suburbs. Generally considered innocuous, hosting children’s homemade forts and games of pretend adventure, perhaps the odd amorous couple or rebellious group of teens, these areas provide a token connection to nature, and respite from suburban crowding. To the residents of Camp Hill in the wake of Tracie’s disappearance however the bush becomes sinister, a wild place that may hide strangers intent on doing harm.

The danger doesn’t lurk in the woods at all of course. White slowly strips away the veneer of suburban respectability as he exposes that the threats who stalk the community openly walk its streets. Secrets, lies and deceptions unravel to reveal unexpected events and hidden connections in surprising ways. While Sean is the obvious target of suspicion for those convinced Tracie has fallen victim to a predator, White continually nudges the frame, raising alternative possibilities. Skilful plotting with clever misdirects ensures it’s difficult to guess at the denouement, but it was the epilogue that left me gasping.

Firmly grounded in period and setting, Wild Place evokes some nostalgia for my suburban childhood. Coincidently, this is the second newly published book I’ve read in as many weeks that draws on the ‘Satanic Panic’ of the Eighties and early Nineties as an element of the crime.

With its intriguing characters and brilliant plot, Wild Place is suspenseful and gripping crime fiction, destined to be another bestseller.

+++++++++

Available from Affirm Press

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Review: Sweet Jimmy by Bryan Brown

 

Title: Sweet Jimmy

Author: Bryan Brown

Published: 31st August 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

 

You’ve probably seen Australian actor Bryan Brown on the big screen, perhaps in Hollywood blockbusters like F/X, Cocktail, Gorillas in the Mist, Breaker Morant, or in any of the other dozen movies he has made an appearance in, particularly if you are of a certain age. Sweet Jimmy, an entertaining collection of crime fiction short stories, is his first foray into publishing.

Primarily set within the streets of suburban Sydney, Brown’s stories combine humour, violence, and pathos. There are seven in all, and include an angry father seeking the man responsible for his daughter’s death, a thief who steals more than he bargains for, a cop investigating a serial killer, and a man hunting for the woman that betrayed him. Vengeance, betrayal, redemption, and survival are common themes, exposing men pushed to their limits. There was actually not a single tale I didn’t find engaging.

I’m not sure Sweet Jimmy would translate well to an international audience, but for me there was a definite sense of cultural familiarity. I feel Brown captures an aspect of the elusive essence of the Australian character particularly well, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn some of the characters and events are inspired by real people Brown has known.

The writing strongly reminds me of the late Robert G Barrett’s work, it’s spare but still expressive, and perhaps more importantly, honest. The audio version of of the book is narrated by Brown himself, which I think would be a real treat with his distinctive voice.

Sweet Jimmy is colourful, bold, and cheeky collection of suburban Aussie noir stories.

++++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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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

++++++++

 

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 Long Game by Simon Rowell

 

Title: The Long Game

Author: Simon Rowell

Published: 3rd August 2021, Text Publishing

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy Text Publishing/Netgalley

++++++

 

My Thoughts: 

 

After racing through The Long Game, I’m hoping it is the start of a new crime fiction series from South Australian author Simon Rowell.

The first homicide Detective Sergeant Zoe Mayer is assigned on her return to work seems to be open and shut with the evidence clearly pointing towards Dwayne Harley stabbing his best friend, Ray Carlson, after discovering he was sleeping with his wife. Zoe’s partner, Charlie, is happy with the easy solve but something doesn’t sit right with Zoe. With her colleagues wary of her instincts given her recent extended absence, she has no choice but to investigate with only her service dog, Harry as back up.

I found myself totally invested in the fast paced, suspenseful plot of The Long Game. The motivation for the crimes are believable, and their execution is clever and original. I could easily believe that the murderer could have got away with it if Zoe hadn’t been so observant, and determined. I appreciated the procedural details that leant the police investigation authenticity, and enjoyed the action of confrontations and near misses.

The mystery behind Zoe’s extended leave adds further interest to the story. It’s obvious that she experienced something traumatic, and she’s still vulnerable to particular triggers, which is where Harry, a golden retriever, comes in. As a service dog, Harry provides support when Zoe experiences vivid flashbacks that cause her to lose awareness, but his emotional intuition also proves to be a useful investigative tool.

Zoe seems to be a determined investigator, with great instincts. I like that she is willing to back herself, though I’m not overly fond of protagonists that go it alone, I understood her need to prove herself. I thought Zoe’s partner, Charlie, was a little bland, but I liked the analyst, Anjali. Zoe has a romantic relationship with a lawyer, which seems to be fairly stable but there a sense of underlying tension which may be explored if there is a sequel.

The Long Game played just right for me with its smart plot, appealing characters and compelling pace.

++++++

Available from Text Publishing

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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

+++++++

 

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: The Last Guests by J.P. Pomare

 

Title: The Last Guests

Author: J.P. Pomare

Published: 30th July 2021, Hachette Australia

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Hachette

++++++

My Thoughts:

Hugely impressed by In The Clearing, I’ve been looking forward to reading J.P. Pomare’s newest release, The Last Guests.

Set in New Zealand, The Last Guests is told primarily from the perspective of Lina, a paramedic married to Cain, an ex-SAS soldier turned personal trainer. Though their five year marriage has had its up and downs, stressed by PTSD, a gambling addiction, infertility and the resulting debt, the couple remain committed to each other, and their plan for a family. When friends of the pair, who aware of their financial struggle, suggest Lina rent out the home she inherited from her grandparents at Lake Tarawera through the short-stay accomodation site WeStay, Cain is enthusiastic about the idea. Lina is less so, the house is to eventually be their family home and she’s uncomfortable with the risks of opening it up to strangers, but let’s herself be persuaded. She relaxes when the first few guests come and go without incident, but Lina is about to discover the real threat to their future comes from closer to home.

The Last Guests is probably one of the more unpredictable thrillers I’ve read in a while. Though not quite flawless, convincingly led in one direction, I almost developed whiplash as the plot twisted and turned offering more than one surprise as Pomare unraveled the secrets held by his characters.

Lina is particularly vulnerable as her secret threatens to surface, and her anxiety is palpable as she attempts to stop it from happening. I liked the complexity of her character, Lina may initially be judged harshly and she doesn’t make the wisest of choices, but there isn’t any malice in her, so I was invested in her fate.

One of the elements I think Pomare excels at is creating an atmosphere of anticipation that ebbs and flows from uncertainty and unease to dread and shock. In part this stems from the way he turns the intimate and ordinary into provocation and a threat.

This novel is certainly guaranteed to make you think twice about booking a short-stay rental in a private home. There are known risks in using services like AirBNB, Stayz and FlipKey, most often they are fairly benign -the accommodation may not live up to its description, or the host may try to extort extra charges, but there have been incidences where guests have learned of hidden cameras, not just in spaces like the living room and kitchen, but also in private areas, such as bedrooms and bathrooms. In The Last Guests Lina discovers not only have such camera’s been secreted into her lake house without her knowledge, which is creepy enough, but the feed is one of thousands being live streamed to a site that offers paying subscribers a voyeuristic window into the lives of unsuspecting people.

Tense, thrilling and compelling, The Last Guests is another stunning novel from Pomare.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: Gun To The Head by Keith Banks

 

Title: Gun To The Head: My life as a tactical cop. The impact. The aftermath.

Author: Keith Banks

Published: 20th July 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

 

+++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

Gun To The Head follows on from Drugs, Guns and Lies by former Queensland police officer, Keith Banks, detailing his years of service in the Queensland Police Force during the 1980’s.

Banks offers readers personal insight into policing during a period that can probably be best described as transitional. In the 1980’s the Queensland police force was exposed as a hotbed of corruption, which had little tolerance for officers who played it straight. After several years serving as an undercover operative in the Drug Squad, Banks was forced out when he declined an invitation to participate in a corrupt enterprise.

Transferring to the Criminal Investigation Branch as a Detective Senior Constable, Banks enjoyed the work but found himself missing the adrenaline rush of his former position and leapt at the chance to become a member of the part-time  Emergency Squad, which eventually morphed into the full-time Tactical Response Group.

Keith Banks (left) and Steve Grant at Cunungra Training Camp 1986 (courtesy Allen & Unwin)

 

Banks played a role in some of Queensland’s most high-profile operations, including the hunt for notorious bank robber, Russell ‘Maddog’ Cox, and the MLC Siege, where Banks personally convinced the would-be bomber to surrender, but everyday he and his team put their lives on the line to apprehend violent criminals. Banks insights into the groups daily operations are fascinating, it’s often intense, thankless work that requires a huge commitment and courage. The public generally only hear of such incidents when something goes wrong, as it did when Senior Constable Peter Kidd was shot to death by an armed robber who had escaped from prison, during a raid to recapture him. I knew vaguely of the case but it was very impactful to hear it from Banks first hand viewpoint and I was horrified to learn of the role bureaucratic interference had in the tragedy.

Emergency Squad training exercise at Cunungra 1986 (Keith Banks is on the left). Courtesy Allen & Unwin


Banks, who was a team leader in the raid, was dogged by undiagnosed PTSD after the death of Kidd. Banks is honest about his increasing struggles with alcohol, anxiety, guilt and anger in its wake. I really felt for him, and was appalled by the lack of support available from the force not just after a tragic incident like this, but also in other instances, such as re-entry from undercover work. I certainly hope the situation is much improved now. Sadly it cost Banks his first marriage, his police career, and very nearly his life.

Raw, thrilling and often dark but not humourless, Banks presents as personable and truthful. Gun to the Head is a compelling memoir exposing life behind the blue line.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: When You Are Mine By Michael Robotham

 

Title: When You Are Mine

Author: Michael Robotham

Published: 1st July 2021, Hachette Australia

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

Michael Robotham draws from recent news headlines to create a timely, gripping crime fiction novel dealing with domestic violence, toxic relationships, obsession, and police corruption in When You Are Mine.

Called to a complaint of domestic violence, London police constable Philomena (Phil) McCarthy is unimpressed when the abuser, who claims he is detective, threatens her career will be finished, and then takes a swing at her. Though his mistress, who Phil is surprised to recognise, refuses to press charges, she follows protocol and arrests him, only to be reprimanded by her superiors for her poor judgement in arresting a decorated officer, and then suspended. Phil is both disappointed and angered by the cover-up, and despite being ordered to leave it alone, she digs a little deeper into the Detective Goodall’s history, and learns that Tempe is not his only victim.

I’m always impressed that Robotham demonstrates such astute insight into his female characters. Determined and principled, with a touch of youthful righteous idealism and naivety, Phil sincerely wants to do good as a police officer, and has worked hard for the right to do so. Unfortunately her motives will always be considered suspect because her father, from whom she is estranged, is linked to organised crime. This means she is especially vulnerable when she refuses to accept the official line.

In refusing to back down, Phil risks not only her career, but her safety, especially when she offers support to both Tempe and Goodall’s family. As recently as last month, a Former Scotland Yard Deputy Assistant Commissioner stated that domestic abuse perpetrated by police officers was at epidemic levels, and victims report a culture of minimisation and coverups. I thought Robotham very effectively showed how intensely vulnerable women, and children, in that position can be. Goodall is not about to simply let go, but then neither is Phil.

There’s a twist in the tale as Tempe, grateful to Phil for her help, tries to repay her. She offers to help with Phil’s impending wedding to her firefighter husband, Henry, then she begins to take care of the everyday tasks Phil, intent on helping Alison Goodall, doesn’t have time for. I really liked how Robotham subtly developed this thread which presents some of the biggest surprises.

Robotham is an accomplished author who knows how to hook his readers and keep them interested not only with a fast pace and the twists expected of the genre, but also characters that are dynamic and interesting. When You Are Mine is a exciting and satisfying read.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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