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‘Ash Mountain’ by Helen Fitzgerald

Fiction – paperback; Affirm Press; 270 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Glasgow-based Australian writer Helen Fitzgerald does a nice line in dark, edgy fiction. I’ve read six of her novels and they have all been wildly entertaining if somewhat over-the-top. I quite like them as “palette cleansers” because they are so different to anything else out there.

Ash Mountain, which was published in the UK by Orenda Books last year and has just been published in Australia by Affirm Press, is cut from a similar cloth — with one important difference: this is her first novel to be set exclusively in Australia.

It’s billed as a “disaster thriller” because the storyline revolves around a terrifying bushfire and explores events leading up to the tragedy and what happens on the actual day of the fire.

I must admit that about half-way through I wondered whether this book could actually be described as Southern Cross crime, because I was struggling to find the crime in it. It’s there though, hidden in the dark folds of the time-hopping narrative, if you look closely enough. But don’t expect it to tick all the boxes that you might normally associate with the genre. It’s actually more litfic than crimefic.

In the UK the book is published by Orenda Books

Small town life

Set in a small town north of Melbourne, Ash Mountain revolves around a single mother, Fran, who has returned to the country after many years away to look after her bed-ridden father, the victim of a stroke, in the family home.

She has two children by two different fathers: 29-year-old Dante, whom she had when she was a teenager at school following her first sexual experience, and 16-year-old Vonny, whose father is indigenous. She cares for both very much and has quite a healthy, frank and empathetic relationship with both.

The narrative, which is comprised largely of flashbacks spanning a period of 30 years, shines a light on what it is like to grow up in a claustrophobic, predominantly Catholic community in rural Victoria, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, isn’t afraid to cast judgement and where tensions either fester or explode in the form of dust-ups in the pub or local swimming pool.

Fran thought she had escaped all that, but moving back after two decades in Melbourne has come somewhat of a shock. She can’t shake the feeling that she’s still at school, being stared at because she’s 15 and pregnant, or being pitied because her glamourous Italian mother has died prematurely in a car accident.

The third-person narrative swings between school life three decades ago and the current day, and is largely told from Fran’s perspective. It jumps around a lot, which can be disorientating for the reader. Occasionally I had trouble keeping up with what was going on. But slowly, once I understood the dynamics of the family and realised FitzGerald was drip-feeding information for me to process, it began to make much more sense and I found it difficult to put down.

Raging bushfire

The natural disaster at the heart of Ash Mountain is a raging bush fire on Australia Day (or Invasion Day, as Fran calls it throughout). It’s easy to think that this is what the book is about — indeed, it features some heart-hammering moments and is filled with terrifying imagery, such as when Fran discovers some burnt out cars, complete with bodies inside, parked in what should have been a place of safety — but it’s more subtle than that. If you read closely enough you will see that the fire brings out the best — and worst — in people, but it also exposes the town’s deep secrets, which have festered unchallenged for decades.

It’s difficult to pigeonhole this novel into any single category. This author used to be classified as “intelligent chick lit” and there’s no doubt it features her blackly comic take on the world, complete with her trademark snark, bad language and whip-smart dialogue, but Ash Mountain feels more mature than anything else she’s written.

I wasn’t sure I liked it to begin with, but the “mystery” at its heart, its brilliant cast of characters and the subtle social commentary running throughout made this an absorbing read, and one that will linger in my mind for a long time to come.

In her afterword, the author claims it was optioned for TV before the book was written. She struggled with the screenplay and decided she needed to put it in prose first. I’m glad she did.

About the author¹: Helen FitzGerald is the bestselling author of 10 adult and young adult thrillers, including The Donor (2011) and The Cry (2013), which was longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, and is now a major drama for BBC1. Helen worked as a criminal justice social worker for more than 15 years. She grew up in Kilmore, Victoria, Australia. She now lives in Glasgow with her husband. (1. Source: Affirm Press website)

Where to buy: This book is widely available in most territories.

This is my 3rd book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021, a month-long celebration of crime writing by authors from Australia and New Zealand. You can find out more by visiting my Southern Cross Crime Month page. It is also my 3rd book for #AWW2021.  

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‘The Donor’ by Helen FitzGerald

The Donor by Helen Fitzgerald

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 320 pages; 2011.

The Donor is typical Helen Fitzgerald fare. It’s dark and edgy and asks the question that all her novels seem to ask: if you were thrust into this moral dilemma, what would you do?

The moral dilemma in this tightly plotted and fast-paced story set in Scotland involves a single father, Will, who has to decide which of his twin daughters, Kay and Georgie, to save when they both develop kidney disease, aged 16.

He comes up with a four-point plan and then sets about putting it into action — with mixed results.

An impossible-to-guess plot

As ever with Fitzgerald, nothing is straightforward — she’s difficult to outguess, which makes her stories unpredictable and exciting.

It’s told from two points of view — Georgie’s, which is written in the first person and gives insight into her rebellious nature, and Will’s, which is written in the third person and paints him as a rather dull and passive character. These voices alternate from chapter to chapter, showing the impact of the situation on both the patient and the parent.

Not surprisingly, there’s nothing obvious about The Donor. It would be too transparent (and the story too short) to have Will donate a kidney to his favourite daughter — the sweet natured studious Kay as opposed to the difficult, often nasty and spiteful Georgie — so instead Fitzgerald has him go in search of his ex-wife, a heroin addict in love with a prisoner, as a first step in finding a suitable donor.

This gives the narrative an intriguing twisty angle, but it also throws the believability of the story into question. Much of the plot, along with its vast array of vividly colourful characters, including Preston the 17-year-old private detective that Will hires to track down his ex-wife, are out-and-out bonkers.

Preston coped very well with stress. In the last twelve hours, he’d bought drugs, killed a man and helped save a woman’s life. In the last two weeks he’d tracked down a missing person across two continents and fallen in love.

But if you suspend your critical faculties and just go with the flow, the book is an engaging — and highly addictive — read. It’s laugh-out-loud funny in places, but it has its serious moments too, not least the way in which it looks at the moral and ethical issues surrounding kidney disease, organ donation and the clashes between the middle classes and the underclass. It’s a great book to get stuck into if you are looking for something a little bit shocking and darkly funny.

This is my 18th book for #AWW2018 — I only ever planned to read 10 this year!

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‘The Devil’s Staircase’ by Helen FitzGerald

The Devil's Staircase by Helen Fitzgerald

Fiction – Kindle edition; Polygon; 224 pages; 2012.

First things first. The Devil’s Staircase by Helen FitzGerald is completely ludicrous. But it’s also entertaining — provided, of course, you suspend belief, try not to analyse the holes in the plot or the rationality (or otherwise) of the characters and don’t mind your fiction being dark and edgy.

Backpacking life in London

It tells the story of Bronny, a likeable but naive 18-year-old Australian, who’s just had a blood test to determine whether she has inherited the genetic disorder that killed her mother. She’s too scared to find out the result, so runs away to London without telling her father or elder sister.

She’s spent most of her teenage years frightened of being diagnosed with Huntington’s disease and has lived her life cautiously:

There was darkness, seeping into me.
I missed out on a lot in those four years:
I never went on the Scenic Railway at Luna Park.
I never kissed a boy in case I began to love him.
I never applied for university.
I never lost my virginity.
I was already dead.

In London she falls in with a group of backpackers and moves into a squat (an abandoned town house off the Bayswater Road) next door to a hostel, finds herself a meaningless job handing out towels in a gym and goes on an unabashed mission to lose her virginity. She makes new friends, goes sight-seeing, starts taking drugs and generally learns to loosen up a little. It’s all very far removed from her life in rural Australia living at home with her nice dad and her high achieving sister.

But there’s a dark element to the storyline, which comes as a bit of a shock when it’s revealed more than a third of the way through: there’s a woman hidden away in the basement of the squat. She’s gagged and bound to a chair. She’s been kidnapped by a depraved young man, who uses her for sexual gratification, and there doesn’t seem to be any way out of her predicament.

FitzGerald interleaves these two narrative threads — Bronny’s new hedonistic life in London (told in the first person) with the terrified woman in the basement (told in the third person) — to build up a sense of mounting tension: when will Bronny realise there’s someone stuck in the cellar below her room and do something about it?

Fast-paced read

The story is, of course, bonkers and far-fetched. It’s fast-paced though and I ripped through it in about three sittings. But it does make for uncomfortable reading, because in typical FitzGerald style she never shies away from writing about the questionable morality of ordinary people and doesn’t seem to mind if her fiction is exploitative. (She’s worked for the Scottish probation and parole service for more than a decade, so I suspect she’s seen it all.)

While it’s essentially a psychological thriller with a dark, noirish bent, The Devil’s Staircase does throw up some pertinent issues. For instance, is it ethical to be tested for a genetic disorder when you’re a teenager and how do you live with the results when they are disclosed? Does living your life mean doing things that may risk it? What can we do to stop depravity in seemingly ordinary people? How does losing a parent at a young age affect the rest your life?

This is a genuinely dark and edgy read, with great characterisation and superb pacing, but I question the exploitative nature of some of the basement scenes. Still, as a form of escapism, it’s difficult to beat and makes me relieved that my early days as a backpacker in London were nothing like this!

This is my 8th book for #AWW2017 and my 5th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it online in August 2015 for the princely sum of 99p. I’ve read several of Fitzgerald’s novels, so knew it would be an entertaining read.

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‘Viral’ by Helen FitzGerald

Viral by Helen Fitzgerald

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 272 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Through some strange act of happenstance, I read Helen FitzGerald‘s latest novel, Viral, immediately after I finished Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things. It proved an interesting companion read, for in FitzGerald’s revenge thriller the main character does something that would have put her behind bars in Wood’s dystopian tale: 18-year-old virgin Su-Jin Oliphant-Brotheridge indulges in a sexual act — well, 12 of them to be precise — in a Magaluf nightclub while drunk.

The debauched behaviour is filmed without her knowledge or consent and then shared on the internet.

So far, twenty-three thousand and ninety-six people have seen me online. They include my mother, my father, my little sister, my grandmother, my other grandmother, my grandfather, my boss, my sixth year biology teacher and my boyfriend James.

The story traces the fallout on Su and her (adopted) family after the film goes viral, as well as fleshing out Su’s back story. And not everyone behaves as one might expect.

Sexual shaming

As a story of sexual shaming online, Viral has mixed messages. Like most of FitzGerald’s earlier novels — she’s got 12 to her name; I’ve read Dead Lovely (2007), My Last Confession (2009) and The Cry (2013) — it’s a very dark, noirish tale best described as “edgy” and “ballsy”.

Even though most of her novels, or at least the ones I have read, deal with big issues — such as criminality, drug taking and media exploitation — there’s often a moral ambiguity at their core. FitzGerald is definitely not a writer who sees things in black and white; she’s there in the margins, looking in the grey areas, teasing out the bits that don’t quite fit in the boxes.

And that’s exactly what she does with Viral, which explores sexual shaming and, in particular, the misogynistic behaviour of young men on holiday:

The notion that Xano could be every boy and every man had crossed her mind more than once. Would a nice boy like Su’s James have filmed the scene in the Coconut Lounge? Would a good boy like Frieda’s son Eric have said ‘You fucking cow. Suck it, whore’? Would the boy next door, literally, Barry, have uploaded it? It was too sickening to dwell on, but perhaps Xano’s behaviour did not set him apart from his peers.

She also explores ways in which the criminal justice system deals with, or fails to deal with, these incidents. I’m not sure FitzGerald’s novels should be taken too seriously, because in this tale Su’s mother, who is a sheriff in Scotland, discovers that the only justice she can get for her daughter is to take the law into her own hands. And, in becoming slightly crazed over this idea, her sense of fairness and balance is overshot by her deep abiding need for revenge. What results is a kind of black comedy in a thoroughly contemporary setting.

Fast paced, but preposterous plot

The story eventually becomes a kind of fast-paced, over-the-top, psychological thriller, the kind that makes you keep turning the pages into the wee small hours even though you realise the entire plot is completely preposterous.  Su, who is Korean by birth, goes on the run in Spain, but finds it difficult to hide because of her appearance, while her sister Leah, her lifelong sibling rival, is sent to find her. Meanwhile, her mother, Ruth, who is filled with anger, uses her professional connections to try to track down the men who gang “raped” her daughter, all the while plotting how to avenge them. The poor father figure in the story simply gets shunted aside, only to fall victim in another bizarre plot twist.

Did I enjoy this novel? I’m not sure. I had such mixed feelings as I read it. It felt distasteful and dirty (although, to be fair, that’s how I usually react to FitzGerald’s work), but I kept reading it purely to find out what would happen next, a sign of a good thriller.

Perhaps I was most uncomfortable with the idea that the central character was Korean, because it played into the stereotype of Asian girls either being slutty or studious. I didn’t much like the revenge element either, though I appreciate without it the book would be an entirely different one. On the positive side, it does make an important point: that these “crimes” aren’t treated as such and are often blamed on the victim, whose reputation lies in ruins while the perpetrators get away scot-free.

So, while Viral didn’t tick all my boxes for a high-quality high-brow read, as a piece of juicy genre fiction with bite and a healthy dose of black wit, it’s very good indeed. And as a exploration of social media and misogyny, cultural identity and sibling rivalry, it’s got plenty of issues to discuss, making it perfect for book groups.

This is my 19th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 15th for #AWW2016.

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‘The Cry’ by Helen FitzGerald


Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 320 pages; 2013.

I love novels that feature morally dubious characters — and Helen FitzGerald‘s latest novel, The Cry, slots very nicely into that category. I’ve read a couple of Fitzgerald’s novels before — Dead Lovely (2007) and My Last Confession (2009) — and both were  edgy, entertaining reads featuring well-meaning people behaving in abhorrent ways. The Cry is cut from the same cloth.

Plane ride from hell

Joanna is a first-time mother from Glasgow, bound for Australia with Alistair — the father of her child — a high-powered spin doctor for the British Labour Party. But the flight to Melbourne, via Dubai, is traumatic: nine-week-old Noah cries the whole way and won’t settle.

Joanna, who is suffering from an ear-infection, is frazzled and ill-tempered. But then Alistair steps in and offers to nurse the child, so that Joanna can finally get some much-needed rest.

When the trio eventually arrive in Australia, Noah is fast asleep. They dare not wake him, and decide to drive straight to Alistair’s mum’s place, in Geelong, despite the fact that it’s bushfire season and the sky is awash with ash and black smoke.

But on the car journey Joanna makes a fateful discovery: Noah is not asleep — he’s dead.

What happens next is a heart-hammering psychological ride in which one bad decision follows another, because instead of going to the police or calling an ambulance, Alistair decides to engineer Noah’s disappearance from a roadside petrol station.

Realistic plot

The plot borrows heavily from all manner of missing children cases — Azaria Chamberlain immediately springs to mind, as does Madeleine McCann — particularly in the ensuing media coverage (including Twitter and Facebook) and the way in which Joanna is expected to behave in court. (She’s told not to fidget and has to remind herself not to smile — “Don’t smile, don’t smile, remember Foxy Knoxy, remember Lindy.”)

And because truth is often stranger than fiction — how many parents do we see on the news protesting their innocence, only to be arrested for murder at a later date? — the storyline never seems over the top even though Alistair’s actions are repugnant. Indeed, the entire plot seems incredibly believable — and current.

It is also very fast moving. FitzGerald keeps the momentum up in several clever ways: she makes grief-stricken Joanna want to confess to the crime, so the reader is constantly wondering, will she or won’t she; she provides an interesting back story in the form of Alistair’s ex-wife, who is fighting over the custody of their teenage daughter and may possibly be framed for Noah’s murder; and she tells the story from multiple viewpoints and intercuts it with short scenes from the resulting court case.

I read the entire book in three sittings, eager to get to the end so that I could find out what happened next. And while it’s not a completely satisfying read — the climax, which has a neat little twist, didn’t seem convincing to me — it’s a thoroughly good psychological-type drama, perfect for those who like stories that explore why normally good people end up doing bad things.

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‘Dead Lovely’ by Helen FitzGerald


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 298 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

Last year I read Helen FitzGerald‘s second novel, My Last Confession, and enjoyed it enough to request her debut novel from the publisher. It was only while holed up at my sister’s place at Abu Dhabi last month that I got around to reading it. It turned out to be perfect holiday reading fodder, the type of book that’s not earth-shatteringly intelligent but one that’s entertaining and a lot of fun, albeit with a dark noirish feel to it.

The story introduces us to Glasgow-based Krissie, a social worker, who is also the star of the show in My Last Confession. That means it would have made more sense to read Dead Lovely first, but never mind, the book still made total sense, even if it had a touch of the déjà vus about it. (It took me awhile to clock that I had already “met” Krissie in the FitzGerald’s second offering, but I digress…)

Krissie is a rather plucky young woman, a kind of good-time-girl, who likes to work hard and play hard. Her best friend, Sarah, is more settled. She’s married to Kyle, a GP, and together the pair of them are trying to have a baby — with no luck.

Krissie’s friendship with Sarah begins to become strained when Krissie accidentally falls pregnant, thanks to a one-night stand during a wild holiday in the sun, and decides to keep the baby.

To patch things up between them, the trio go on a camping holiday to the Scottish Highlands, and this is where things begin to get even messier: Krissie falls in love with Kyle, whom she happened to share a house with back in her university days.

If this sounds a bit too far fetched, you’d be right. But the story goes completely over the top when one of the trio is killed during the trip. Now, I’m not going to spoil it and reveal who the victim is, but it’s what happens after the death that makes this book such a page-turner. The effect on Krissie is paramount — she becomes wracked by guilt and when the paranoia takes hold there’s no knowing what might happen next.

I went to the bathroom to wash my face. In the mirror was a woman with red eyes, bruises, bag-lady hair and very odd clothes. Who was I? And what was I thinking? Hoping for the best? Escaping? I couldn’t get away from this, away from my guilt, ever, I had to tell.

Dead Lovely is not exactly realistic — in fact, I’d go so far as to say that the storyline in completely preposterous — but it’s a fun romp, and perfect fodder for when you are on holiday or in the mood for something that won’t tax the brain matter.

I liked its mix of dark humour, murder and mayhem. The publisher sums it up as “intelligent chick-lit”, but I reckon it’s more accurate to describe it as a crime comedy. Either way, it’s an edgy and entertaining read. And if you like this one, then you can follow Krissie’s story, three years down the line, in the follow-up My Last Confession.

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‘My Last Confession’ by Helen FitzGerald

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 272 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Helen FitzGerald is an Australian writer based in Glasgow, Scotland. My Last Confession, her second novel, is billed as “intelligent chick-lit” although I’m not sure it entirely fits into that genre, because it’s also a thriller and has a dark noirish edge running through it. Littered as it is with drugs, violence, incest and male rape, this is no fluffy, comforting read, but an electrifying one that will keep you turning the pages to find out what happens next.

A fresh start

The story is narrated by Krissie, a single mum who’s spent the past couple of years living in her parent’s spare bedroom with her artist boyfriend Chas, while they get their lives in order. Now determined to forge a new life together, the couple move out and Krissie lands herself a job as a “criminal justice social worker”, more commonly known as a parole officer.

Things start well when she exposes a client’s secret plan to live with the children he is convicted of sexually abusing when he is released from prison. “With my first pre-release meeting fresh in my mind, I felt on top of the world, ready for anything,” she says. “Hell, I was shit hot.”

But it’s her second client, a man accused of murdering his mother-in-law, which lands her in hot water. Convinced that he couldn’t possibly have committed such a gruesome, brutal crime, Krissie does a spot of private investigating that puts her life and the lives of her loved ones in danger. Or, as she puts it on the first page, in her “tips for parole officers”:

1. Don’t smuggle heroin into prison.
2. Don’t drink vodka to relieve stress.
3. Don’t French-kiss a colleague to get your boyfriend jealous.
4. Don’t snort speed.
5. Don’t spend more time with murderers than with your son.
6. Don’t invite crack-head clients to your party.

A fast-paced read

I raced through this book in two sittings. Krissie is a quirky kind of character, in many respects too naive for her own good. But it is her hire-wire act in which she struggles to come to grips with a new job while looking after a young child and trying not to jeopardise her relationship with Chas that makes her incredibly realistic. And despite her obvious flaws, she’s immensely likable helped by a very wicked self-deprecating sense of humour.

But what makes My Last Confession really work is not just the easy-flowing narrative (which occasionally switches into third-person) and great characterisation, but FitzGerald’s ability to shock the reader. On one page you can read about Krissie’s dreams of wearing a white wedding dress and on the next have the brutal intricacies of a woman being butchered thrust in your face. And the ending, which delivers a nice punch, ties everything up neatly and succinctly, making this a terrific and satisfying crime thriller, highly reminiscent of my old fave, Nicci French.

I’m now looking forward to reading FitzGerald’s debut novel, Dead Lovely, and her latest hardcover, The Devil’s Staircase, to see if she can maintain this high level of momentum.