Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Robbie Arnott, Setting, Text

‘Limberlost’ by Robbie Arnott

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 240 pages; 2022.

With just two novels under his belt, Robbie Arnott has made a name for himself as one of Australia’s most exciting, original and acclaimed literary writers.

His debut, Flames (2018), was nominated for almost every prize going (see his publisher’s site to see all his prize listings) and earned him a Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prize. His second, The Rain Heron (2020), won the Age Book of the Year award and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the ALS Gold Medal and the Voss Literary Prize, amongst others.

His latest book, Limberlost, is sure to earn him more accolades, although this novel is far less experimental and more “traditional” than his earlier work. But what it does share with those books is the same magical sense of wonder for Nature and the rich, evocative descriptions of the Tasmanian landscape.

Dreams of adventure

Set on an apple orchard in Tasmania during the Second World War, it tells the story of teenager Ned, whose two older brothers join the Army, leaving him behind with a taciturn father and a bossy older sister.

While the narrative largely unfolds over the course of a summer, it also weaves in glimpses of Ned’s future life as a husband and father to show how the choices he makes as a 15-year-old have long-lasting repercussions in the decades ahead.

As a teenager, he keeps to himself but he works hard to gain his dad’s approval and his sister’s respect. He spends his spare time trapping and shooting rabbits, selling their pelts as part of the war effort. But while he knows the rabbit fur is used to make the Army’s distinctive slouch hats, he’s not doing it as a patriotic act — he simply wants to save up enough money to buy himself a boat.

That boat, he believes, will not only give him a sense of freedom to explore beyond the orchard perimeter, but it will also allow him to sail to the mouth of the river where, as a young boy, his father took him and his brothers to see a “mad” whale that had destroyed several fishing boats and wreaked havoc with its fluked tail, an experience that has stuck with him ever since.

If he killed enough rabbits, he might earn enough to buy his own boat […] Nothing fancy, just a small, single-sailed dinghy he could run into the river. Out of the water he could sail wherever he liked, from downstream where the current ran fresh to the broad estuary in the north. Squid-filled reefs, forested coves, schools of flashing salmon, trenches of snapper, lonely jetties, private beaches on whose cold sands he could burn hidden fires — all would be open to him if he had a boat. If he killed enough rabbits.

Be careful what you wish for

Most of the story charts Ned’s pursuit of his dream and then shows what happens when it is realised. The boat, of course, is not just a boat. It’s a conduit that brings him closer to his father — and, to some extent, his sister — as well as his friend Jackbird and Jackbird’s gun-toting sister, Callie, who later becomes Ned’s wife.

It’s also a metaphor for Ned determining the direction of his life, of longing to experience the adventure and excitement that his older brothers are encountering in the war, and of making tangible that emotion he felt when he saw the whale thrashing in the sea years earlier.

Emotion, it turns out, is something Ned feels keenly. He might think nothing of killing rabbits, but when he finds a badly injured quoll in one of his traps, for instance, he’s too kind-hearted to put it out of its misery: he takes it home, hides it away in a crate and looks after it as best he can.

Later, when he goes mustering as a 30-year-old man, he witnesses a cow drowning in a river and blames himself for the incident because he hadn’t been able to chase it down and rescue it. He tells himself that his brothers, Toby and Bill, would never let something like that happen and wonders when the “surefootedness” and  “the natural competence of other men would come to him”.

It’s this tendency for self-reflection, of beating himself up about things, combined with his empathy and gentleness that makes Ned who he is, but in a world of strong males (every male character in this book makes a living off the land in one form or another), he sees these as character flaws, not strengths. Even his university-aged daughters challenge him:

Ned met her gaze. Felt her condescension tear a new wound in him. He felt off-balance, disoriented, angry. His daughters had never spoken to him like this before. Nobody had.

Of course, these traits as an adult have their long roots in his teenage years, particularly that formative summer involving the boat, the quoll and his budding friendship with Callie.

Favourite read of the year

I absolutely adored this book. From the lush prose and its gorgeous descriptions of the natural world to the way Arnott taps into the rich interior world of a lonely teenage boy, it’s a truly moving coming-of-age novel about kindness, loss, love and family.

And there’s something about the passing of time and the nostalgic tone of the story — without ever resorting to sentimentality — that makes this such a powerful read. I can’t remember the last time I read a book and had a good old sob when I came to the end of it!

There’s no doubt that Limberlost will be my favourite novel of 2022.

For other reviews, please see Lisa’s at ANZ LitLovers, Brona’s at This Reading Life and Susan’s at A Life in Books.

I read this book for Brona’s #AusReadingMonth. It has been published in the UK and if you hurry you might be able to pick up a Kindle version for just 99p if you don’t mind buying books from that bad corporate citizen known as Amazon.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Australia, Author, Book review, Helen Garner, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries Volume II, 1987-1995’ by Helen Garner

Non-fiction – hardcover; Text Publishing; 320 pages; 2020.

I think I might burn all these diaries. What if I died and people got hold of them and read them? Their endless self obsession, anecdotes, self-excuses, rationalisations. Meanness about others.

One Day I’ll Remember This is the second volume in Helen Garner’s diaries, of which there are currently three. (I have reviewed her first volume, Yellow Notebook, here.)

This one covers the period 1987 to 1995 and begins with the news that Garner, now in her mid-40s, is splitting her time between Melbourne, where she lives, a rural retreat called Primrose Gully, and Sydney, where her lover, the writer dubbed “V”, resides. She later marries him — her third marriage —  but it’s not all smooth sailing.

In her richly detailed prose, she pours out her heart and shares her innermost thoughts about life and love and friendship and the creative urge — and everything in between.

A writer’s life

And, because she is a writer, we find out what she’s reading —  John McGahern, Janet Malcolm, Slyvia Plath, Patrick White, old copies of the TLS, Sally Morgan’s My Place, among others — and get a ringside seat as she works on her own screenplay The Last Days of Chez Nous and, a little later, her novel Cosmo Cosmolino (which I haven’t read).

Towards the end of this volume, she’s penning The First Stone, a non-fiction book (about a sexual harassment case) that turned out to be especially divisive — even before it was published.

A friend called: ‘Listen, the shit’s really going to hit the fan with this book. The street word is you’re running the line that women get raped were asking for it.’

Self-aware but fearless

Not that Garner is too worried about what anyone thinks of her. Throughout this volume, it’s clear she’s her own harshest critic.

I will probably never write anything large, lasting, solid or influential. Is this a proper life I am leading?

She’s plagued by self-doubt, not only in her work but in her life as well, both as a mother and as a wife.

I say, ‘I’m no good at marriage. I think I’d be awful to be married to.’

She spends a lot of time beating herself up about things — she has a falling out with a close friend, frets about her adult daughter leaving home and no longer needing her, wonders what it would be like to confront her lover’s wife to tell her about the affair — but she’s also good humoured and drops many witty one-liners.

My front tooth is dead. I have to have a root canal. But I swam eight laps of the Fitzroy Baths.

Gorgeous writing

Her powers of observation are extraordinary, and the way she paints scenes in just a few words is dazzling — particularly when you know she’s not writing for an audience; these were personal diaries never intended to be published.

Late summer morning. Swam. Pool very beautiful. Sun giving out long, oblique rays of pink and gold.

Similarly, in just a line or two, she is able to transport us to a different time and place —  the “miracle” of receiving a fax message, the tragedy of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the joy of the Berlin Wall coming down — and yet these diaries don’t feel dated.

That’s because the writing, at all times, is alive and wonderous, full of daring thoughts and brimming with heartfelt emotion and honesty. Thank goodness she never did get around to burning them.

This is my 11th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I rushed out and bought it as soon as it was released at the tail end of 2020, where it remained in my TBR for longer than I planned. In fact, it was lying in my TBR for so long, the publisher had enough time to publish a third volume  — which has been sitting in my TBR for more than six months now!

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Garry Disher, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘The Way It Is Now’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 416 pages; 2021.

Garry Disher is fast becoming my favourite crime writer. And this new novel, published in Australia in November and due to be published in the UK later this year, only cements my firm opinion.

The Way It Is Now is a complete standalone — in other words, not part of a crime series, of which Disher has penned several — so it’s a good way into his work if you have not read him before.

It’s not strictly a police procedural but does feature a police officer, albeit on suspension from his role in Melbourne’s sex-crimes unit, who is carrying out his own personal investigation into the disappearance of his mother 20 years ago.

Dealing with the past

Now holed up in a holiday shack on the Mornington Peninsula, south-east of Melbourne, Charlie Deravin, on disciplinary leave from his job (he thumped his chief inspector), has time on his hands to think about his past.

He grew up around cops — his father was a detective — and still sees many of them, now retired, around the traps. This brings up memories of his childhood and the macho culture that surrounded him and his older brother, Liam, with whom he now has a strained relationship. That’s because Liam blames their father, Rhys, for their mother’s disappearance.

Rhys was accused of murdering his wife but had never been charged with the crime because a body was never found. The only suggestion that she had come to harm was the discovery of her car abandoned “out near Tooradin with a crumpled bumper, the driver’s door open and her possessions scattered up and down the road”.

Charlie suspects his mother’s lodger, Shane Lambert, of the crime. Shane was a timber mill worker who Charlie had warned off not long before his mother went missing because she was feeling intimidated by him in her own home. Charlie decides to track him down, using his own police skills and contacts.

It’s only when he begins digging around in the past that it comes rushing up to meet him: the skeletal remains of a young boy are found on a building site not far from his mother’s house. That boy went missing at around the same time as his mother did, and Charlie, a young police constable at the time, had been part of the search team.

When a second skeleton of an adult is discovered, underneath the first, it begins to look like a twin homicide has been committed. But who did it, and why?

Testing loyalties

The Way It Is Now feels incredibly timely — Rhys, on a cruise ship with his second wife, Fay, catches covid-19 in the early stages of the pandemic —  and has a strong sense of place. I loved reading about towns that are familiar to me such as Philip Island, Tooradin and Hastings — even Leongatha, where I went to secondary school, cracks a mention.

The fictional town in which the story is set feels like any real town on the Peninsula or the Bass Coast, where Charlie spent his childhood surrounded by men with “big natures and a black intensity if you caught them unguarded”.

Menlo Beach was a Peninsula beach town of unassuming shacks dating from the 1930s, side by side on a crosshatch of narrow, potholed dirt streets. Half the houses down here on the flat were fibro. Cheap housing, back when Dad and his mates started buying holiday houses and weekend getaways in the late 1970s, places that became family homes. Six cops on ten little streets. Rowdy, rampaging men who thrilled the kids and made them laugh; one or two wives, cut desperately from the same hardwood, who didn’t. Booze-soaked barbecues and beach cricket, wrestling on the lawn. Sailing, catching waves, cycling up and down Arthur’s Seat.

The novel, richly layered between past and present, highlights how loyalties — between colleagues and family members — can be tested in trying conditions and how attitudes can change over time. It asks questions about toxic masculinity, homophobia, police culture and the misuse of power.

And while the story hinges on the dead woman trope, a pet hate of mine, it’s not used as a convenient plot point but as a way to explore a wider narrative — at what point do men own up to their role in allowing such crimes to occur?

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Jock Serong, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘The Rules of Backyard Cricket’ by Jack Serong

Fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 304 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

It seems ironic that the day I finished reading Jack Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket, the Australian men’s Test captain, Tim Paine, resigned from his position, bidding a tearful farewell in what could have been a scene lifted directly from this novel.

In Serong’s brilliant book, all the cricket clichés we know and love are here, and the sport, which is regarded as a “gentleman’s game”, is shown as anything but with its sledging and corruption and bad-boy behaviour.

Its heroes, which are lauded in Australia and turned into holier-than-thou celebrities (even if it’s just to sell vitamins on TV!), are skewered beautifully in this wildly compelling and entertaining story about two talented brothers from Melbourne’s working-class western suburbs who grow up to represent their country in international cricket.

One brother is bad, another is good — and it’s this tension between the two that powers the story along faster than anything Dennis Lillee could ever deliver!

Childhood memoir

When the book opens we meet the narrator, Darren Keefe, who is locked in the boot of a car, bound and gagged, with gunshot wounds to his legs. The car is belting down a road somewhere, but we don’t know who is behind the wheel or what Darren has done to get into this precarious position.

I’m suspended in space here, between wakefulness and sleep, maybe even consciousness and death, and I fear the gag will suffocate me if I doze off. A world apart from the world in here.

The story then spools back to Darren’s childhood in suburban Melbourne in the 1980s, and from his position in the boot of the car, he tells his warts-and-all story, from talented child cricketer to white-ball superstar before falling from grace and reinventing himself as a TV commentator and after-dinner events speaker.

His older brother, Wally, is more successful than him, rising to become captain of the Australian men’s Test team. He’s the more responsible sibling; he’s more level-headed, logical and steady, whereas Darren is a trouble-maker, a likable larrikin who enjoys women and drink and gambling and drugs too much to take anything too seriously.

One columnist says he’d pay to watch Darren Keefe because something amazing might happen, but he’d bet the house on Wally Keefe, because the necessary will happen. Journalists love the potential clichés we suggest: Cain and Abel, Jekyll and Hyde, Noel and Liam.

The one guiding force in their life is their determined and gutsy single mother, who recognises their talent when they are young boys, creating a perfect pitch for them in the backyard and working long shifts in the pub to pay for the best kit she can buy them.

Bad boy antics

It’s pretty clear from the outset that Darren has a wild streak in him that can’t be tamed. Here’s what he says about his school days:

I’d cheated on tests (detention), burned centipedes with a magnifying glass (caning), thrown a bolt-bomb on the road near the bus stop (caning) and fed a paper clip into a powerpoint (electrocution and caning). Most recently, I’d clean-bowled a grade-four during recess and, when he refused to vacate the crease, I’d spontaneously waved my dick at him. The timing was poor: Brother Callum was standing directly behind me as I did it, confirming that if you chant the Litany of the Saints often enough, the Holy Ghost will grant you invisibility.

But his talent with the bat means he rises through the ranks quickly — as a 12-year-old he’s playing in the seniors, by 20 he’s in the state squad and the leading run-scorer in Victorian district cricket — and before he knows it he’s playing white-ball cricket for Australia. He gets married but doesn’t really settle down — he likes partying too much.

It doesn’t help that his best friend has gangster connections (and may or may not be working for them), so there’s always plenty of drugs, mainly cocaine around, and with that comes violence and reputational crises to sort out. And then, when he’s offered a bribe to help “throw” a game, well…

Rip-roaring tale

The Rules of Backyard Cricket is one of those rip-roaring tales that take you in unexpected directions. I loved following the antics of these two brothers and their wonderful mother (who later succumbs to Alzheimer’s) and seeing how their careers unfold over two decades or so.

It’s a literary coming-of-age tale, but it’s also a crime story because how Darren ends up in the boot of a car is the consequence of illicit activities. Every new chapter begins with a reminder that Darren is in the boot against his will, and it’s these glimpses of his confusion and anger and pain during these moments that helps build the suspense, making the novel a page-turner because you want to find out why he’s there and whether he will ever escape.

But the story is also a kind of loose satire about cricket because there’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek swipes at how Australia treats its sports stars and how sports stars use the media and their celebrity to build their profiles and career. It’s set in the latter half of the 20th century, before social media and the internet took over everything, just at the point when cricket became properly professionalised, but much of what is written here still resonates today.

There’s a lot here to unpick about morality and ethics in sport, about sibling rivalry and the lengths parents will go to to help their children succeed, but most of all The Rules of Backyard Cricket is just a great big enjoyable romp.

I suspect Jock Serong had a lot of fun writing this; I certainly had a lot of fun reading it. This one will be in my Top 10 reads of the year for sure.

If you like this, you might also like:

‘Spinner’ by Ron Elliott: an entertaining story about a 12-year-old boy, a talented spin bowler, who plays Test cricket at international level for Australia in between the wars.

I read this book as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books

20 books of summer (2021), Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Garry Disher, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Consolation’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 394 pages; 2020.

Consolation is the third book in Garry Disher’s “Constable Paul Hirschhausen” series of crime novels. Last week it won Best Crime Fiction at the 2021 Ned Kelly Awards.

I have previously read and reviewed the two earlier novels in the series — Bitter Wash Road and Peace — and thought both immensely rewarding crime reads. Consolation is more of the same.

Crimes in winter

In this novel, which is set in the middle of winter (about six months on from the previous book in the series), things are relatively quiet for Constable Paul “Hirsch” Hirschhausen, who runs a one-man police station in Tiverton, a small town about three hours north of Adelaide. Much of his work is proactive and community-based. Twice a week he carries out long-range patrols, driving through cold and muddy conditions, to visit remote properties to check on residents.

The only thing that is causing concern is the presence of a “snowdropper” — Australian slang for someone who steals clothing from a clothesline — in town. He (or she) has a penchant for old ladies’ underwear and is causing a bit of a stir.

But that ongoing crime soon gets superseded by a string of other potentially more serious crimes, including a stock agent said to be ripping off local investors in a failed “get rich quick” property scam. The agent has pissed off two investors, a father and son team, who have decided to take the law into their own hands, with potentially devastating (and violent) consequences.

Meanwhile, a school teacher tells Hirsch that she is worried about one of her remote students whom she teaches via the internet. When Hirsch drives out to the property to carry out a welfare check, he finds the girl living in appalling conditions, tied up in a caravan, and has to take drastic action to save her.

And no sooner is Hirsch investigating that situation than he is alerted to another problem: an elderly lady in town has discovered that she’s been defrauded of thousands of dollars. But who is the culprit? Her hippy niece? Or the well-meaning neighbours who have eyes on her property?

All these myriad crimes, which have to be investigated concurrently, occur just as Hirsch’s boss, the sergeant based in the next biggest town, is forced to take sick leave. This means Hirsch is now acting sergeant, leading these investigations while looking after two younger officers only a year out of police school. Is he up to the job?

UK edition

For those that have followed this series from the start, Consolation offers some rewarding character development.

Hirsch, a whistleblower banished to Tiverton from the city in the first novel, has finally found his feet after a rocky start. He is familiar with the area now, knows all the people who live in it, and even has a steady girlfriend: Wendy Street, whom he first met in Bitter Wash Road. (The charming relationship he has with his girlfriend’s daughter is particularly edifying and is one of the nicest things about this book.)

He’s more “rural wise”, too, and knows how to handle the roads, the conditions and the remoteness of the area, constantly looking for those “two bars” on his mobile phone whenever he thinks he might be entering dangerous territory and in need of quick communication.

Realistic police procedural

I think what’s interesting about this series is that Disher isn’t solely focused on throwing in one big crime and having his protagonist solve it. In this novel, Hirsch is dealing with multiple crimes, from fraud to child neglect, and running the investigations on a shoestring, sometimes with the help of more senior police from the city, but always having to do it against the clock while managing local sensitivities.

Perhaps the only element of Consolation I wasn’t too sure about was a storyline involving Hirsch being stalked by a lonely woman who takes a shine to him, only because it didn’t always ring true.

That aside, this is another fine example of “rural noir” by Garry Disher and I hope he’s penning a new one in this series. If he is, I will be the first in the queue to buy it!

This is my 20th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it in paperback from my local independent book store when it was published late last year.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Garry Disher, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Peace’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 432 pages; 2020.

Peace is the second in Garry Disher’s trilogy known as “the Paul Hirschhausen novels”.  I read the first, Bitter Wash Road, late last year and considered it one of the best Australian crime novels I had ever read.

This one is just as good, but it’s (pleasingly) not more of the same. There’s a shift in focus to rural policing and the insidious ways in which city crime can seep into isolated locations, helped partly by the rise in social media. There’s also a minor narrative thread about an unrecognised massacre of the local indigenous population by a pioneer of the district, suggesting that crime has always permeated the ground upon which Hirsch now treads.

In fact, it’s the isolated rural setting (the northern part of South Australia, about three hours from Adelaide), which gives this police procedural a distinctive Australian flavour.

In this dry farmland country, Constable Paul “Hirsch” Hirschhausen runs a one-cop station and spends a lot of his time on the road carrying out welfare checks and following up on petty crimes such as vandalism and the theft of household items. But in this novel, set during the supposedly festive season, the crimes Hirsch has to investigate escalate from the predictable Christmas time pub brawls, drunk driving offences and traffic accidents to more serious incidents, including murder.

First, a middle-aged woman from the local “crime family”, crashes her car into the local pub. Later, a young child is locked in a hot car and almost dies.

But when the local pony breeder has several of her show ponies slaughtered in a vicious attack, attracting the attention of the national media, the entire community feels put on alert and Hirsch knows he’s not going to have a particularly peaceful Christmas. Who would brutally stab animals and leave them to die slow, painful deaths? What sort of criminal is living in the town’s midst? And will he (or she) turn their attention to humans next?

The UK edition of Peace

A slow burner, but worth the effort

Peace is a bit of a slow burner and not quite as complex as its predecessor. This novel is more about small-town life, the characters that live in it, the (small) power plays that go on between citizens and the grudges and resentments that people harbour against neighbours and acquaintances.

To get to the bottom of what’s going on, Hirsch must use his social and networking skills as much as his police skills.

It’s only when the “heavy-duty” crime occurs — a murder of a woman in an isolated farmhouse — that the book becomes a proper page-turner involving car chases, line searches and a dogged hunt for the perpetrator. The investigation, which isn’t straightforward, draws in other police, including those from Sydney, some of whom have questionable agendas of their own.

It all makes for a cracking read, one that addresses bullying, animal cruelty, domestic violence and police corruption.

As ever the characterisation is spot on whether Disher is writing about the small town crims, the local male meddler, the dedicated GP, the troubled community “outcast”, the shop girl or the neighbouring police sergeant.

I raced through it in no time, and look forward to reading the final part of the trilogy soon.

Peace was longlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger Award and was a Sunday Times “crime pick of the month” in the UK.

This is my 18th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it in paperback from my local independent book store in November 2020.

Amanda Lohrey, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Text

‘The Labyrinth’ by Amanda Lohrey

Fiction – paperback; Text publishing; 256 pages; 2020.

I have Lisa Hill from ANZLitLovers to thank for introducing me to this intriguing novel, which I won in a prize draw that Lisa ran on her blog last year. (You can read Lisa’s review here.)

Amanda Lohrey is a new-to-me Australian author, but she’s written many books and essays, been nominated for numerous awards and won a handful of prestigious ones, including the Patrick White Award in 2012.

The Labyrinth is her eighth novel, which has just been longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award (which I’ve neglected to even mention on this blog because I’ve been otherwise occupied).

Deeply contemplative story

Set on the coast, it’s a deeply contemplative tale starring all the topics I love reading about in novels — guilt, redemption, moral culpability, insanity, art and the complex, sometimes fraught relationships between parents and children — so any wonder I loved it.

The focus of the story is Erica Marsden, an older woman, who grew up in an asylum (her father was a psychiatrist). This is an important detail because it shows how she is attuned to madness in the world. Now, having quit her job, she has moved into an isolated, rather rundown shack by the beach. She’s cut herself off from family and friends so that she can spend time alone to mend a broken heart, to grieve for something she has lost.

But her grief is not the result of a romance gone wrong. Her son, Daniel, has been imprisoned for a brutal homicide he committed, and Erica, shocked to the core, refuses to give up on him even though his crime weighs heavy on her. Indeed, her new home is only a relatively short drive from the prison in which he’s incarcerated, which means she can visit him — whether he likes it or not. (Her visits, it has to be said, are painfully evoked, brimming with hurt and anger and incomprehension. I felt myself squirming in my seat as I read these scenes.)

Twin projects

In the long gaps between visiting hours, Erica focuses on two separate projects.

The first is to destroy Dan’s extensive book collection —  at his request — by burning individual tomes in a painstaking daily ritual that she ekes out for as long as possible. She even hires a local schoolgirl to help arrange the books in alphabetical order, a completely unnecessary task, but one that helps delay the books’ inevitable destruction.

The second is to build a labyrinth out of local stone, a work of art that she spends many hours planning, in the knowledge the act of building it will help her out of her current muddled frame of mind, not quite believing her son has carried out such a horrific crime. And when the labyrinth is complete she will be able to walk its one single path to the centre as a way to calm her mind.

First the making—I recalled my father’s words: the cure for many ills is to build something—and then the repetition, the going over and over so that time would rupture and be stopped in its flow. And I could live in an infinitely expanding present in which there was no nostalgia, no consequence, no outcome or false promise. The future meant nothing. Since my past and my future were hitched to my son’s life sentence, I felt that if I stepped outside the present I risked being turned to stone.

She can’t make the labyrinth alone, however, and after ruling out a local architect who lives nearby, she hires a homeless man, living in the sand dunes to help her.

Jurko, it turns out, is an illegal immigrant, who has abandoned his family on the other side of the world and has secrets of his own to keep. Erica’s relationship with him, which develops gently over time from client to friend to lodger, is one of the strengths of the novel, for it shows how her cool exterior begins to thaw as trust is gained and confidences exchanged.

The importance of friendship, it would appear, is one of the novel’s central themes, for Erica wants to be alone, but in a small tight-knit community on the coast, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, it’s difficult to remain reclusive without being seen as aloof or someone of whom to be suspicious. She slowly builds up relationships with neighbours and acquaintances, learning to let herself live again, learning to open her heart to the world.

The Labyrinth is a beautifully crafted novel. It’s a rare example of a story that is both disquieting and yet deeply satisfying. It’s intimate and honest and brims with all kinds of important questions about what it is to reckon with the past and navigate the future.

This is my 12th book for #AWW2021 and my 21st for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I won it in a prize draw last summer.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Loraine Peck, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021, Text

‘The Second Son’ by Loraine Peck

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 447 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Loraine Peck’s debut, The Second Son, is a gangland crime novel set in Sydney’s western suburbs.

The story is framed around a married couple, Johnny and Amy Novak, who are members of an organised crime family headed by Milan Novak, a Croatian immigrant. Amy is particularly keen to shield their young son, Sasha, from the family “business”, which involves running a string of fish’n chip shops as a front for nefarious activities including money laundering and drug trafficking.

The novel begins with the execution-style murder of Johnny’s beloved older brother, Ivan, who is fatally shot one dark evening while doing that most mundane (and unglamorous) of domestic duties: putting out the bins. The hitman is thought to be one of the gang’s Serbian rivals. Revenge is on everyone’s mind and police fear this will be the start of an ongoing tit-for-tat gangland war.

Johnny, who is the second son of the title, needs to prove himself worthy of filling the power vacuum created by Ivan’s death. To avenge his brother and win the trust and respect of his father, he comes up with a plan to carry out a daring heist to steal the Serb’s planned shipment of ecstasy said to be worth $3 million.

But there are complications. Amy, who was warned by her comfortably middle-class parents not to marry Johnny, wants a different life. She sees the violence and the bloodshed, and fears for her son’s future. When their own family home is shot at, she moves out and then issues an ultimatum to her husband: leave this life of crime behind and start afresh on the NSW north coast.

Johnny’s loyalties are torn: he loves his wife and son, but he also knows that he can’t risk the wrath of his father, nor the gangland criminals in his orbit. Whatever decision he makes will have far-reaching, perhaps even deadly, consequences…

Action-packed drama

The Second Son is an action-packed drama that combines the all-male world of violent crime with the moral and ethical dilemmas this creates for the women they have married. For instance, how can you live your life like a normal couple when you know your husband is a criminal even if you don’t know the depth or the details of the crime? Can you simply turn a blind eye, lie to your friends and then hope that none of the fallout will ever effect you?

Told in the first person from both Johnny and Amy’s points of view, Peck explores how these dilemmas affect both parties. Their narratives are told in separate chapters (which are headed “Johnny” or “Amy” accordingly), which helps provide a glimpse of their thought processes and their values, but unfortunately, their voices are so similar (and the present tense so wearing) that the structure didn’t really work for me. I also struggled to believe the male voice, which was too nuanced and too “nice”, and found Amy’s voice repetitive.

The book held the promise of being an intriguing character-led story, but it dissolved into a plot-driven one that didn’t really sustain my interest. I suspect that’s because I simply didn’t care about the characters, but also because the momentum sags in the middle, but picks up again towards the end.

Perhaps I have watched one too many Underbelly episodes or true crime documentaries, or read too many Mafiosa crime novels, but this story lacked the hard-hitting noirish edge I would expect from a novel about organised crime. It didn’t feel claustrophobic or dark enough; there always felt like there was the possibility of escape for the characters — indeed, this is what Amy dreams of all the time — and yet anyone who knows anything about this world knows that that is not possible. There is no escape — except death.

That said, The Second Son would make an excellent film or TV series. It asks important questions about love, loss and loyalty within an organised crime family. And it explores a topic rarely, if ever discussed, in Australian fiction: the ways in which grudges and resentments from the 1990s Balkan civil war continue on the streets of Sydney.

Judging by all the glowing five-star reviews online, I’m a little out of step with this one. For a more positive take, please see Shellyrae’s review at Book’d Out.

About the author¹: Loraine Peck started her career as a portrait painter and magician’s assistant in Sydney. After being sawn in half one too many times, she switched to dealing blackjack on the Gold Coast. Bartending and slinging lobsters in the US lead to a sales job in the movie industry before she was propelled into a career in marketing in Australia, the Middle East, Asia and the US. Consumed by a desire to write crime thrillers, she decided to stop everything and do a writing course—to learn how to write the kind of book she loves to read. (1. Source: Text Publishing website.)

Where to buy: Currently only available in Australia and New Zealand.

This is my 6th book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here. It is also my 4th book for #AWW2021.  

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Gail Jones, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Our Shadows’ by Gail Jones

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 320 pages; 2020.

Love and loss, the goldfields of Kalgoorlie, growing up in outback Australia, and strained relationships between sisters all feature heavily in Gail Jones’ latest novel Our Shadows.

Outback setting

This gently nuanced novel is largely set in the outback gold mining town of Kalgoorlie, about 600km east of Perth, in Western Australia.

Against this dramatic landscape, we follow the lives of two sisters, Nell and Frances, who are raised by their grandparents following the death of their mother sometime in the 1980s. (Their father flees — whether from shock or grief or a refusal to be responsible for his two daughters, we don’t know — and is never seen again.)

It charts the closeness of their childhood, united in orphanhood and by a love of art, reading and a desire to visit the sea. (The print of Japanese artist Hokusai’s The Great Wave, part of which is reproduced on the book’s cover, plays a key role in their childhood fantasy to one day paddle in the ocean.)

But when the book opens, the sisters, vastly different in temperament and personality, are now 30-something adults living in Sydney and they are estranged. Frances, the introverted one, is a widow, her husband having died from mesothelioma, an excruciating lung disease, and her days are now spent visiting her grandmother, Else, who has dementia and lives in a nursing home.

The plot, which is is split into two parts, largely focuses on the sisters’ relationship, how it splintered and whether it can be repaired. It looks at the history of their parents (how they met, fell in love and got married) and their maternal grandparents (who, bowed by grief, had to raise their daughter’s children) to create a beguiling portrait of three generations of the one family.

The second part of the novel looks at Frances’ return to Kalgoorlie to rediscover her roots and find out more about the father she never knew.

Interleaved through this story of an outback family is another story — that of the real-life Irishman, Paddy Hannan, who was the first to discover gold in Kalgoorlie in 1893 and is largely known as the founder of the town.

An unexpected treat

Admittedly I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with this author. I have read four of Gail Jones’ books now and fallen in love with some titles (Five Bells and Sixty Lights), felt lukewarm about others (A Guide to Berlin) and not liked very much at all (Sorry), so I wasn’t sure what to expect with this one. I didn’t have to worry. This was an unexpected treat.

I read Our Shadows on the seven-hour train ride back from Kalgoorlie, having visited for a few days earlier this month, and it certainly captured the feeling of this outback gold mining town with its super-wide streets (so that camel trains could turn around), rich colonial architecture and mining infrastructure, including the super pit gold mine, which is referenced a lot in the story (see my pictures below).

The Super Pit was visible from space. Everyone said so. She remembered the day of the inauguration, the mayor, the mining officials, the politicians in their grey suits, the way her class had to stand in the sun, squinting in lines on a dais, and sing the national anthem. As a child she imagined herself in space with a small rocket strapped to her back; she would look down and see the Super Pit reduced to a dark blot. It reassured her to imagine in this way, lofty and unconcerned.

There’s always something about reading a book set in a place you have visited (or are visiting) that makes the story resonate more, and that was certainly the case with this one.

As ever, Jones’ work is subtle, her writing polished and poetic, and she is an expert at nuance, expertly capturing moods, expressions and the interconnectedness between people that makes life so rich and varied. Her descriptions of people, places and time periods are evocative and her characters all-too-human, flawed but believable.

Our Shadows is not a fast-paced novel and, as such, it is not one to race through. Instead, it’s one to linger over, to savour the language and the feelings the story evokes.

This is my 22nd — and final — book for #AWW2020.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Garry Disher, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Bitter Wash Road’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 336 pages; 2013.

Bitter Wash Road (published as Hell to Pay in the US) by Garry Disher is the first in a trilogy known as “the Paul Hirschhausen novels”. It has been described as the “gold standard for Australian noir” — and I’d have to agree. I haven’t enjoyed a distinctively Australian crime novel as good as this for a while.

Set in South Australia’s wheatbelt, three hours north of Adelaide, the hot, dry landscape is as much a character as the city policeman “Hirsch” who has been exiled to a single-officer police station.

It shares certain traits with Jane Harper’s best-selling The Dry — which arguably put Australian crime novels on the international map in recent times — but predates it by three years and is far more accomplished, evocative and complex.

Whistleblower exiled to a small town

The story goes something like this. As a whistleblower, reporting on corrupt colleagues, Constable Paul “Hirsch” Hirschhausen has had his promising city career cut short. Now, exiled in Tiverton, a tiny speck of a town in the wheatbelt, he deals with low-level crime.

As if adjusting to life alone in a strange town isn’t enough, his new colleagues in the nearest big town, where his boss is based, hate and despise him, and he is constantly on alert because he knows there are certain people who would rather he just disappeared.

In the opening chapter, when he’s called out to investigate gunshots on the isolated Bitter Wash Road, Hirsch realises he’s completely exposed. If anyone is going to kill him, this is the perfect place to set up an ambush. But who could it be? The very police officers who should be providing him with back up? Or the pair of fugitive killers who had last been seen in town, heading for Longreach, more than 2,000km away, in a distinctive black Chrysler?

He’s wrong on both counts, but it sets up the mood for the rest of the novel, for Hirsch is a policeman whose integrity and honesty is challenged at almost every turn, a man who fears for his life, who worries about his city-based parents who have been threatened in the past, and struggles to fit in to a community where everyone knows everyone else’s business but tend to keep themselves to themselves.

UK edition

Complex murder mystery

Once the character of Hirsch has been established, the book gets into the nitty-gritty of a complex murder investigation in which a teenage girl is found dead, lying facedown in a ditch by the side of the road, a victim of a suspected hit-and-run.

The investigation is far from straight forward and before long Hirsch realises that there are vested interests and hidden agendas at work. As an outsider in an isolated country town, getting answers out of anyone proves increasingly difficult. What are people hiding? And does it have anything to do with his role as a police whistleblower?

Bitter Wash Road, with its multiple plot lines, focuses on a disturbing murder that highlights how no police force (or station) is immune from corruption and vested interests. It also shows how the closing of ranks against an outsider can obscure the pursuit of justice — with devastating consequences.

Intelligent crime novels don’t come much better than this — and I’m looking forward to reading the rest in the series, which comprises Peace (2019) and Consolation (2020).

Bitter Wash Road was shortlisted for Best Crime Novel at the 2014 Ned Kelly Awards and won the German Crime Prize in 2016. It is widely available in all territories.