Reading Projects, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021

Southern Cross Crime Month wrap-up

Thanks to everyone who participated in the inaugural Southern Cross Crime Month here on this blog.

I’ve had a criminally good time (see what I did there?) reading and reviewing nine books, but I’ve also loved seeing what other people have read and reviewed around the blogosphere.

More than 20 were reviewed by bloggers from around the world, including Australia, the UK, USA and India. I’ve been impressed with the breadth and scope of the types of crime books that have featured.

Here’s what has been reviewed, arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

During the month, I also wrote a piece about new Southern Cross Crime novels to add to your wishlist, while Vishy wrote an interesting post reviewing 7 short crime stories by ANZ women writers. Gordon Duncan wrote a post about four books he read over the course of the month.

If I missed your contribution, please let me know and I will add you to this post.

Thanks again to everyone who participated by reviewing books or leaving comments; it’s all very much appreciated. See you again next year?

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, David Whish-Wilson, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Fremantle Press, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021, TBR 21

‘Shore Leave’ by David Whish-Wilson

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 248 pages; 2020.

Australian crime doesn’t come much more hard-boiled than David Whish-Wilson’s Shore Leave, which is set in Fremantle, Western Australia, in 1989.

The fourth in the Frank Swann series (which began with Line of Sight, the only one I’ve read), it works as a standalone. All you really need to know is that Frank was once a police superintendent but now he’s working solo as a private investigator and because he’s made a few enemies in the past, he’s always looking over his shoulder for people out to get him. He’s also grappling with a debilitating illness in which he’s unsteady on his feet, losing weight and vomiting, but trying his best to ignore it!

Murder plot

The plot focuses on the murder of two women, which might be linked to the arrival in port of the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Carl Vinson. An African-American sailor is missing and thought to be the likely suspect.

Working together — and sometimes against — the US Navy Master-At-Arms and the local police, Frank finds himself drawn into a messy and dangerous game involving prostitution, warring bikie gangs and gun smuggling.

The third-person narrative expands beyond Frank’s point of view to also take in US Navy “cop” Steve Webb, gold miner Paul Tremain, terminally ill armed robber Tony Pascoe (on the run from Fremantle Prison), and sailor Devon Smith, a white supremacist trying to sell illicit M-16s to outlaw bikies.

These multiple narrative threads are told in alternate chapters to provide a choppy, fast-paced story detailing a dark web of corruption, greed and violence.

Gritty read

Shore Leave is a gritty read, but there’s a black sense of humour running throughout to offer some light relief, and Frank’s domesticated home life, with his beloved wife Marion and their grown-up daughters, adds a softer, more humane edge to all the violent drama.

I especially loved the historical time period and evocative setting, and had fun trying to spot the Fremantle landmarks that have become oh-so familiar to me since moving here almost two years ago!

This is a complex, cleverly plotted crime novel featuring well-drawn, memorable characters and cracking dialogue. Its dark and brooding atmosphere gives it a noirish edge, perfect if you are looking for a hard-nosed crime novel about old-fashioned investigative work before the advent of the Internet and smartphones.

About the author¹: David Whish-Wilson was born in Newcastle, New South Wales, but raised in Singapore, Victoria and Western Australia. He left Australia aged 18 to live for a decade in Europe, Africa and Asia, where he worked as a barman, actor, street seller, petty criminal, labourer, exterminator, factory worker, gardener, clerk, travel agent, teacher and drug trial guinea pig. David’s first novel in the Frank Swann crime series, Line of Sight (Penguin Australia), was shortlisted for a Ned Kelly Award in 2012. He has since written three more in the series: Zero at the BoneOld Scores and Shore Leave. The first three books in the series have also been published in Germany by Suhrkamp Verlag. David wrote the Perth book in the NewSouth Books city series, which was shortlisted for a WA Premier’s Book Award. He currently lives in Fremantle, Western Australia, with his partner and three children, where he teaches creative writing at Curtin University.   (1. Source: Fremantle Press website.)

Where to buy: The book has been published in Australia and the US in both paperback and ebook editions; in the UK it is available in paperback only.

This is my 10th (and final) 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 8th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local indie bookstore (in Fremantle) last year.

And because the author lives in Fremantle, this book also qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fourth Estate, Leah Swann, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021

‘Sheerwater’ by Leah Swann

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 308 pages; 2020.

Sheerwater by Leah Swann is one of those rare treats of a novel that marries beautiful prose with wonderfully realised characters and then combines this with a compelling, fast-paced plot and lots of thought-provoking current issues to lend it relevance.

It’s probably best described as a literary crime novel, though it also ticks boxes for suspense and psychological thriller, too.

The third-person narrative spans three tense days and culminates in a shocking, yet totally credible ending, the sort that could have been lifted from today’s news. I came away from it reeling and I have been thinking about it ever since.

An eventful drive

The story is framed around Ava, a young woman, who has quit her job and left her husband. With two young children, Max and Teddy, in tow, she makes a long drive towards the coast, where she plans to begin a new life in a little town called Sheerwater, somewhere off the Great Ocean Road.

But en route Ava witnesses something that will thwart her plans: she sees a light plane go down in a field and decides to stop and help. Imploring her boys to remain in the car with their pet dog, Winks, for company, she attends the accident scene, but when she returns to the car, having done all she could to help the injured, she discovers that her boys are gone. Only the dog remains.

The police are called and an investigation ensues. The boys’ father is number one suspect, but how did he know Ava’s whereabouts? And why is she on the run from him?

Multiple points of view

While the story is largely told from Ava’s point of view, we also get to hear from her husband, Laurence, and her son, Max, in standalone chapters written from their individual perspectives. This is a clever device because it not only lets us see what happens to the boys and gives us some background on Ava’s marriage, it also makes the reader question who is telling the truth? Which perspective is correct?

Max’s voice is particularly well done because we get to see the complexities of the scary adult world through a sensitive nine-year-old boy’s eyes. It is, by turns, warm and tender, heart rending and brave. I can’t be the only reader who didn’t want to step into the pages to give him a protective hug.

The ending, which draws together this trio of narrative threads, is unexpectedly shocking.

Sheerwater is a truly memorable read. It’s devastating but beautiful, too, and I’m hoping this debut author turns her hand to something else soon. If it is half as good as this novel, I will be clamouring to read it.

Sue at Whispering Gums has reviewed this one, too.

About the author¹: Leah Swann is the award-winning author of the short story collection Bearings, shortlisted for the Dobbie Award, and the middle-grade fantasy series Irina: The Trilogy. Her short fiction and poetry has been published in numerous literary magazines, and she works as a journalist and speech-writer. Sheerwater is her debut novel. Leah lives in Melbourne with her family.   (1. Source: Harper Collins website.)

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

This is my 9th 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 7th book for #AWW2021.  

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‘The Family Doctor’ by Debra Oswald

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 368 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When I repatriated to Australia in June 2019 (after almost 21 years living in the UK), one of the first things that struck me was the number of domestic violence incidents, most of them homicides, in the news. This came to a head in February last year with the shocking and distressing case of Hannah Clarke, who was burned to death in the family car with her three young children, after her estranged husband set fire to the vehicle.

But despite the vital national conversation that ensued about the ways in which women are abused (physically and psychologically) in the home, it’s still clear that the media views such cases as individual events rather than as a systemic problem (something highlighted by this recent study published in The Conversation) — and nothing has changed to make women safer.

More recently, the treatment of women in the workplace has also come to a head, with disturbing revelations about sexual misconduct, including rape, in Parliament House (see this Wiki article for a good summary).

Our own Prime Minister seems incapable of understanding the extent of the problem. He says he is listening to Australian women, but actions speak louder the words. (He refused to meet with organisers of last week’s rally outside Parliament citing “security reasons”, which is ironic, given that it is the lack of safe spaces that was the crux of the whole Women’s March 4 Justice in the first place.) This curated letters page in the Sydney Morning Herald, addressed to the PM, highlights how deeply entrenched this issue is in Australian society.

I mention all this because it is important context for Debra Oswald’s latest novel, The Family Doctor, which puts domestic violence firmly in the centre of its compelling, page-turning plot. In fact, the book’s confronting subject matter — in which a family GP decides to take the law into her own hands — couldn’t be more timely. I ate this book up in a couple of days and came away from it having gone through ALL THE EMOTIONS from laughter and sadness through to a slow-burning righteous fury.

A crime novel with a difference

At its most basic level, The Family Doctor is a crime novel that strides two fences: on one side, it looks at a series of domestic violence cases from the victim’s point of view; and on the other it looks at what happens when a normal law-abiding citizen, infuriated by the abuse she sees on a daily basis, decides to dole out her own form of justice. But it’s also a book about female friendship, romance, the importance of family and wider societal issues, including toxic masculinity, support services, policing and the court system.

When the story opens, Paula Kaczmarek, a suburban GP, has opened her home to Stacey, an old school friend, and her two young children who are on the run from an abusive, estranged husband. One day Paula returns home to find the trio have been murdered. As someone used to helping others, she finds it difficult to come to terms with the fact that she couldn’t protect one of her dearest friends when she needed it most. It is this sense of guilt and her slow-burning anger that propels Paula to do more to help other women she believes are being abused in the home.

Later, when patient Rochelle Ferguson brings her ill six-year-old boy into the surgery for treatment, Paula notices Rochelle’s suspicious bruises and her son’s heightened anxiety. Rochelle admits that she is scared of her husband and that he hurts her, but she can’t leave for fear that will escalate the violence and put her son in danger. So when the husband turns up at the surgery a few days later with an injured hand demanding to see a doctor, Paula ushers him into her consulting room and makes a spur-of-the-moment decision that could have career-ending repercussions.

I can’t say much more than that because I don’t wish to spoil the plot, but what follows is a heart-hammering ride that explores a host of thought-provoking ethical issues including whether it is ever justifiable to take the law into your own hands. Is it permissable, for instance, to be proactive in order to prevent a likely tragedy than simply reacting to the aftermath even if that means you have to do something illegal? Can you ever justify taking harmful action if such action will stop more people being harmed? Where do you draw the line between playing God and letting events unfold naturally?

Murder trial

Interleaved with Paula’s storyline is that of her friend, Anita, a seasoned court reporter, who has been working on a feature article about the failure of the justice system to protect women (and children) killed by men.

This issue is demonstrated very clearly in a trial she is asked to cover in which a super-confident, good looking 36-year-old man is accused of murdering his girlfriend. He is said to have pushed her off a motorway overpass into oncoming traffic when she was fleeing him, but he claims she was mentally unbalanced and had committed suicide. He pleads not guilty.

As part of her coverage of this disturbing case, Anita befriends Detective Rohan Mehta, who is part of the prosecuting team, and becomes unexpectedly romantically involved with him. This relationship serves as an important message in the book: not all men are bad; some even go out of their way to help women and try to make the world safer for everyone.

The strength of this book lies in the ways in which it highlights, from multiple viewpoints and situations, what happens when the system continually fails the people it should be helping. Oswald, who writes with insight and care, shows the patterns of behaviour, the coercion, the power and the fear that is wielded by malevolent men to control the women in their lives, and she looks at the heartbreaking impact on the victims and their families.

This is a gripping story, never showy or sentimental, but brutally honest on all accounts, whether in its depiction of male violence or the ways in which women are conditioned to care for others or become subservient. Her cast of characters are all-too real, if deeply flawed, and their reactions and behaviours entirely credible.

Powerful, heart-rending and topical, The Family Doctor is the kind of novel that stays with you long after the final page. It deserves a wide readership.

About the author¹:  Debra Oswald is a playwright, screenwriter and novelist. She is a two-time winner of the NSW Premier’s Literary Award and author of the novels Useful (2015) and The Whole Bright Year (2018). She was creator/head writer of the first five seasons of successful TV series Offspring. Her stage plays have been performed around the world and published by Currency Press. Her television credits include award-winning episodes of Police RescuePalace of DreamsThe Secret Life of UsSweet and Sour and Bananas in Pyjamas. Debra has written three Aussie Bites books for kids and six children’s novels. She has been a storyteller on stage at Story Club and will perform her one-woman show, Is There Something Wrong With That Lady?, in 2021.  (1. Source: Allen & Unwin website.)

Where to buy: Currently only available in Australia.

If you liked this book, you might also like:

‘An Isolated Incident’ by Emily Maguire 
A literary crime novel that explores the outfall of one young woman’s murder on her family and the local community in rural Australia.

This is my 8th 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 6th book for #AWW2021.  

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Hachette Australia, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021, Tanya Bretherton, true crime

‘The Husband Poisoner’ by Tanya Bretherton

Non-fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 235 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In recent years Tanya Bretherton has made a name for herself as a chronicler of historical true crime. I’ve read a couple of her books now — The Suitcase Baby (2018) and  The Killing Streets (2020) — and found them interesting and well written.

In this new book, The Husband Poisoner, she turns her forensic lens towards women who killed in post-World War II Sydney using poison as their “weapon” of choice.

The title is a bit of a misnomer though because the cases that feature in this book aren’t solely focused on women who killed their husbands. Caroline Grills, for instance, did away with her stepmother, a family friend, her brother and his wife!

The thallium wave

Written narrative non-fiction style, Bretherton weaves her true crime tales with sociological insights and shows how poisoning was “fashionable” in the 1950s because it was undetectable. The poison used, thallium,  had no smell and was tasteless, so could be added to meals or a cup of tea and the person who consumed it would be none the wiser. And it was readily available as an over-the-counter poison designed to kill rats.

Between March 1952 and April 1953, ten deaths and forty-six hospital admissions [in Sydney] were attributed to thallium. It was an alarming statistic given exposure to thallium could only be traced to one source — the product known as Thall-Rat.

The author focuses on two specific NSW cases — Yvonne Fletcher, who poisoned two husbands, one after the other, and the aforementioned Caroline Grills —  before turning her attention towards the two police detectives who made a name for themselves solving these problematic crimes.

I say “problematic” because detecting the use of poison was difficult, and murders could be “made to look like something else entirely” so that “no one even realised that a crime had been committed”. For example, poor Yvonne Fletcher’s first husband died an agonising death that stretched over years — doctors put his poor health down to various issues, including “nervous tension and anxiety”, but no one suspected his wife was adding rat poison to his food!

The inclusion of old recipes at the end of each chapter, such as split pea soup and jam roly-poly (which come from the author’s own family cookbook), hammers home the point that this crime was wholly domestic and more often than not carried out by women, who, during the 1950s, spent their lives in the kitchen. This made it even easier for a disgruntled woman to get rid of a family member in such a deadly but seemingly innocuous manner.

Police corruption

If I was to fault the book in any way it is the creative element in which conversations and feelings are “invented” in the interests of telling a good story. This is the journalist in me kicking back against this style of writing which tends to blur fact and fiction. But I understand why the author has taken this approach: it makes the narrative more compelling and it’s easier to identify (and empathise) with characters.

The segue into the police investigation near the end of the book feels slightly clunky, too, almost as if it has been added as an afterthought. That said, it’s an intriguing look at the way in which NSW Detectives Fergusson and Krahe pinpointed the role of thallium in various murders and worked out an approach to catch the killers. Such an approach, while effective, was not without its own set of ethical problems. The pair were later recognised as “key figures in the institutionalised corruption of the NSW police force from the 1940s through to the 1970s”.

The detectives postulated that thallium killing was different to other kinds of killing. It was not violent, at least in the traditional sense. Thallium murderers did not usually seek to strike one devastating blow; it was not liked taking aim and firing a weapon into lethal target zones like the brain or the heart. Thallium killers were capable of patiently exploiting the poison’s manifold secrets. Thallium was a slow burn, and killing with it required a certain kind of disposition: deceitful. In turn, efforts to catch these criminals required a certain kind of investigation: deceitful.

The Husband Poisoner is a riveting expose of the darker side of Australian life after the Second World War.  As well as looking at a series of disturbing murders, it puts things into context by providing a fascinating account of post-war social change. It’s by turns macabre and sinister, eye-opening and, dare I say it, blackly comic.

Shelleyrae at Book’d Out has reviewed this one too.

About the author¹:  Tanya Bretherton has a PhD in sociology with special interests in narrative life history and social history. She has published in the academic and public sphere for 20 years and worked as a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sydney for 15 years. Dr Bretherton’s specialty is converting detailed research into thought-provoking works which are accessible to a general readership. Currently she works as a freelance researcher and writer. Her first book, The Suitcase Baby, was shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Award, the Danger Prize and the Waverley Library ‘Nib’ Award. Her second book The Suicide Bride was shortlisted for the Danger Prize and in 2020 she won the Danger Prize for The Killing Streets.  (1. Source: Hachette Australia website.)

Where to buy: The book has been published in Australia in both paperback and ebook editions; in the UK and US it is available in ebook format only.

If you liked this book, you might also like:

‘My Mother, A Serial Killer’ by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans 
This book is about Dulcie Bodsworth, a community-minded wife and mother, who murdered her husband in the 1950s, then killed two other men she knew. A talented cook and caterer, her poison of choice was arsenic.

This is my 7th 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 5th book for #AWW2021.  

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, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hachette Australia, JP Pomare, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021, TBR 21

‘In the Clearing’ by J.P. Pomare

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hodder; 336 pages; 2020.

JP Pomare’s In The Clearing is a psychological suspense novel that poses the question: what would life be like if you grew up in a cult but escaped it as an adult? How would your life return to normal if you did not know what normal was like? And would you be forever looking over your shoulder, wondering if members of the cult were out to get you?

Inspired by a notorious cult

Taking elements of the real-life notorious 1980s Australian cult The Family — in which Anne Hamilton-Byrne, the enigmatic female leader, convinced followers she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and “stole” children to groom in her own image — Pomare spins a compelling tale about what happens when a cult member escapes to reinvent herself on the outside.

The suspense-filled story weaves two separate narrative threads together that eventually collide in an unexpected and thrilling climax — albeit one I guessed fairly early on.

In the first storyline, Amy is a young teenage member of the cult, known as “The Clearing”, who is in charge of looking after a new, recently kidnapped member to ensure she adapts to the group’s ideals. Food is in short supply, abuse (psychological, physical and sexual) is rife and anyone who steps out of line is subject to “realignment” therapy.

The second focuses on Freya, a single mother living on an isolated farm, who has a fortress-like mentality and is deeply concerned about a young couple in a van trespassing on her property. She is paranoid enough to own a big dog trained to attack on command and have several panic buttons installed in her home.

As the tale of these two separate female characters unfold we learn more about them and begin to understand that not all is at it seems and that neither is particularly reliable. Freya, for instance, has a troubled past in which she was accused of having done something terrible to her young son, Aspen, who was “lost” more than a decade ago and has never been found. When her second son, Billy, goes missing the authorities assume history is merely repeating itself — but is it?

There are plenty of red herrings in this book and lots of potential culprits — could Aspen’s father, recently returned on the scene, be responsible for Billy’s disappearance, or could it be a mysterious man from Freya’s past who has just been released from jail? Why is her best friend a police detective? And how does her brother fit into the grand scheme of things?

Fast-paced novel

In the Clearing is fast-paced, as you would expect from a thriller, but it’s not at the expense of detail — Pomare’s descriptions of the bush and small communities, for instance, are vivid and often beautifully evoked. The real strength of the novel, however, lies in the author’s ability to tap into our deepest psychological fears, which helps to ratchet up the tension. You really do fear for the wellbeing and safety of both Freya and Amy as you become immersed in their unconventional lives.

But the book isn’t just a page-turner. There’s an intelligence at work here, too, and it’s clear Pomare has done a lot of research about cults, the ways in which they use blackmail and brainwashing to indoctrinate people, and how difficult it is to be “de-programmed” once you escape. There’s a lot to cogitate on.

Admittedly, I saw the “twist” at the end coming a mile off, but from all the many Amazon and GoodReads reviews I’ve seen online, it seems to catch most people totally unaware, adding to its popularity. It’s been a best seller across the world.

Finally, if you want to know more about The Family, the cult that inspired this story, I recommend an excellent non-fiction book, ‘The Family’ by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones, which I reviewed in 2016. There’s a BBC4 Storyville documentary, The Cult that Stole Children — Inside The Family, to accompany the book, which was recently on iView in Australia and which has previously been screened in the UK on BBC4. It is worth watching if you can track it down.

About the author¹: J.P. Pomare is an award-winning writer who has had work published in journals including Meanjin, Kill Your DarlingsTakahe and Mascara Literary Review. He has hosted the On Writing podcast since 2015 featuring bestselling authors from around the globe. His first novel, Call Me Evie, was critically acclaimed and won the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel. He was born in New Zealand and resides in Melbourne with his wife and daughter. (1. Source: Hachette Australia website.)

Where to buy: Widely available in most territories.

This is my 5th 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 7th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it on Kindle in June last year.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Gabriel Bergmoser, Harper Collins, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021, TBR 21

‘The Hunted’ by Gabriel Bergmoser

Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 284 pages; 2020.

Terrifying. Horrifying. Disturbing. All these words spring to mind when trying to sum up Gabriel Bergmoser’s high-octane suspense novel The Hunted.

Set somewhere in the Australian outback (there are no place names in this book), it’s a scary mix of Wolf Creek meets Wake in Fright with a dash of Fear is the Rider and The Dead Heart thrown in for good measure.

I raced through it with my heart in my throat one moment and feeling like I was going to gag the next. Yes, it’s an incredibly visceral read and not always pleasant because it features some pretty gruesome scenes. You have been warned.

In the UK, the book is published by Faber & Faber

Service station standoff

The story focuses on Frank, a service station owner, who runs his business single-handedly on a little-used highway in the middle of nowhere.

His teenage granddaughter, Allie, whom he barely knows, is staying with him for a few weeks. Allie has been having problems at school, so her parents figured taking her out of her normal city environment might help “fix her attitude”. Yet the pair rarely see each other because Frank spends long hours at the servo and Allie sleeps late.

But one morning their quiet existence is shattered when a car pulls into the service station and a badly injured, blood-soaked woman falls out. She’s being pursued by a mob who seemingly want to kill her — and they’ve done a pretty good job of nearly doing that so far.

What happens next is an adrenaline-fuelled high stakes drama involving Frank, Allie and a group of customers who band together to protect the almost-dying woman from further danger, while they themselves get caught up in a terrifying standoff that occurs on Frank’s property involving crazed men, guns and explosions.

Woman on the run

To escalate the tension even further in this super-fast-paced novel, the author includes a second narrative thread, which goes back in time to tell the story of Maggie, the badly injured woman.

In chapters headed “Then”, which alternate with others headed “Now”, we learn how Maggie hooks up with a fellow backpacker on the road to experience the “real” Australia, only to land in an isolated country town where everything is not what it seems.

What Maggie discovers in that town triggers a massive road chase in which she becomes “the hunted” of the title. I can’t really reveal more than that for fear of ruining the plot, but let’s just say it’s pretty grim…

Too much violence

As much as I enjoyed the page-turning suspense of this novel (I ate it up in a day unable to tear my eyes away), I had issues with some of the violence in The Hunted, because it often felt gratuitous. On more than one occasion, I felt nauseous reading visceral descriptions of what happens to human bodies when they’re beaten or shot at.

Making one of the lead characters female doesn’t alleviate the misogyny in this book either. I felt sickened by the men in this novel and the ways in which they got off on doing horrible things to women.

Yes, I know it’s fiction and I know it’s supposed to be a thrilling horror story, but I question the author’s motivations: what is the point of the violence and the misogyny? If it was written in the 1970s or 1980s it might be understandable, but this is the 21st century  — surely our attitudes have moved on and we don’t need to be titillated by this kind of content?

According to the book’s publishers, a film adaptation of The Hunted is currently being developed in a joint production between two US companies. It certainly has all those qualities that mainstream Hollywood loves: car chases, guns, explosions — and death. I don’t think I could bare to watch it…

About the author¹: Gabriel Bergmoser is an award-winning Melbourne-based author and playwright. He won the prestigious Sir Peter Ustinov Television Scriptwriting Award in 2015, was nominated for the 2017 Kenneth Branagh Award for New Drama Writing and went on to win several awards at the 2017 VDL One Act Play Festival circuit. In 2016, his first young adult novel, Boone Shepard, was shortlisted for the Readings Young Adult Prize. (1. Source: Harper Collins Australia website.)

Where to buy: Widely available in most territories.

This is my 4th 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 6th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021.

Book lists, Reading Projects, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021

New Southern Cross Crime novels to add to your wishlist

If you are looking for more crime books to add to your TBR, there’s a clutch of new ones about to be released in Australia* over the coming months.

Note that the book descriptions have been taken from publisher websites and the books have been arranged in alphabetical order according to the author’s surname.

Far From Home by Rosie Ayliffe

“British mother Rosie Ayliffe thought her 21-year-old daughter, Mia, would be safe travelling around Australia on a gap year. But Mia wanted to extend her visa and in order to do that needed to find 88 days of work on a farm – a requirement that would lead to catastrophic events. Four short days after Mia moved to a hostel in Queensland to take a job on a sugarcane farm, she was brutally killed. Faced with every parent’s worst nightmare, Rosie travelled to Australia to retrieve Mia’s body. In Rosie’s memoir, she describes movingly how she has found the strength to come to terms with devastating loss, drawing on inspiration from her daughter’s short life. She also explains how she has become the driving force behind an international campaign to press for change to the 88 days system. Part exposé of the dangers facing backpackers in Australia, part call to arms, ultimately Far from Home is an inspiring and heartfelt story of a mother’s love for her daughter and her fight to protect others from suffering a similar tragedy.”

This true crime book is published in Australia by Penguin on 30 March. The ebook will be published in the UK and the USA on the same date.

The Quiet People by Paul Cleave

“Cameron and Lisa Murdoch are successful crime-writers. They have been on the promotional circuit, joking that no-one knows how to get away with crime like they do. After all, they write about it for a living. So when their 7 year old son Zach goes missing, naturally the police and the public wonder if they have finally decided to prove what they have been saying all this time – are they trying to show how they can commit the perfect crime?”

This will be published in New Zealand by Upstart Press on 8 April. I can’t find a publication date for elsewhere in the world.

The Night Village by Zoe Deleuil

“When Australian expat Simone moves to London to start a career, getting pregnant is not on her agenda. But she’s excited to start a new life with her baby and determined to be a good mother. Even though her boyfriend Paul’s cold and grey apartment in the Barbican Estate seems completely ill-suited for a baby. Even though Simone and Paul have only known each other for a year. Even though she feels utterly unprepared for motherhood. The arrival of Paul’s cousin Rachel in the flat should be a godsend. But there is something about Rachel that Simone doesn’t trust. Fighting sleep deprivation and a rising sense of unease, she begins to question Rachel’s motives, and to wonder what secrets the cousins share.”

This thriller will be published in Australia by Fremantle Press later this year. Date TBC.

The Lady with the Gun Asks the Questions by Kerry Greenwood 

“The elegant Miss Phryne Fisher returns in this scintillating collection, which features four brand-new stories. The Honourable Phryne Fisher – she of the Lulu bob, Cupid’s bow lips, diamante garters and pearl-handled pistol – is the 1920s’ most elegant and irrepressible sleuth. Miss Phryne Fisher is up to her stunning green eyes in intriguing crime in each of these entertaining, fun and compulsively readable stories. With the ever-loyal Dot, the ingenious Mr Butler and all of Phryne’s friends and household, the action is as fast as Phryne’s wit and logic.”

This cosy crime collection will be published in Australia by Allen & Unwin on 30 March. The audio book will be published in the UK and USA on the same date.

A Voice in the Night by Sarah Hawthorn 

“Following a bitter separation, Lucie moves to London to take up a position with a prestigious law firm. It seems an optimistic new beginning, until one day she receives a hand delivered note with the strange words: ‘At last I’ve found you. A shock I ‘m sure. But in time I’ll explain. Martin.’ Lucie hasn’t forgotten a man called Martin who was tragically killed twenty years ago in the 9/11 attacks. When she was working in New York as young intern Lucie had fallen in love with him and he vowed to leave his wife to be with her permanently. As an inexplicable series of events occurs Lucie wonders if her long-dead lover could have staged his own disappearance under the cover of that fateful day. Or could it be that someone else is stalking her, or that her vivid imagination is playing tricks? In a novel filled with compelling characters, and set in London, New York and Sydney, it seems that anyone could be out to sabotage Lucie’s memories and ambitions, including herself.”

This thriller will be published in Australia by Transit Lounge on 1 July. No international publication date is available, but the world rights have been sold so it may be picked up by a UK or North American publisher at a later date.

The Truth About Her by Jacqueline Maley

“Journalist and single mother Suzy Hamilton gets a phone call one summer morning, and finds out that the subject of one of her investigative exposes, 25-year-old wellness blogger Tracey Doran, has killed herself overnight. Suzy is horrified by this news but copes in the only way she knows how – through work, mothering, and carrying on with her ill-advised, tandem affairs. The consequences of her actions catch up with Suzy over the course of a sticky Sydney summer. She starts receiving anonymous vindictive letters and is pursued by Tracey’s mother wanting her, as a kind of rough justice, to tell Tracey’s story, but this time, the right way.”

This psychological novel will be published in Australia by HarperCollins on 7 April. No international publication date available.

You Need to Know by Nicola Moriarty

“Jill, her three sons, their wives and children are driving in convoy on Christmas Eve. But something sinister is simmering behind their happy smiles. Mimi is struggling with her new twins, but at least a glass of wine smooths out life’s jagged edges. Andrea’s starting to wonder if her marriage is as happy as she’d thought. Darren is reeling from a surprise request and teenager Callie has become increasingly withdrawn. On the way to their holiday house, a terrifying car accident devastates them all. But someone unexpected was in one of the cars. No one is searching for them. And their time is running out. You Need to Know is a dark domestic drama about family secrets and lies, fractured relationships, tragic mistakes and the ultimate betrayal.”

This domestic noir will be published in Australia by Harper Collins on 7 April. It will be published in the UK in late May.

Still by Matt Nable

“Darwin, Summer, 1963. The humidity sat heavy and thick over the town as Senior Constable Ned Potter looked down at a body that had been dragged from the shallow marshland. He didn’t need a coroner to tell him this was a bad death. He didn’t know then that this was only the first. Or that he was about to risk everything looking for answers. Late one night, Charlotte Clark drove the long way home, thinking about how stuck she felt, a 23-year-old housewife, married to a cowboy who wasn’t who she thought he was. The days ahead felt suffocating, living in a town where she was supposed to keep herself nice and wait for her husband to get home from the pub. Charlotte stopped the car, stepped out to breathe in the night air and looked out over the water to the tangled mangroves. She never heard a sound before the hand was around her mouth. Both Charlotte and Ned are about to learn that the world they live in is full of secrets and that it takes courage to fight for what is right. But there are people who will do anything to protect themselves and sometimes courage is not enough to keep you safe.”

This crime novel will be published in Australia by Hachette Australia on 31 May. The ebook will be published in the UK on 26 May.

Bound by Vanda Symon

“The New Zealand city of Dunedin is rocked when a wealthy and apparently respectable businessman is murdered in his luxurious home while his wife is bound and gagged, and forced to watch. But when Detective Sam Shephard and her team start investigating the case, they discover that the victim had links with some dubious characters. The case seems cut and dried, but Sam has other ideas. Weighed down by her dad’s terminal cancer diagnosis, and by complications in her relationship with Paul, she needs a distraction, and launches her own investigation. And when another murder throws the official case into chaos, it’s up to Sam to prove that the killer is someone no one could ever suspect.”

This crime novel will be published in the UK by Orenda Books on 18 March and the USA on 1 September. It was previously published in Australia and New Zealand in 2011 but is now out of print.

Are there any on this list that have piqued your interest?

* Some of these books will also be published in the UK and North America, but you can always order them online direct from the Australian- or New Zealand-based publisher if you are desperate to acquire them. I also recommend the Melbourne-based independent bookstore Readings.com.au for overseas orders.

Please note publication dates are subject to change but were correct when this post was published.

This post was written 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

Affirm Press, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Helen FitzGerald, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021

‘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.