20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Alan Carter, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Kristina Olsson, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribner, Setting, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

3 Recommended Reads: Alan Carter, Kristina Olsson and Bernhard Schlink

The season has changed and  #20BooksOfSummer is long over, but I am a little behind in my reviewing. That’s why I’ve decided to produce this small wrap-up of the last three books I read as part of that challenge.

The three books featured here are all very different from each other, probably a good representation of my diverse taste, but they do have one thing in common: they are all set in Australia.

The trio includes a page-turning police procedural, a lush literary novel set in the 1960s and a German novel about art and dying. They are all highly recommended reads worth seeking out.

‘Heaven Sent’ by Alan Carter

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 322 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Walking the streets of Fremantle, my newly adopted city, isn’t quite going to be the same having now read Alan Carter’s crime novel Heaven Sent. That’s because this gripping hard-to-guess crime tale is about a series of gruesome murders in various locations — all familiar to me — across Fremantle.

All the murders are of homeless people and the killer leaves a calling card, almost as if he is taunting the police by leaving “clues” no one quite understands. To complicate matters further, a local journalist dabbles in the investigation by communicating online with the killer as he plays a dangerous game that puts Detective Senior Sergeant Cato Kwong’s career, family and life on the line.

This is actually the fourth book in the Cato Kwong series, which began in 2010 with Carter’s debut novel, Prime Cut. I hadn’t read the previous two novels but it didn’t seem to matter, for this is a superb, intelligent crime novel, one that marries an authentic, atmospheric setting (Fremantle is renowned for its ghosts and, sadly, it’s homeless population) with a dedicated detective trying to balance his work and home life while carrying out a high-profile investigation. It’s got great pacing, is rich in detail and brims with human emotion — and humour.

‘Shell’ by Kristina Olsson

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 374 pages; 2018. 

The controversy surrounding the construction and design of the Sydney Opera House in the 1960s forms the backdrop to Kristina Olsson’s lush literary novel Shell. Protests against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War are also raging, giving the story a rich sense of time and place.

There are two main characters: Pearl Keogh, a newspaper reporter whose involvement in the anti-war movement has led to her being banished to the women’s pages; and Axel Lindquist, a Swedish sculptor who has been commissioned to create a unique piece of work for the Opera House. The pair meet and fall in love, but this is not a typical love story.

Both have significant people missing in their lives and both are on quests to find salvation to personal problems; their romance is almost subsidiary to their individual obsessions. As a result, there is nothing ordinary about their partnership, just as there is nothing ordinary about this gently nuanced novel.

Full of exquisite imagery and the inner-most thoughts of the intelligent people at its heart, Shell unfolds slowly, but rewards the patient reader with a moving story about art, architecture and family, as well as the importance of staying true to yourself and your beliefs. I loved the way it made me slow down and pause for breath, to think about things more deeply and to experience the story’s very many layers of meaning.

‘The Woman on the Stairs’ by Bernhard Schlink

Fiction – paperback; W&N; 225 pages; 2016. Translated from the German by Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmidt.

I love novels about art and artists, so Bernhard Schlink’s The Woman on the Stairs ticked all the right boxes for me.

But it is a book of two halves. The first reads like a psychological thriller involving the mysterious reappearance in Sydney, Australia, of a European painting (the woman on the stairs of the title) that has been considered missing for decades. The second is a more nuanced, gentler affair about caring for a terminally ill patient in unusual circumstances. How these halves come together is what makes this novel — which is essentially about three men fighting over the one woman — an unusual but compelling one.

The first person narrative, written in a dry, detached manner from the point of view of a lawyer who falls in love with the woman in the painting, gives the novel a confessional feel. I loved its themes of emotional restraint, regret, impulse and obsessions, while its short chapters and fast pace meant I raced through this in just a couple of sittings. This is a good one to read if you are looking for something a little different.

These books represent my 15th, 16th & 17th books for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. The Kristina Olsson book is my 17th book for #AWW2020

Book lists, Focus on WA writers, Reading Projects

A Western Australian reading list: introducing a focus on Western Australian writers

As many of you will know, I have recently relocated to Western Australia (WA) after almost 21 years of living in the UK. I am originally from Victoria, on the other side of the country, so even though I am back “home”, as it were, I have never lived in WA before, so it is all very new and exciting — and a little bit strange.

For those who don’t know, WA is Australia’s biggest state — it makes up almost a third of the entire landmass, most of which is desert (or what you might call the Outback). The state’s population of around 2.6 million people (in 2014) live largely in the fertile south-west (home to the Margaret River wine region) and the capital city of Perth.

Until 2015, I had never stepped foot in WA. But when I did so, on an all-too-brief holiday, I immediately fell in love with the laidback lifestyle, the open spaces and the weather. I have returned for longer holidays several times since, and in June 2019 made the leap to move here permanently, choosing to settle in Fremantle, a historic port town just a 30-minute train journey south of Perth.

Living here for only a short time it strikes me how little I know about WA culture — its music, art, theatre and literature, in particular — because when you grow up on the south-east coast of the country it’s all very Melbourne and Sydney-centric. (Something I also noticed when I lived in Queensland for a few years in the mid-1990s.)

But what I have learned is that WA has a very strong literary tradition, with numerous successful writers, past and present, and a handful of independent presses, including Fremantle Press, the University of Western Australia Press and Margaret River Press, being based here.

I thought I would use my blog over the next few months to celebrate WA writers and review books written by the people who live here (or come from here). I’m regarding it as a bit of a journey of discovery and hope you might come along for the ride.

I’m not a complete ignoramus though. In the past, I have read many WA writers and I can see from my archives that I have already reviewed some, including (in alphabetical order by author’s surname):

Alan Carter

Claire G. Coleman

Amanda Curtin

Brooke Davis

Robert Drewe

Ron Elliott

Elizabeth Jolley

Gail Jones

Lynne Leonhardt

Joan London

Kim Scott

Craig Silvey

Randolph Stow

David Whish-Wilson

Tim Winton

My TBR includes novels by Josephine Wilson, Geraldine Wooller, Annabel Smith, Michelle Johnston, Marcella Polain, Madelaine Dickie, Steve Hawke and Dave Warner — just to name a few!

Have you read any of these books? Can you recommend a good read by a WA author?

Triple Choice Tuesday

Triple Choice Tuesday: Alan Carter

Triple-Choice-TuesdayWelcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers, writers and readers to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles, new authors and new bloggers.

Today’s guest is award-winning writer Alan Carter.

Alan was born in Sunderland, UK, in 1959, and immigrated to Australia in 1991.

His debut novel, Prime Cut, won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction in 2010. It was also shortlisted for the UK Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award. I reviewed it on Sunday and can see why it was so lauded: it’s a first-rate police procedural.

His second novel, Getting Warmer, was published in the UK by Michael O’Mara Books in February.

Alan works as a television documentary director, and lives in Fremantle, Western Australia, with his wife and son.

Without further ado, here are Alan’s choices.

GrahamHurley-seriesA favourite book: The Joe Faraday series by Graham Hurley

This is not a single book, but a series. Graham Hurley’s Faraday & Winter series, set in Portsmouth, has been compelling reading (and re-reading) for me since it was recommended by Australian reviewer Graham Blundell. In particular, the paragraph introducing the character of Paul Winter in Turnstone is a classic and I was in – hook, line etc.

Hurley’s evocation of punchy martial city during the New Labour era, the brutal crimes and personalities, the rigorous attention to police procedural detail, the witty dialogue, and the tight plotting captured me for the entire series – I was in virtual mourning when it all came to an end, until I came across the Jimmy Suttle offshoot books. Whenever I’m preparing for another round of crime writing I devour a Hurley book or two as a way of getting into the “zone”.

CloudstreetA book that changed my world: Cloudstreet by Tim Winton 

Cloudstreet was the first novel set in Western Australia that I read after I emigrated here in the early 1990s. It’s a sprawling saga of two working-class families – the Lambs and the Pickles – in a post-war Perth emerging from a small-town delusion of innocence into a realisation of the darkness beneath its surface. In this case, the darkness is embodied by Perth’s first known serial killer, Eric Edgar Cooke, who terrorised the wealthy western suburbs in the 1960s. Both families always at the mercy of the fates – Winton’s “hairy hand of God”. But it’s a book of love, sentimentality, humour and resilience and through it runs Winton’s beautiful flowing prose, his ear for dialogue and his eye for landscape. To have my description of place in Prime Cut described as “Wintonesque” by one reviewer was a particular personal honour.

BenangA book that deserves a wider audience: Benang by Kim Scott 

I read Benang when I was living in Hopetoun and writing Prime Cut. Kim Scott’s novel is set in that same area on WA’s south coast and is about the history of his people who have always lived in that area. Benang captures that haunting, beautiful and sometimes brutal landscape and its people like no other, and the rhythm of the prose gives us a glimpse of another way of experiencing the world. From the sealers kidnapping Noongar women and girls, through to the massacres committed by the settlers, the genocidal eugenics of A.O. Neville, and the casual insults and humiliations of day-to-day existence, it’s a tale of survival which swings between heartbreaking lament, mordant humour, anger and celebration.

Thank you, Alan, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!

I’ve not read the Joe Haraday series but think I need to investigate it — the books sound right up my street; Cloudstreet is an old favourite (and due for a re-read); and I loved Benang when I read and reviewed it about 18 months ago.

What do you think of Alan’s choices? Have you read any of these books?

Alan Carter, Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Michael O'Mara, Publisher, Setting

‘Prime Cut’ by Alan Carter


Fiction – paperback; Michael O’Mara Books; 346 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The unpublished manuscript of Alan Carter’s Prime Cut was shortlisted for the 2010 Crime Writer’s Association Debut Dagger Award. The following year it was published in Australia by Fremantle Press, and earlier this year it was published in the UK by Michael O’Mara Books.

In a nutshell, it is a first-rate crime thriller. It’s fast-paced without skipping over detail and it feels incredibly evocative of time and place — a mining community on the Western Australian coast in October 2008, just as the rest of the Western world is heading into economic meltdown.

Two storylines

The book is structured around two narrative threads that eventually come together in an unexpected — and ultimately — shocking way.

The first revolves around Stuart Miller, an English police detective who quit the force after a particularly harrowing murder case in Sunderland, England, in 1973. He decamped to Australia, where he has been living ever since with his Scottish wife. But he’s been mentally scarred by what he saw the day the “Cup Final killer”, Davey Arthurs, electrocuted and then blugeoned to death his wife and child. Now, 35 years later, someone with the same modus operandi has struck in the Adelaide hills, and Stuart can’t help wondering if it’s the same man.

The second narrative focuses on Detective Senior Sergeant Cato Kwong, a Chinese-Australian, who’s been banished to the Stock Squad, which investigates crime in the outback relating to sheep, cattle and roadkill, following a fall from grace. But he’s called back in from the cold to head up a murder investigation when a torso is washed up on the coast. His return to “proper” police work brings him back into contact with an old colleague, Senior Sergeant Tess Maguire, which adds additional complications he doesn’t really doesn’t need.

Police at work

Prime Cut is a proper police procedural — and an excellent one at that. Carter expertly captures the working relationships, dynamics and internal politics of a group of cops working in an isolated area, mainly through the use of pitch-perfect, often witty (and sometimes cutting) dialogue and superb characterisation. And he also shows us their home lives, and gives us some insights into their inner-most thoughts, which provides the story with a welcome literary twist.

The only cliche, aside from the fact that none of the police in this novel are happily married, is the romantic element that creeps into the storyline, but I’ll forgive Carter that one foible, because this is such a compelling, complex and deftly written novel.

Its real strength, however, lies in its sense of time and place; Carter conveys the spirit of Hopetoun, on the Western Australian coast, which is renowned for its beauty and it’s nickel mining operations, not only by describing it so evocatively but by also giving us a kind of snapshot of a community on the edge, one that is being quickly changed by a mining boom bringing in new people, new money and new problems.

Carter’s background in directing television documentaries may explain why this book feels so sharp, “alive” and real. There’s a certain cinematic quality to the writing, too, because it’s so visual. And it’s brimming with narrative tension, which makes me wonder why some clever production company hasn’t snapped up the rights to turn this into a film or telemovie.

Overall, this is one of the finest police procedurals I’ve read in a long while — and I’m delighted to see a follow-up, Getting Warmer, has also been published. That one has promptly risen to the top of my wishlist.