Review: MURDER IN MT MARTHA by Janice Simpson

MurderInMtMarthaSimpsonMURDER IN MT MARTHA engagingly blurs the line between crime fact and crime fiction. Taking as its source material the still unsolved 1953 murder of teenager Shirley Collins, the book weaves a compelling “what if…” scenario. Simpson is not claiming to have solved the case here and has taken pains to change names and otherwise make it clear that her story is a fictional one, but using some details of the real case and other contemporary snippets gives the book a realistic feel.

The story unfolds in two parallel threads. In 1953 we meet the murderer just after he has committed his crime and is in the process of covering it up. Over the course of the novel we learn more about his exploits as well as finding out what happens to him in later life. In the present day we meet Arthur Boyle, an elderly man who is sharing his life history with Nick Szabo, a young student, for an oral history project. His reflections on his life include remembering the shocking murder of a teenage girl at Mt Martha, a crime which was so unusual then as to warrant months of coverage in the press and much speculation in the community. Together Nick and Arthur uncover his family connection to the murder.

I’m normally wary of narratives told from the killer’s point of view but this one does not glamourise or sensationalise the man or his repulsive deeds. It doesn’t even try to justify them, merely offer an account – a very believable account – of how and why he did the things he did. The modern day thread is good too, though for me slightly less engaging due to its reliance on a string of coincidences. Some parts of this element of the story felt a little too forced to me, as if the author was setting us up for future installments of a series featuring Nick Szabo though I have no idea if this is actually Simpson’s plan or not. I just felt like we were getting a lot of character elements that could only really be teased out in further books. But Nick is an interesting character and it’s hard not to like a young man who loves his grandmother so openly and affectionately.

MURDER IN MT MARTHA  is a terrific debut novel; engaging in its own right and full of promise of good things to come from Janice Simpson, whether in the same series or not. It straddles the line between true crime and crime fiction with great aplomb and will satisfy fans of both.


AWW2016This is the fifth book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challange check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Hybrid Publishers [2016]
ISBN: 9781925272161
Length: 293 pages
Format: paperback

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Review: SWEET ONE by Peter Docker

SweetOnePeterDocker23590_fTruth is not only stranger than fiction; it can be infinitely sadder too. The event depicted in this novel’s opening pages – in which an elderly Aboriginal man is cooked to death in the cargo hold of van while being transferred from one Western Australian town to another in police custody – is gruesome enough in the context of a work of fiction. But knowing that it is based on a real life – and death – experience that occurred in the very recent past makes the book a lot more visceral.

In the real world this incident resulted in official enquiries (because one is never enough) and a whole lot of people being shocked for a few moments before getting on with their lives. Helpless to know what to do even if they wanted to do something. Same as it ever was. In Docker’s thinly disguised version of Australia (Kalgoorlie is Baalboorlie for example) the incident results in a kind of civil war. Or what we would call a civil war if it was happening in some conveniently faraway place across an ocean or two. But one of the stories Australians like to tell about ourselves is that we don’t do that kind of thing here. We’re too laid back. We’d rather have a beer together than fight. We do mateship not war. There are entire school syllabuses devoted to this notion.

But in Docker’s Australia an Aboriginal man – an ex soldier just like the man who died in the van – starts taking revenge on the people responsible for the man’s horrendous death. Not just the two who drove the van but all the people who played a role in enabling the death. The one who thought it reasonable to imprison (rather than bail) a man just for being officially drunk. The one who decided not to get the air conditioning of the transport van fixed. And so on. He is joined by another former soldier, engaged in his own crusade, and they are aided by local Aboriginal people.

Trying to make sense of all this as it unfolds is a young female journalist. Izzy-from-the-Star as one of the locals calls her. She has been an embedded journalist in Afghanistan and wrote about another Aboriginal death at the hands of police in Palm Island. But as SWEET ONE unfolds the lines between reporting and participating blur for Izzy as she comes to know the locals and learn of her personal connection to them.

As one of the city-living, latte sipping southerners that various characters take pot-shots at throughout the SWEET ONE, I cannot really comment on this book’s authenticity with respect to the events it describes. Although they are taking place in the state next to mine they could just as easily be on Mars for all I know of the world being depicted. But I can attest to the sense of helplessness that underpins it. We’ve Brought Them Home, and Closed The Gap and said sorry and  had more than one Royal Commission into some aspect of Indigenous life – and death. And still we can bake an Aboriginal man to death in the back of a van in the name of law and order. In the 21st century.

Unlike all the official reports that governments have been issuing for decades – earnest and well-meaning though they may be – SWEET ONE grabs the reader’s attention on page one and doesn’t let up until the final word. Not just via the mounting body count (though it is constant and violent) but also in conveying how grim the situation is. For everyone. Black and white. Young and old. Male and Female. Police and civilian. It is (pardon my language) a fucking mess.

As well as telling a helluva yarn Docker writes beautifully. It’s almost like poetry at times. But not your grandmother’s poetry. Imagine the poetry that Mel Gibson’s character from the first Mad Max movie might have written between road races. Sharp and quick and brutal. And gorgeous.

It seems odd to say I loved this book but I did. Despite the fact it is confronting as all hell and does nothing to improve my sense of helplessness and guilt. But I have to believe that things can get better if we tell real stories about ourselves.Or at least I know things won’t get better unless we do tell real stories about ourselves. Even if it hurts. Like all great art SWEET ONE entertains, even nourishes in its way. But it also informs and makes you think. And squirm. As it should.


Publisher: Fremantle Press [2014]
ISBN: 9781922089755
Length: 316 pages
Format: paperback

Review: ALL THE BIRDS, SINGING, Evie Wyld

  • first published by Jonathan Cape 2013
  • this edition published by Random House Australia (Vintage) 2014
  • ISBN 978-1-74275-730-8
  • 229 pages
  • source: my local library

Synopsis (publisher)

Winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin Award

Who or what is watching Jake Whyte from the woods?

Jake Whyte is the sole resident of an old farmhouse on an unnamed island, a place of ceaseless rains and battering winds. It’s just her, her untamed companion, Dog, and a flock of sheep. Which is how she wanted it to be.
But something is coming for the sheep – every few nights it picks one off, leaves it in rags.

It could be anything. There are foxes in the woods, a strange boy and a strange man, rumours of an obscure, formidable beast. And there is Jake’s unknown past, perhaps breaking into the present, a story hidden thousands of miles away and years ago,
in a landscape of different colour and sound, a story held in the scars that stripe her back.

Set between Australia and a remote English island, All the Birds, Singing is the story of one how one woman’s present comes from a terrible past.
It is the second novel from the award-winning author of After the Fire, A Still Small Voice.

My take

Strictly speaking Evie Wyld is not an Australian author, but she grew up in Australia, this novel has been published by Random House Australia, and part of the story is set in Australia. It is probably not really crime fiction, although crimes have been committed.

When Jake Whyte was a teenager in a remote Australian town she made a terrible mistake. That’s the reason she is now living on a remote English island about as far away from Australia as she can get. It is almost like voluntary exile, paying for something she can’t forget.

There are two stories in this novel and Jake is the joining point. The fascinating aspect is the way the novel is structured, but I’m going leave that for you to discover for yourself. The interleaving of the two stories is skilfully done, but the author does make the reader work hard, at least initially. The Australian part of the story is vivid and believable, while at the same time the remote English setting feels very authentic.

I can see why it won Australia’s prestigious Miles Franklin Award in 2014.
Check the judges’ notes here.

My rating: 4.9

About the author

Evie Wyld grew up in Australia and the UK. She now runs Review, a small independent bookshop in London. Her first novel, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and a Betty Trask Award. In 2011 she was listed as one of the Culture Show’s Best New British Novelists. She was also shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. In 2013 she was listed as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. Evie’s second novel, All the Birds, Singing, was published in 2013. It was longlisted for the 2014 Stella Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and shortlisted for the Costa Novel Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. She is the winner of the 2013 Encore Award, the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize and the 2014 Miles Franklin Award.

Awards
2014 University of Queensland Fiction Book Award – (Shortlisted);
2014 European Union Prize for Literature – (Winner);
2014 Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards – (Shortlisted);
2014 Miles Franklin Award – (Winner);
2014 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize – (Winner);
2014 Encore Award – (Winner);

Review: GHOST GIRLS by Cath Ferla

GhostGirlsFerlaGHOST GIRLS is not a novel to read on an empty stomach. Its forays into the Asian restaurants and noodle bars of Sydney – their tastes and smells all evocatively described – will have your mouth-watering too much to concentrate. That’s the upside of the book’s authentic sensibility. The downside of that realism is that the reader can’t pretend the novel’s depiction of abused and exploited foreign students isn’t something going on right under our noses.My office is in the midst of several campuses teeming with foreign students and the best restaurants nearby are those which serve this clientele so as soon as I’d started reading GHOST GIRLS I couldn’t help but look at these kids (I’m old, to me they are all kids) with the worry that something like the book’s events could be happening to some of them.

Our journey into the world is via Sophie Sandilands: a young teacher of English to foreign students. She is the daughter of an Australian PI, now dead, and his Chinese wife who disappeared without trace many years ago. And that isn’t the only tragedy in Sophie’s background. So when one of her students commits suicide and some students are revealed not to be who they purport to be Sophie feels obligated to find out more.

What she uncovers is horrific. Not so much in a bloody way (though there is a little of that) but more in a “this kind of stuff could be going on next door and I wouldn’t know about it” way. Many of the students are under pressure from home to perform at almost impossible levels yet they struggle to make enough to live on doing the kinds of jobs available to them. Some of them make unwise if more lucrative choices and some have even that – the choice – taken out of their hands. It is confronting and heart-breaking all at the same time.

Sophie is a nuanced character who I enjoyed getting to know – not least because her love for good food and nice tea offered some much needed relief from the necessarily sombre narrative. She is tenacious and caring and if she sometimes does things that put her in jeopardy her reasoning is always sound within the context of her personal story. Other characters are equally well drawn, though not all are as delightful. The people who exploit the students only do so because of demand. And the man who represents that demand here – a middle-aged husband and father to a young girl who all-too slowly comes to realise the kind of ripple effect his base desires have – is awkwardly credible too. Perhaps because I’d already started looking at the students I see every day with fresh eyes I couldn’t help but also look at the men around me with the same new awareness. Which of you is like him?

As with all the best crime fiction GHOST GIRLS is first a ripping yarn and its exploration of modern life does nothing to undermine that. It’s lack of easy answers to the complex issues it explores is fitting: there aren’t easy answers to be had. I am impressed that this is a debut novel for Cath Ferla – it seems too assured both thematically and stylistically for that – and can’t wait to see what she delivers next.


AWW2016This is the fourth book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Echo [2016]
ISBN: 9781760401177
Length: 280 pages
Format: paperback

Review: DARKEST PLACE, Jaye Ford

  • source: Random House Australia via NetGalley
  • Available for Kindle (Amazon)
  • File Size: 1122 KB
  • Print Length: 346 pages
  • Publisher: RHA eBooks Adult (February 1, 2016)
  • Publication Date: January 27, 2016
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B017J5899W

Synopsis (NetGalley)

An adrenaline-pumping suspense novel from the author of BEYOND FEAR.
What if a stranger is watching you sleep – and no one believes you?

Carly Townsend is starting over after a decade of tragedy and pain. In a new town and a new apartment she’s determined to leave the memories and failures of her past behind.

However that dream is shattered in the dead of night when she is woken by the shadow of a man next to her bed, silently watching her. And it happens week after week.Yet there is no way an intruder could have entered the apartment. It’s on the fourth floor, the doors are locked and there is no evidence that anyone has been inside.

With the police doubting her story, and her psychologist suggesting it’s all just a dream, Carly is on her own. And being alone isn’t so appealing when you’re scared to go to sleep .

My Take:

Australian author Jaye Ford certainly knows how to write a good thriller.

Carly Townsend moves across the country to Newcastle, NSW, to start a new life. For the last decade she has been living with the fact that she killed her three best friends. Her new apartment is on the 4th floor of a renovated warehouse. All modern. But the first thing she learns is that there is a sad story about the girl who used to own her apartment.

Carly herself is pretty fragile, the result of two failed marriages, three miscarriages, and the death of her three friends.  She thinks she has lost the outgoing personailty she once had, and wonders if she can find it again.

She begins a business course at a local TAFE and is lucky to be befriended by twenty year old with big ideas. Carly hasn’t slept well for years but then she is woken in the early morning by a hooded man. She reports the home invasion to the police but by the third time they have had enough of her wasting their time.

Jaye Ford ceratinly knows which of our “fear” buttons to press.

My rating: 4.6

I’ve also read

4.4, BEYOND FEAR
4.5, SCARED YET?
4.5, BLOOD SECRET
4.7, ALREADY DEAD