Shelley Burr, Wake (#BookReview)

Regular readers here will know a few things about me. One is that I don’t regularly read crime, and another is that for three years, before the pandemic struck, I was the litblogging mentor for an ACT Writers Centre program. One of the last two participants in that program was Shelley Burr, author of the just-published crime novel Wake.

In my post on that 2019 program, I introduced Shelley as follows:

Shelley Burr is working on a novel, and took part in the ACT Writers Centre’s well-regarded Hard Copy program last year … She is particularly interested in what she calls “drought noir”, which term sounds perfect for some of the crime coming out of Australia at present. Shelley has had her writing place well in the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages program.

That novel she was writing was Wake. It won the CWA Debut Dagger in 2019. It was also shortlisted for the 2019 Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award, which gave her a Varuna fellowship, and the 2020 Bath Novel Awards, which is an international award for emerging writers. Judge for the Bath award, literary agent Jenny Savill, wrote of Wake:

With forensic attention to detail, the reader is effortlessly drawn into the small town, rural Australian setting and a community in mourning. Immersive and riveting.

Savill was right on all fronts. Burr’s attention to detail is forensic, and readers (even non-crime readers like me) are “effortlessly drawn in”. I was thoroughly engaged from the opening pages, and this is because, besides being a crime novel, it’s a novel about character, and what happens to people when terrible things happen to them. How do people respond, and why do different people respond differently? It confronts readers to think about our own responses. How would we respond if it happened to us? And, how would, or do, we respond when it happens to others?

Wake is about a cold-case that took place on a remote farm some twenty years before the novel opens. Nine-year-old Evelyn (Evie) McCreery disappeared from her bed one night, never to be seen again. This means the novel alludes to a longstanding Australian writing tradition, that concerning the lost child. However, this motif has layers of cultural complexity that are not central to this novel, so I’m just mentioning it and moving on.

Now, the plot … as the book’s promotion says, “no forced entry, no fingerprints, no footprints, no tyre tracks”. Evie’s twin sister, Mina, has grown up in the wake (pun intended!) of that disappearance. She has never fully recovered and is quietly trying to solve the mystery on her own. The novel opens with the clearly fragile Mina doing her shopping under the kindly eye of a local shopkeeper. A stranger, who turns out to be private investigator Lane Holland, approaches her, but she is not interested. The novel progresses from this point with the twists and turns typical of the genre until its inevitable – though not completely expected – resolution.

Wake is carefully plotted, with, for example, hints concerning Lane Holland and why he has chased this particular case being gradually shared. Wake is also well-paced, starting slowly, and gradually building intrigue until near the end when the pace hots up. Suddenly, the chapters become shorter, causing the alternating perspectives, which characterise the narrative, to become more urgent.

As I mentioned above, the characters are a major strength of the novel. Mina and Lane are sensitively developed. Both are driven by past trauma, and can be tough and prickly, but both also exhibit moments of vulnerability and tenderness which help us care about them. There are a few other characters, the main ones being Mina’s more together friend Alanna whose sister had also disappeared around the same time as Mina’s, and Lane’s much younger sister Lynnie. Though minor, they too have flesh.

The narrative is chronological, with occasional flashbacks filling in some gaps. Other gaps are cleverly filled in by entries on a social media forum, MyMurder, which open some of the chapters. They add a thoughtful layer to the story, by conveying how such mysterious cases catch the public attention and how obsession with them can play out. They show how crime aficionados, conspiracy theorists, and others, can spear wildly away from the truth and potentially, if not actually, cause mental harm to those most touched by the crime.

So, yes, I was impressed. The writing and plotting is so sure, and Burr’s exploration of the crime is considered, sympathetic, and grounded in reality. There is drama – of course – but it properly serves the story and the complexity of the emotions, reactions and consequences that Burr is exploring. This made for engrossing reading for a non-crime reader like me, but Wake is also, if the awards tell us anything, great crime reading. It’s a page turner, with depth.

Now, I’d better at least mention the setting, given I’ve referenced Burr’s interest in “drought noir”. Wake is set in rural central New South Wales. Burr, herself, grew up in regional New South Wales, and her grandparents had a farm in regional Victoria, so her writing of place and country life felt authentic. The setting adds tension because Mina and her father Liam’s property is remote, remote enough that they have installed alarms on the gates to announce the arrival of visitors. You can’t be too careful when you live so far away from help.

However, the property also neatly reflect the challenges being faced by Australian farmers in climate-change-affected times. It was a working farm, but the disappearance of Evie consumed the family’s energy so much that viable farming fell by the wayside. In a nice political touch that speaks to our times, Burr has Mina and her father moving into working it as a conservation project.

Wake earned Shelley a two-book deal with Hachette, and is about to be published in the USA. Having now read it, I’m not surprised. I recommend it.

Shelley Burr
Wake
Hachette Australia: Gadigal Country/Sydney, 2022
360pp.
ISBN: 9780733647826

(Uncorrected proof courtesy Hachette Australia)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 5: Crime

When I decided to write this sub-series, the genre that nearly stopped me before I started was crime, because I knew I’d have to do it! CRIME is so-o-o big that it’s hard to know where to start … so, I’m just going to dive in, share a select number of ideas, and let the rest of you, as you always do, fill in the gaps.

Crime, as you know, is not a key genre for me, but over the years, for one reason or another, I’ve read a number of crime books, ranging from cosy crime to police procedurals, from classic crime to true crime, from rural noir to literary crime, from – well, you get the picture. In other words, for someone not drawn to crime, I’ve read and, I admit, enjoyed more than I would have thought when I started this blog. I have also written separate posts about Sisters in Crime Australia and their Stiletto awards.

Festivals

Angela Savage, The dying beach

Crime, being the popular genre it is, features regularly at writers festivals around Australia. It would be rare, methinks, to attend a festival and not find at least one panel devoted to crime. I’ve written on a couple myself – a crime panel convened by Angela Savage at the 2020 Yarra Valley Writers Festival, and a true crime one at the 2019 Canberra Writers Festival.

But, there are also festivals devoted specifically to crime, including these three held or to be held in 2021:

BAD Sydney Crime Writers Festival

To be held from 2-5 December, 2021. As far as I can tell, this is an annual festival that started around 2017. It “explores what crime can tell us about human beings today and in the past”, or, what BAD describes as “”the dark side that is part of being human”. They suggest that Sydney is particularly appropriate “because it was founded by convicts and their guards” and “has been significantly affected by crime and corruption for much of its history”. On the 2017 festival page, they argue that “you cannot understand this city completely without its vital criminal subculture”. The 2021 festival will feature “some of the biggest names in crime fiction, true crime and social justice advocacy”, including Jane Harper, Michael Robotham, Garry Disher, Chris Hammer, Xanthé Mallett, as well as Melissa Lucashenko, Robert Drewe, Richard Glover, Tony Birch, Larissa Behrendt and Stan Grant. This is a face-to-face festival, but all sessions will also be Zoom-ed.

Rural Crime Writing Festival

Held as an online festival on 12 June 2021, by the New England Writers Centre. Calling it the “very first of its kind”, they hope to repeat it. Participants included Emma Viskic and Yumna Kassab. Carmel Shute of Sisters in Crime convened a panel which discussed “the rewards of literary awards”. Would love to have heard that.

Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival: CSI: Tasmania Digital Festival

To be held as an online festival on 27 & 28 November, 2021. Described as Tasmania’s International Crime and Mystery Literary Festival. Like BAD, TARWF, which is located in the Huon Valley, offers a range of live, live-streamed and virtual events throughout the year. CSI Tasmania is their second festival, following their successful Murder She Wrote festival in 2019. It features Australian writers like Gary Disher, Sulari Gentil, Candice Fox and Anita Heiss, and international writers like Val McDiarmid and Ann Cleeves. TARWF’s founder and current director is crime writer L.J.M. Owen, and the organisation is volunteer-run.

Prizes

Crime is also a genre that seems well served by awards and prizes.

  • Danger Award, offered by BAD. An annual award, established about 2018, I think, for “the best book, TV series, podcast or film about Sydney crime” (so not “just” books).
  • Davitt Awards, offered by Sisters in Crime Australia, since 2001. Prizes are offered in several categories for writing by women.
  • Ned Kelly Awards, run by the Australian Crime Writers Association and established in 1996. They offer prizes in several categories, including true crime, debut crime and YA crime.
  • Scarlet Stiletto Awards, also run by Sisters in Crime Australia, since 1994. This award is limited (devoted) to crime and mystery short stories “written by Australian women and featuring a strong female protagonist”. Clan Destine Press has now published eleven collections of winning stories.

AWW Challenge

Many of you know that I’ve been involved in the Australian Women Writers Challenge pretty much from its inception. It collects on-line reviews, mostly by bloggers and GoodReads readers, of books in all forms and genres written by Australian women. And crime, of course, is a big genre. An important aspect of the challenge is our Book Review database, which you can search via the Books Reviewed search page. Clicking this link, however, will take you immediately to a list of the reviews posted for over 950 crime books by Australian women writers. It’s quite a database now.

Finally …

If you’ve been paying attention, and I’m sure you have, you will have realised that there are many organisations in Australia devoted to supporting crime, including the Australian Crime Writers Association, Sisters in Crime Australia, BAD, and publishers like Clan Destine Press.

And, just to round it all off, this article in The Conversation provides a neat history of Australian crime – in case you are interested.

Do you read Crime? If so, would you care to share some favourites?

Previous supporting genre posts: 1. Historical fiction; 2. Short stories; 3. Biography; 4. Literary nonfiction.

Monday musings on Australian Literature: Stilettos and Sponsors

Has that got your attention? If it has, I’m sorry if you think I’m going to talk about high society fund-raising parties. I’m afraid it’s a bit more mundane than that … but interesting I hope.

The Stilettos

I have in fact written about the Stilettos before, the Scarlet Stiletto Awards to be exact. To recap, they are Sisters in Crime Australia’s annual awards for best short crime and mystery stories by women writers. This year they are offering a record $11,910 in prizes this year. As Carmel Shute, secretary of Sisters in Crime, says

“Crime does pay – at least on the page. And writing is a lot safer than holding up your local service station, especially during a pandemic.”

Fifteen awards are offered:

  • Swinburne University Award, 1st Prize: $1500
  • Simon & Schuster Award, 2nd Prize: $1000
  • Sun Bookshop & Wild Dingo Award, 3rd Prize: $600

  • Affirm Press Award for Best Young Writer (under 19): $500
  • Monash University Award for Best Emerging Writer (19-25): $500
  • Melbourne Athenaeum Library ‘Body in the Library’ Award: $1250 (plus $750 for runner-up)
  • Booktopia Publisher Services Award for Best Environmental Mystery: $750
  • Clan Destine Press Award for Best Cross-genre Story: $750
  • Every Cloud Award for Best Mystery with History Story: $750
  • Kerry Greenwood Award for Best Malice Domestic Story: $750
  • Viliama Grakalic Art and Crime Award: $750
  • Writers Victoria Crime and Punishment Award for the Story with the Most Satisfying Retribution: $660 (Studio Residency, Old Melbourne Gaol)
  • HQ Fiction Award for Best Thriller: $500
  • ScriptWorks Award for a Great Film Idea: $500
  • Liz Navratil Award for Best Story with a Disabled Protagonist Award: $400 

There’s a lot of opportunity here, as you can see, for different sorts of stories – and past winners have included writers I’ve reviewed or mentioned here, like Angela Savage. The monetary amount isn’t huge, but it’s something, and, as Shute says:

Since the awards began 28 years ago, 3896 stories have been entered and 30 winners – including winners of the Shoe and category winners – have gone on to have books published.

The closing date for entering this year’s awards is 31 August, 2021. There is an entry fee of $25 (less for Sisters in Crime members), and stories must be 5000 words or less. More information and the entry form can be found at Sisters in Crime.

The awards will (hopefully) be presented in Melbourne in late November.

The sponsors

From the above list of awards, you’ve probably guessed the inspiration for the second part of this post – the sponsors. Most awards – literary or otherwise – are sponsored. Some, like the Prime Minister’s and various Premier’s literary awards, are funded by governments, but many are offered by individuals and organisations. The Miles Franklin Literary Award, the Barbara Jefferis Award and the Kibble Literary Awards, are all funded by bequests which identified the purpose of the award. Other awards or prizes are funded by a range of people and organisations, including philanthropic people and foundations, and like organisations (such as publishers and bookshops).

But, keeping awards funded is a challenge, and something I have planned to write more broadly on for some time. I will still do that. However, Sisters in Crime provided a good introduction to the subject in their promotion of this year’s award, because they say that only one sponsor pulled their funding “despite these financially fraught times” and “two new supporters” came on.  Excitingly for them, several sponsors not only continued their awards but increased the amount.

Watch for a future Monday Musings on this and related issues – but no promises when!

Meanwhile, any thoughts?

Delia Owens, Where the crawdads sing (#BookReview)

Delia Owens’ bestselling debut novel, Where the crawdads sing, is a problematical novel, as my reading group discovered – and yet, I couldn’t help being emotionally engaged. It reminded me a little of a childhood favourite, Gene Stratton Porter’s A girl of the Limberlost. My heart went out to Owen’s protagonist, Kya, the maligned, ignored, Marsh Girl, and I loved the writing about the North Carolina marshland. But, intellectually, I had to work to defend my enjoyment, which I’ll aim to share here.

“in the end, that is all you have, the connections”

I’ll start with the obvious, a summary of the plot. The main narrative runs from 1952 to 1970, and is told in two chronologies that eventually meet. The novel tells the story of Kya, who, in 1952, is six when her Mum and, soon after, her siblings leave home. Four years later, when she’s ten, her father also departs, leaving her alone, in their North Carolina marsh shack. She can’t read, has no money, and few skills. But, she’s an intelligent, resourceful little girl, and, with the help of a few kind people, she makes a life – albeit a lonely one – for herself. The novel commences, however, in 1969 with the discovery of the body of a young man, Chase Andrews, who is a local football hero. Was it an accident or was he murdered? The second chronology, then, is a crime story, following the investigation of this death through to the court case. You can probably guess where the two chronologies meet.

Owens manages this structure skilfully, drawing us into Kya’s life, and how and why she develops into the person she is in 1970, while, simultaneously, slowly building suspense by recounting the details of the investigation. The writing is lush and evocative, ensuring that we engage with Kya and her struggle to survive, her increasing loneliness and her desperation to connect with others. We see her turn to nature and wildlife to learn about life, as well as to provide herself with sustenance and give her a minimal income (by selling fish and mussels, for example).

This is nature writing at its best, with stunning descriptions of the marsh, and the birds, fish and insects that inhabit it, but it is also eco-fiction, with occasional allusions to development. Tate, a young man who befriends Kya (and provides her with a much-needed connection) tells her:

They think it’s wasteland that should be drained and developed. People don’t understand that most sea creatures—including the very ones they eat—need the marsh.”

The marsh is Kya’s family; it is what, in the absence of family, forms her:

She knew the years of isolation had altered her behavior until she was different from others, but it wasn’t her fault she’d been alone. Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would. If consequences resulted from her behaving differently, then they too were functions of life’s fundamental core.

It is hard, as a reader, not to care about Kya. Will she find the connections she so badly wants – “Being completely alone was a feeling so vast it echoed” – and will they stick?

“it’s usually the trap that gets foxed”

However, it’s easy to pick holes in the book. Kya’s survival (given her youth) and her development into an educated young woman (given she only spent one day at school) can stretch credulity. Many of the characters feel stereotyped, from the good “colored” people, who put themselves out to help Kya, to the prejudiced townspeople, who reject and exclude her (as they do all marsh people). “Barkley Cove”, writes Owens, “served its religion hard-boiled and deep-fried”. And, if you don’t like your heartstrings being obviously pulled, you may not engage with Kya at all.

All this makes it problematical, because it’s one of those books that whether you love or hate depends largely on what sort of reader you are, what you like to read, and/or how you read this particular book. There are many ways to read Where the crawdads sing – a crime story, a romance, a coming-of-age story, historical fiction, a modern fairy-story or allegory, even, to name a few. Some of these ways demand more realism than others, and expose holes which are irrelevant to other ways. It is one of these other ways that appeals to me.

This way is to read it more like a fairy story or allegory, as a story about the triumph of the maligned, a comeuppance for the underdog. If you read it this way, the stereotyping of the minor characters, and the improbability of Kya’s survival and achievements, serve to emphasise the challenges faced by the underdog. It is hard to explain what I mean without giving away the ending, but I’ll try.

Throughout the novel, we are not only reminded of the prejudice and mistreatment of Kya (as representative of the marsh people) but are also aware of the ostracism of “colored people” as they were called then. Kya turns to nature to learn about life. Early in the novel, when the “colored” Jumpin’ warns her about Social Services looking for her, friend Tate tells her to “hide way out where the crawdads sing”:

Kya remembered Ma always encouraging her to explore the marsh: “Go as far as you can—way out yonder where the crawdads sing.”

“Just means far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.”

One of Kya’s main challenges is to work out the differences between what she observes in nature and in human behaviour:

“In nature—out yonder where the crawdads sing—these ruthless-seeming behaviors actually increase the mother’s number of young over her lifetime, and thus her genes for abandoning offspring in times of stress are passed on to the next generation. And on and on. It happens in humans, too. Some behaviors that seem harsh to us now ensured the survival of early man in whatever swamp he was in at the time. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. We still store those instincts in our genes, and they express themselves when certain circumstances prevail. Some parts of us will always be what we were, what we had to be to survive—way back yonder.”

These two quotes – among others – hint at the novel’s underlying idea, which is that it’s not only “critters” who are “wild”, that human beings will be ruthless too. Exploring this ruthlessness in its natural and human manifestations, and how Kya navigates it, is a major theme of this book – and explains why Owens has written it the way she has. The resolution is deeply satisfying (albeit I didn’t love the device used to achieve it).

Where the crawdads sing is a thoughtful read for those who feel passionate about the maligned of this world. It is also a glorious lovesong to the marshland. I’m glad my reading group scheduled it.

Delia Owens
Where the crawdads sing
London: Corsair, 2018
379pp.
ISBN: 9781472154637 (Kindle ed.)

Garry Disher, Bitter Wash Road (#BookReview)

Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road has been sitting on my TBR pile for over seven years. It was sent to me on spec but, as crime is not my preferred reading, I didn’t feel obliged to read it – and yet, I hung onto it, just in case… So, when Kim (Reading Matters) decided to run an Aussie-New Zealand crime month, I knew what I was going to read.

Actually, though, this is not the first Disher to appear on my blog. Text had previously sent me an earlier one of his, Wyatt, which I managed to talk Son Gums into guest reviewing for me. You can read his review here. However, Wyatt is a thriller with an anti-hero as its protagonist, so is very different to Bitter Wash Road, a police procedural featuring the more sympathetic constable, Paul Hirschhausen (Hirsch).

More sympathetic he may be, but straightforward he is not, because Hirsch is a recently demoted detective who has been sent three hours north from Adelaide to a “single-officer police station” in Tiverton, a fictional “blink-and-you’d-miss-it-town” in struggling “wheat and wool” country. Having previously worked with a team of corrupt detectives, Hirsch, though not found guilty (which, he realises, is different to being found “not guilty”), has “a stink clinging to him”. For whatever reason, Internal Investigations is not convinced he’s clean. Consequently, Hirsch finds himself investigating crime in a fearful community where the police are hated, while also having to watch his own back. Who can he trust?

“an air of waiting”

To my surprise, I greatly enjoyed this novel. It’s well-plotted, so that while the ending isn’t a complete surprise – surely it’s not a good crime novel if it is? – there are enough possibilities thrown in your path along the way to keep you pondering which way it will go. However, it’s not the plot that grabbed me. It’s the characterisation, the writing, and the subtle way contemporary issues are referenced or implicated in the story.

Hirsch is introduced in the first paragraph as the “new cop in Tiverton” and then we immediately meet him through a phone conversation with his sergeant, Kropp, in nearby Redruth. Some shots have been heard out near Tin Hut and he is to investigate. We are then launched into the action as Hirsch drives off, but we are also introduced to his character. He’s observant and careful, but also, probably sensibly, a bit paranoid. When he comes across a gum tree blocking the road, he sees it as a potential ambush, but on closer inspection it’s simply a fallen branch:

All that sinewy health on the outside and quiet decay within.

A bit like the police, really.

With such language the tone is set. Hirsch is isolated, physically and psychologically, like many in the region, for different reasons. This is a tough place where Sergeant Kropp’s two brutal constables, Nicholson and Andrewartha, terrorise the locals, paying particular attention – if you know what I mean – to young girls and Indigenous youths. Hirsch needs all his resources to navigate this lot and the rest of the community’s officials. Fortunately, he’s a true policeman, sizing up every place and person he sees or comes across, alert to every nuance in behaviour. This is, after all, the key both to survival and getting at the truth.

Now, I’m not an expert on writing about crime, but even I realise that I haven’t actually mentioned the crime. It wasn’t the gunshots out near Tin Hut, in fact, but the body of a dead girl out that way, along Bitter Wash Road. Hit and run? Or something else? A little later, a woman is found dead, this time looking like suicide. What is going on in the area? Were these deaths murders? Are they connected?

Set in a dry, struggling outback community, Bitter Wash Road is an example of a sub-genre that is now loosely known as outback or drought or bush noir. It is typified by remote communities living in harsh, unforgiving landscapes, and, as Disher makes clear, by the sort of sexism and racism that is peculiar to such settings (which is not to say they aren’t found in other settings too.)

In this sub-genre you would, I expect, find descriptions like this:

A five-hour round trip. Lengthening shadows striped the crops, the highways, the hillsides. More birds on more wires. An air of waiting, of things drying, turning to dust.

So, with suggestive writing like this, a compelling and complex character like Hirsch, and a plot with as many dips and turns as its titular road, Bitter Wash Road makes splendid reading. I’m not surprised that Disher decided a few years later to return to Hirsch with Peace (2019) and Consolation (2020).

Read for Reading Matters Southern Cross Crime Month. Kim has also reviewed this novel.

Garry Disher
Bitter Wash Road
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013
325pp.
ISBN: 9781922079244

Review copy courtesy Text Publishing

Monday musings on Australian literature: On the Run (Aussie crime writers in America)

In yesterday’s post on the Yarra Valley Writers Festival (YVWF) crime panel, I mentioned Sulari Gentill’s intitiative which saw four Australian crime writers taking Australian crime to the USA last year. Called On the Run: Australian Crime Writers in America, it’s such an inspired project that I thought it deserved its own post, a Monday Musings post, in fact. The writers were Sulari Gentill, Robert Gott, Jock Serong and Emma Viskic, and the tour took place from over October-November last year.

Robert Gott describes the origins in an entertaining (but informative post) on the dailymail.com blog:

When Sulari floated her idea she pointed out that this hadn’t been done before and that Australian crime fiction was enjoying a bit of a moment in the US. She needed collaborators and it was safer to collaborate with chums than strangers, especially as we would be doing everything in the way of organisation ourselves.

Sulari, Emma, Jock and I are all friends. We’ve appeared together at writers’ festivals and launched each other’s books. We knew we could rely on each other to meet deadlines for the gruesome process of applying for grants, and for shaping our tour should the impossible happen and an application be successful.

Gott also shares some of the ideas they came up with for the project’s name: “‘Unreliable Witnesses’, ‘Roadkill’, ‘The Mobile Crime Scene’ and others that were even worse”. I think On the Run was a good decision!

The itinerary

Gott also describes the itinerary in the above-linked post:

Our first appearance in America, after a meeting with the Consul General in New York, will be at Bouchercon in Dallas. Bouchercon? I’d never heard of it either, but that’s because I haven’t been paying attention for the 50 years it’s been running. It’s a huge convention for mystery writers and readers and we’ve been given an ‘International Spotlight’, which means we have our own panel.

We thought we might have to interview each other, but Dervla McTiernan has been called in, so that’s splendid. After Dallas we’re off to Phoenix and from there we’re driving to L.A., Santa Cruz and San Francisco and we’re doing events in each of those places, so there’s plenty of scope for horror and disappointment.

Bouchercon?! So, that’s what it’s called. I’d never heard of this either – not surprisingly, I suppose, given I’m not a crime fan. Consequently, when it was mentioned during the panel, I struggled to capture its name. Was it Vouchercom or con? That didn’t seem quite right. However, now I actually had the name, I checked Wikipedia and found that:

the Anthony Boucher Memorial World Mystery Convention is an annual convention of creators and devotees of mystery and detective fiction. It is named in honour of writer, reviewer, and editor Anthony Boucher, and pronounced the way he pronounced his name, rhyming with “voucher”.

Haha, so I wasn’t too far off the mark then!

Anyhow, as Gott shares in the last post, they “were away for 21 days, 19 of them on the ground” during which they did “separately and together, 26 engagements, some small, some large, some in bookshops, some in bars, some in private homes and of course Bouchercon”. A good effort. Let’s hope it carries through to longer-term increases in Aussie book sales in the USA.

Highlights

Unfortunately, Gentill wasn’t part of the YVWF panel, so we didn’t hear her highlights, but here’s how the others answered Angela Savage’s question:

  • Viskic said she had a personal highlight from every place, but one was visiting the New York Public Library. (She writes in the blog, “I’m a polyamorist when it comes to libraries, but I think I’ve met my One True Love in the NYPL.” Oh Emma, you warmed this retired librarian’s heart!) She also said she was “blown away by the enthusiasm of people in Dallas” at Bouchercon. People were “so warm, and excited, desperate to read more Australian writers”. They were keen to read outside of American writers. It was “lovely to see that excitement”. Sounds like our writers achieved their goal if that was the case.
  • Serong said that New York had to be a personal highlight, which makes what is happening there now during COVID-19 “particularly awful”. However, he said, “more useful” was talking about their work Dallas and Phoenix. California was fascinating. He described the USA as, really, a “collection of a whole lot of different societies”, and writes some great reflections on the blog that take me back.
  • Gott “loved everything, including travelling with these people”! Nice, eh? A landscape highlight was the Grand Canyon.

Sulari Gentill describes the Canyon on the blog, and her description is perfect: “Your vision is not wide enough, your mind is not great enough and your soul is not deep enough to take it all in.”

In the blog’s closing post, Gott writes:

How did it all go? Modesty forbids declaring it brilliant, so let’s just say it was sensationally good. People came to our events. They were generous, they asked thoughtful questions, they laughed in the right places, mostly. They were intrigued when we spoke about the now well-established convention at events in Australia of acknowledging the traditional owners of the country on which we sat. The idea that a bookshop in Pasadena, sitting among neon and concrete, might actually have beneath it land once walked on by First Nation people, seemed to require a daring imaginative leap.

Gott also writes that “an Australian presence at Bouchercon, and at other large conventions, should be an inevitability rather than a curiosity.”

It was, said Savage at the YVWF panel, a real coup to pull this off. The writers added that their model was good: four works well in an American car; choose writers who have a similar outlook but write differently; and get a grant, such as from the Australia Council or the Neilma Sydney Travel Fund (about which I wrote recently).

To read all the posts written by the writers, check the On The Run tag on the dailyreview.com blog. These people are writers – obviously – so the posts are both entertaining and informative. Well worth reading, even if you are not a crime fan/reader.

Are you a crime fan/reader?

Julie Thorndyke, Mrs Rickaby’s lullaby (#BookReview)

Book coverQuaint title, eh? I really didn’t know what to expect when I accepted this book for review, but accept I did because the publisher is a quality little press and because the author, Julie Thorndyke, although unknown to me, has a track record as a writer, particularly of tanka. Mrs Rickaby’s lullaby, however, is her first novel.

In addition, I was intrigued by the advance description of the protagonist as a “semi-retired botanical illustrator … with a penchant for Mozart”. Well, I love botanical illustrations and I’m a fan of Mozart. Who isn’t? And finally, there was the fact that the novel is set in a “peaceful retirement village”. Being of an age that is eligible for retirement village living, that was a bit of a drawcard too.

So far so good, but what sort of book is it? Well, the back cover blurb provides a hint when it says that Mrs Rickaby’s “tranquility is disturbed when close friend and neighbour brings home a twice-widowed younger man of dubious character, and introduces him as her future husband. Petty theft, vandalism and violence disrupt the peaceful retirement village. How can Mrs Rickaby protect her friend from this con-man lover?”

Now we are getting closer. I think the best way to describe this novel is “cosy crime”, which Wikipedia describes as “a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.” This is not really my genre, any more than any crime is, but Mrs Rickaby’s lullaby turned out to be a light enjoyable read.

The story is told in Mrs Rickaby’s first person voice. She is in her early 70s and had moved to the retirement village after losing her much loved husband. She has two children who, at the start of the novel, are both living overseas, so her most important social contacts are her friends at the village, particularly her neighbour Irene, plus her cat Missy.

It’s a curious book, because it doesn’t, I’d say, perfectly conform to the “cosy crime” genre. Much of it reads like a story about contemporary life, and the challenges of ageing, of losing your partner and having to make a new life for yourself. All this Mrs Rickaby does. Her days are occupied by spending time with Missy, by her involvement in the local Orchid Society, by her free-lance botanical illustration commissions, and by socialising with her friends in the village. It’s only gradually that the crime aspect comes into view as her early suspicions about Irene’s new man, Ralph, start to seem valid. Gradually, the mystery aspect hots up as Mrs Rickaby and another friend from the village, Annette, start nosing around about Ralph in their effort to protect Irene from making a bad, and potentially dangerous, mistake.

I enjoyed reading about Mrs Rickaby’s relationships with family and friends, albeit they were generally easier relationships than those in Charlotte Wood’s The weekend (my review). This is not surprising, perhaps, as most of Mrs Rickaby’s friends are new, and thus free of the years of baggage carried by Wood’s friends who are, coincidentally, in the same early 70s age range. My only demur regarding the characters concerns Irene, “a skilled surgeon” who was still volunteering for Doctors Without Borders”. Could such a person be taken in by such a con man? My initial reaction was not, but perhaps I’m naive? Anyhow …

The narrative is framed by Mrs Rickaby’s love of music. The ten chapters all have musical titles, like Nocturne, Misterioso, Counterpoint, Agitato, and Danse macabre. You can see, by these, how the chapter titles might reflect their content. Threading through all this is one particular song, a favourite of Mrs Rickaby’s, the lullaby “Weigenleid”, which is also the title of the final chapter. Once ascribed to Mozart modern research now suggests otherwise. It is a piece of music that is at once calming and melancholic, making it suited, Mrs Rickaby suggests, to contemplating the end of one’s life …

As you would expect with the “cosy” style, the novel has a light humorous touch. It also has some reflections worth pondering, such as this on loneliness:

It is quite amazing to me how easily habits, both good ones and bad, are formed. The single glass of chardonnay in the evening can easily become a bottle, and then two; one spoon of tiramisu becomes a bowlful; an attentive man becomes a lover to a lonely woman, then her husband, whether or not she wanted or needed one, in her rational mind. But loneliness does odd things to one, and even the simplest of pleasures can become a habit, a need, a necessity.

And this on life from Annette who reassesses her realisation in her forties that “life is short” to:

“Well, now I realise that it’s actually too long … too long and too lonely. The evenings,” she whispers. “Just too many and too long.”

And, this important one:

Investments in friendship are the most vulnerable and irredeemable of assets.

Mrs Rickaby’s lullaby is probably not a book for everyone – then again, what is – but is perfectly suited to those looking for something gentle and reflective, but spiced-up with just a little page-turning twist as well.

Challenge logoJulie Thorndyke
Mrs Rickaby’s lullaby
Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2019
183pp.
ISBN: 9781760417093

(Review copy courtesy the author)

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universe (#BookReview)

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universeTwo books came to mind as I was reading Trent Dalton’s debut novel Boy swallows universe. One was Steve Toltz’s out-there book about fathers and sons, A fraction of the whole (my review), and the other was Tim Winton’s Breath (my post), which explores what it is to be a good man, but more on these anon.

I had three reasons for wanting to read the book. Firstly, it was my reading group’s first book of the year, and secondly, it was recommended by two people whose literary tastes often match mine, my brother and an ex-reading group friend. Finally, there was its Brisbane setting. I spent six special years of my childhood in the Sandgate area of Brisbane, where, I’d read, Dalton had also lived while growing up. Fortunately, all these reasons were justified as this novel is an excellent read – engrossing in content and intriguing in style.

Boy swallows universe covers around six years of its protagonist Eli Bell’s life, starting in 1985 when he is 12 years old and living with his mother, Frankie Bell, and stepfather Lyle. He and his mute older brother August are regularly babysat by Slim (based on the real criminal, convicted murderer Arthur Ernest Halliday) while Frankie and Lyle are out dealing drugs. Slim, for all his apparent criminality, turns out to be one of the most important wise people in Eli’s life – and, while he isn’t always around as Eli grows older, it is to Slim that Eli often speaks, consciously or subconsciously, drawing on his ideas and advice, as he faces life’s challenges. Eli’s relationship with Slim is just one of the threads and refrains that hold this big book together.

a genre-bending coming-of-age crime novel with a touch of magic

Terrible things happen in the book – and Eli and August are pushed around, buffeted by the things that happen in the adult world and over which they have little or no control. Part way through the book, having lived most of their lives with Frankie and Lyle in Darra (Brisbane’s southwest), they find themselves dumped with their damaged alcoholic father Robert Bell, whom they don’t know, and who lives in Bracken Ridge (Brisbane’s north in the Sandgate electorate). While Frankie and Lyle, for all their illegal doings, provide a generally stable home-life, the one provided by Robert is erratic, affected by his alcoholic binges. And yet, here too, the two resourceful boys find love – and more, support.

All this probably suggests to you a straightforward book about dysfunctional families, of which there are many these days. But, you would be wrong, because wrapped around the domestic is a story of drug dealing, drug double-dealing and violence, that takes this book into a whole other realm. In fact, the best way to describe it is as a genre-bending coming-of-age crime novel with a touch of magic. You with me?

Now, I’m going to shift gear a bit and return to those two books I mentioned in my opening paragraph. The book’s opening line is “Your end is a dead blue wren”, and we soon discover that these words have been written in air by August, who is sitting on their brown brick fence while Eli is being taught to drive by Slim. There’s a bizarre edge to all this which, in addition to the fact that the book is mostly about men and boys, fathers and sons, made me think of Toltz’s A fraction of the whole. However, while Toltz’s “bizarre” lies more in the absurd area, Dalton’s is more magical. There’s a red telephone in a secret room, for example, that always seems to ring when Eli is around. Who is at the other end? August at one point says it is he, but is it really? It doesn’t really matter, in fact, because the phone seems to be more about deflecting or, perhaps, relocating fear and trauma than about reality. It works because Eli’s voice and the sort of jaunty in-the-moment tone make it work.

More interesting to me, though, is the link with Winton’s Breath. They are very different books. For a start, Breath is more novella, while Boy swallows universe verges on the big, baggy monster. But, both books are fundamentally about what makes a good man – and, in neither case is the answer simple. In fact, it comes more often than not from flawed, if not sometimes bad, men. From early on in Dalton’s novel, Eli asks various men – family, friends, criminals, strangers – “are you a good man?” Many are surprised and know not what to answer. Gradually though Eli puts together his own picture from their answers and bevaviours, until, near the end, he says (addressing Slim in his mind):

This is what a good man does, Slim. Good men are brash and brave and fly by the seat of their pants that are held up by suspenders made of choice. This is my choice, Slim. Do what is right, not what is easy … Do what is human.

Now, before I get onto the writing, a bit about this genre-bending novel’s plot. As I mentioned above, the novel’s plot-line relates to drug double-dealing. This results, at the end, in quite a suspenseful, page-turning adventure that was much enjoyed by many in my reading group. But, not so much by me who finds reading action pretty boring. Indeed, if I have one question about the book, it’s whether it really needs the final chase. I think the point would have been made had the novel concluded just before it – but that final adventure will help the novel adapt well to film, and to a film that many will want to see, so I won’t be too churlish about it.

And, anyhow, it’s a small criticism because I greatly enjoyed the book. It is so well constructed. Little details dropped in one place are picked up in another; little verbal refrains recur adding both poetry and meaning without being heavy-handed. Even the curious, often cryptic, three-word chapter headings, like “Boy writes words”, “Boy steals ocean”, and “Boy masters time”, are explained late in the book when the Courier Mail editor asks Eli to tell his life in three words.

There’s also lovely descriptive, sometimes lightly satirical writing, such as this from the Vietnamese restaurant scene:

There’s two more tanks dedicated to the crayfish and mud crabs who always seem to resigned to the fact they’ll form tonight’s signature dish. They sit beneath their tank rocks and their cheap stone underwater novelty castle decorations, so breezy bayou casual all they’re missing is a harmonica and a piece of straw to chew on. They’re so unaware of their importance, so oblivious to the fact they are the reason people drive from as far away as the Sunshine Coast to come taste their insides baked in salt and pepper and chill paste.

Then, of course there’s the characterisation, and the first person voice. Eli is such a kind and likeable character. His coming-of-age is a tough one, but he’s positive, loving, open-minded and willing to learn. He’s also courageous. It could almost be schmaltzy except that you see the grit and know that he has been tested. More cynical readers might think Eli is too good to be true, but the book’s light tone and touch of magic remind us that this is not social realism. It’s “true” to the heart of what Eli (and I believe Dalton) experienced, but it’s not fact. It’s about surviving trauma. Dalton has, I’d say, found a perfect recipe for conveying dysfunction and accompanying trauma while also showing how it can be mentally and spiritually survived.

A good read, and a meaningful book that got my reading group off to a rip-roaring start for 2019.

Trent Dalton
Boy swallows universe
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2018
474pp.
ISBN: 9781460753897

Emily O’Grady, The yellow house (#BookReview)

Emily O'Grady, The yellow houseAlthough Emily O’Grady’s debut novel The yellow house won this year’s prestigious The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award for unpublished manuscripts by authors under 35, I wasn’t sure at first that I was going to like it. I think this was because I was feeling I’d read a surfeit of books this year about young people living challenging lives in rural settings – Charlie Archbold’s Mallee boys (my review), Jenny Ackland’s Little gods (my review) and Sofie Laguna’s The choke (my review). I wasn’t sure this was going to have anything new to offer.

However, it wasn’t long before ten-year-old Cub’s voice got me in and I realised that this book had a different spin again, which is that it explores how families of violent or sociopathic criminals, like serial killers, cope in the long years after it all comes to light. It’s a coming-of-age story, in a way, but a very different one. Cub, then, is our narrator. She lives on a “lonely property bordering an abandoned cattle farm and knackery” (back blurb) with her twin bother Wally, her 17-year-old brother Cassie whom she adores, and her parents, Colin and Christine. Within sight of their home is “the yellow house” in which her maternal grandfather, Les, had lived. He had died two years before the Cub and Wally were born – and in the prologue we learn that he had been a serial murderer of young women. The prologue closes with a now wiser Cub telling us:

Now, I know everything he did trickled down and created us all, because it turned out he was the god of all our lives.

So we know at the beginning something that Cub doesn’t know when the narrative “really” starts. Why does O’Grady take this approach? I’m guessing it’s to focus us less on that plot. We know what Cub doesn’t know – or at least enough of it. We can therefore focus on how a family lives with this knowledge rather than on trying to work out, as Cub has to do, what the secret is. It makes Cub a perfect naive narrator: she has the curiosity and loyalty of a child but lacks the wisdom necessary to make the right calls. There’s an added complexity to Cub’s situation which increases her isolation: everyone else in the family knows, including her twin brother. Cub wasn’t told because she’s a girl. It’s no coincidence that she, Coralie, has a baby-ish nickname, while her twin brother doesn’t.

The novel proper starts when Cub is approaching 11 years old, and her aunt, Helena, and 11-and-a-half-year-old cousin, Tilly, move into the yellow house. Tilly’s father, Dermott, we’ve already been told, had driven his car into the dam some time ago and died. It is Helena and Tilly’s appearance which sparks the events that play out in the rest of the novel, events that are “driven” by that violent forbear whose “rotten blood” is in their veins, whose legacy they struggle to shake off.

It’s a horrifying novel. We realise early on that the family is ostracised by the community in which they live, and is struggling emotionally. Cub’s Dad does his best to keep them together but is ill-equipped for the challenge he faces, while her Mum also does her best in her own way, but regularly takes to her bed, with various malaises, many depression-based presumably. Cub and Wally have no other friends at school, something Cub doesn’t fully cotton on to, but we do:

The kids at school were strange; Wally and I played by ourselves at lunchtime, always paired up when we did partner work.

Cub is consequently desperate to make Tilly, so close in age, her friend:

I tried to think of something else to say. I knew we had one chance to make a good impression and I didn’t want to waste it. But the silence felt as deep as the dam, impossible to swim out of. I was annoyed at myself for not practising with the girls at school. I should’ve been prepared.

But, it never quite works. Tilly, dangerously – she’s too much like her mother, Cub’s Mum hints at one stage – is more interested in boys. And, there are boys – besides Wally. There’s Cassie, and his creepy friend Ian. Tilly, like Cub, doesn’t know the story of the “yellow house” and her mother is determined to keep it that way.

The story develops slowly, chillingly, and, it feels, inevitably, as the secrets, parental inadequacy, community prejudice and cold opportunism combine to result in … I’d like to say more, but perhaps should not spoil the plot.

This is not a novel in which everything is explained – as can be typical of naive narrator stories – but there seems to be a specific intention here. At least, I’d say that O’Grady’s aim is not to tease out all the possibilities and permutations of the situation, nor to follow the more usual crime fiction path of restoring order out of chaos. Instead, it’s to encourages us, at each point, to consider what might be happening, why it might be happening, and what might make (or have made) it happen differently. That gives the book a power that those more traditional crime novels don’t have.

Besides this open-endedness which kept me engaged and pondering throughout, there’s O’Grady’s writing. It’s not tricky. There’s quite a bit of dialogue and simple description of what’s going on, as you’d expect, rather than a lot of reflection, but O’Grady has some lovely turns of phrase. At one point Cub is near Cassie’s friend Ian:

Now that I was right up close to him I didn’t know what to do; it was like my brain was wrapped in sticky tape and I couldn’t think properly.

The language and imagery, as this example shows, are appropriate for Cub’s age. And there’s the “yellow house” itself. Yellow has so many connotations. It can suggest something warm, bright, cheery, hopeful, but is also the colour of cowardice and deceit, and can convey sickness. The contrast between these positive and negative meanings of the title underpin the novel’s horror.

Why read this novel? There’s the obvious reason that it explores a subject that many of us must wonder about when we hear of violent crimes – how does the wider family cope, what happens to them? And there’s the associated reason that in so doing it might encourage us to think more empathetically if we found such a family in our midst. But, besides that, it’s an engaging debut novel by a new young writer from whom we will hopefully hear more. It’s always exciting to be in there at the start.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book.

AWW Badge 2018Emily O’Grady
The yellow house
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2018
314pp.
ISBN: 9781760632854

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Sue Williams, Live and let fry (#BookReview)

Sue Williams, Live and let fryWell, 2018 is clearly “the year of the Mallee” here at Whispering Gums, with Sue Williams’ Rusty Bore Mystery, Live and let fry, being my third Mallee-set book so far this year. The others are Jenny Ackland’s Little gods (my review) and Charlie Archbold’s Mallee boys (my review). By the time I visit the Mallee – next year I hope – I should know it well, though I might stay away from Rusty Bore. Fortunately, that won’t be hard as Rusty Bore is fictional. I say fortunately, because who wants to visit a place known for murders? It would be like choosing to visit Midsomer!

Seriously though, on with the book, starting with the fact that it’s the third in the Rusty Bore Mystery series. I haven’t read the first two, but I’d say this one stands alone well. There’s enough recap for the new reader to quickly pick up the main characters and their relationship with the protagonist, Cass Tuplin, who’s an unlicensed private investigator as well as the owner-operator of the Rusty Bore Takeaway. I’m not a big reader of crime fiction, but I do watch a bit on TV, and I can say that Cass fits the mould of many TV detectives – private or not, licensed or not – in that she has a messy personal life. She’s clearly had a fling with Vern, the owner of the town’s only other shop, but is now with Leo, who’s doing good works in Bolivia but is staying away significantly longer than he’d told her he would. Cass also has two sons – Dean, a not-very-successful policeman in Mildura (a real place), and the-not-very-sensible Brad who’s waiting his court case for “disseminating false information to the market.” There’s affection between mother and sons, but it’s not without tensions – either because Dean is fussing over his mother’s safety, not to mention her unlicensed detecting, or because Cass is too focused on this detecting to listen to Brad well enough to hear what’s happening in his life.

None of this need be taken too seriously, though. As the back cover blurb says, Williams is “Australia’s answer to New Jersey’s Janet Evanovich.” I haven’t, I admit, read Evanovich – shock! horror! – but Daughter Gums has, so I know enough to realise that her crime novels are bright, breezy affairs. And so, certainly, is Live and let fry.

Now, what to say? This is rural crime, and it starts with the disappearance of the aforesaid Vern’s new lady friend, Joanne, from the neighbouring town of Sheep Dip. (There’s nothing subtle in the town names here – Rusty Bore, Sheep Dip, Muddy Soak, Hustle.) Cass, like any self-respecting unlicensed private detective, is reluctant to become involved but, of course, you know she will – and she does. Pretty soon, a murder occurs – not Joanne’s though – and the plot rapidly thickens as we move into the murky world of developers and environmental protection. This has our intrepid Cass driving backwards and forwards across the Mallee in her “little Corolla”, getting into more and more serious scrapes, worrying her sons, irritating the police, and not always making the right calls – as you’d expect.

All this gives Williams the opportunity to provide us with a picture of the Mallee and its inhabitants, which she does in language somewhat different from that we’ve seen in those other Mallee books I’ve read. Here is the Mallee, for example:

As I got closer to Mildura the eucalypt-and-orange desolation gave way to irrigation green, the dark green of orange groves, the brighter, flamboyant green of grapevines, the camouflage khaki of olive trees. I drink it in – green’s not a colour we get that much of in Rusty Bore.

And here is one of its inhabitants:

Nola’s eighty-two and usually quite mentally robust, with opinions carefully cryo-preserved since 1953.

The writing is peppered with gentle, affectionate mocking like this, along with broad satire of various contemporary issues and preoccupations, such as “coffee condescension” from city-siders, and Cass’s own “artisanal” food. We’re also told that

Leo’s import-export business in Muddy Soak folded after the African knick-knack trade fell victim to the decluttering trend.

And there are digs at politics and politicians, such as:

I stood at the desk and waited. A TV flickering behind Taylah showed a surging crowd of middle-aged people in suits. Mostly men, looked like politicians. Another leadership spill? A new Royal Commission? There’d been a lot of debate lately about whether air exists. “If you can’t see it, can’t smell it, it can’t be there.” The slogan of one of the newer political parties.

It’s not subtle, but then Williams’ goal is less social or political commentary than maintaining a light breezy tone and conveying character.

Now, though, back to Cass. Does she get her man (or, not to be sexist, woman)? Well, this is what I’d call “cheery crime”, so yes, one way or another, she does. In other words, without spoiling anything, it all comes out right(ish) in the end and Cass lives to fight (or not, as she chooses) another day. I’m not sure I’ll read another Rusty Bore mystery as I feel I’ve got its measure now, but for those who love light-hearted crime, particularly with an Australian flavour, then Rusty Bore could be just the ticket.

AWW Badge 2018Sue Williams
Live and let fry
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2018
295pp.
ISBN: 9781925603514

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)