Sebastian and Oskar have been friends since their days studying physics at university, when both were considered future Nobel Prize candidates. But their lives took divergent paths, as did their scientific views. Whenever Oskar comes to visit from his prestigious research post in Geneva, there is tension in the air, and it doesn’t help their friendship that he feels Sebastian has not lived up to his intellectual capacities, having chosen marriage and fatherhood as an exit strategy.
DARK MATTER is one of those books that I picked up with considerable happy anticipation, so was more than a little startled to find myself really struggling to get into the start of it. Until a point at which I found I wasn't struggling and was completely absorbed.
And I suspect that's very much what the book is set out to do. Set in Freiburg near the Black Forest, the book starts out with two men and their obsessions. Their friendship begins at University, studying physics - Sebastian, retains his love of physics opting for academia, sharing his love of physics with his love for his wife Maike and young son Liam. Oskar is less traditional, hanging onto many of the eccentricities of their university days - he goes onto research, pure physics. Despite a falling out between the two, they continue to meet on the first Friday of every month and debate - argue - discuss late into the night. Then Liam is kidnapped and Sebastian is told that he must kill a man to regain his son. Understandably his life shatters, he feels set adrift from everybody and everything and he makes some choices which seem to the reader, the outsider, inexplicable.
It's through the early phase of the book that I really found myself struggling - firstly with the relationship between Sebastian and Oskar which, whilst interesting, didn't seem to be telling me anything in particular, and secondly with how Sebastian, a supposedly intelligent man, managed to let himself be manipulated to that point (despite father love and the desire to do anything to protect your child, without giving the plot away, there are factors which seem inexplicable).
But enter the police Detective Schilf and things get really interesting - the book shifts focus from an almost mocking, frivolous tone into a profoundly emotional character study. Not just a character study, this book quickly evolves into one in which the reader is forced to consider some hairy questions - what would you do if you had weeks or hours to live, one final case, and a guilty man in extenuating circumstances?
It's also at this point that the structure of the book begins to makes sense - and those chapter introductions stop being slightly quirky (Chapter one in seven parts. Sebastian cuts curves. Maike cooks. Oskar comes to visit. Physics is for lovers. / Chapter four in seven parts. Rita Skura has a cat. The human being is a hole in nothingness. After a delay the detective chief superintendent enters the scene) and start to have a point - sometimes they ask a question / sometimes they state a thought to be explored / sometimes they just intrigue. All in all it's at this point that DARK MATTER stops being a slightly darker version of TV's The Big Bang Theory and starts to become a character study of depth, layers and great emotional impact.
All in all I'd have to say, stick with the early part of DARK MATTER. It's not crime fiction just for entertainment, and it's often confusing and slightly odd and there are parts of the book that will make you stop and think, and maybe back-track a bit. But this is crime fiction for thought provocation and boy does it manage to do exactly that.
BURIED FOR PLEASURE - Edmund Crispin
In the sleepy English village of Sanford Angelorum, Professor Gervase Fen is taking a break from his books to run for Parliament. At first glance, the village he's come to canvass seems perfectly peaceful, but Fen soon discovers that appearances can be deceptive; someone in the village has discovered a dark secret and is using it for blackmail. Anyone who comes close to uncovering the blackmailer's identity is swiftly dispatched.
Originally published in the 1940's the Gervase Fen mysteries are one of those rights of passage for crime lovers. Or at least they were in my house as I was growing up. Vintage Books have done us all an enormous favour in turning their attention back to some of the classic books - and this set from Edmund Crispin is a real job to behold. Now I have read a lot of these books before, but the chance to reread them, without having to rely on falling on fragile old copies in second-hand bookshops is a joy.
And these are still very good crime stories. Slightly eccentric in that vaguely bats sort of what-ho English style, they are built around a good solid foundation of a problem and a solution, no matter how odd the methodology might seem these days.
They are ultimately extremely enjoyable books - and Gervase Fen is a wonderfully eccentric, but extremely alert British investigating sort of chap - and I cannot recommend them highly enough - either as a reread or as a new experience if you're new to these classic English crime books.
MURDER IN UTOPIA - Philip McLaren
Doctor Jack Nugent never liked looking at dead people and he hated touching them. In spite of this, he acquired detailed knowledge as to what happened to human remains. In the small community of Utopia, in the middle of Australia, he'd picked up skills he simply never could have learned by staying in New York: Aboriginal ritual killings hardly ever happened there.
There are a lot of reasons why I move heaven and earth to get hold of a Philip McLaren book when I hear there's a new one in the offing. Firstly, as you can probably pick from the synopsis above, there's a very dry, understated wit in McLaren's story-telling style. He's also writing about his own people, in a way that's both affectionate and exasperated. He's also frequently very very pointed about the difficulties Aboriginal people in Australia face on a daily basis.
What McLaren is doing in MURDER IN UTOPIA is really interesting. He runs a parallel story of a young Aboriginal girl in Australia, against a disgraced New York doctor both of whom collide in Utopia. McLaren hastens to add this is not a book about the real Utopia - rather it's a fictional setting for his book, stating "I found the irony irresistible: imagine naming a place Utopia, a place so impoverished, so desolate."
The narrative moves forward bringing Jack Nugent to outback Australia and a community in need of medical services, as well as a community struggling against so many issues - alcohol, violence, neglect, poor housing, tensions with authorities. All of these are told from both points of view - from the American, doctor, outsider with alcohol problems of his own, and from people within the community. A ritual killing becomes a catalyst for people to adjust their views and for the depth of the problems in the community to be dragged into the daylight.
The structure of this book really works well, and whilst it is obvious that there is a lot of opinions and observations of reality being voiced within the narrative, fair enough. In fact it's a privilege to read a fictional story addressing real-life issues in an Aboriginal voice, and the occasional stridency or maybe sledge-hammer adjustment of plot to make a point seemed perfectly reasonable in the circumstances.
Not a book for readers looking just for "pure entertainment" MURDER IN UTOPIA is a book for readers that want to learn something about issues we should be more aware of, written by somebody who obviously knows.
MOSQUITO CREEK - Robert Engwerda
Under ceaseless rains, the Murray has burst its banks and engulfed the remote Mosquito Creek goldfield. Life on the diggings just got even tougher.
As disease adds to the camp's miseries, a suspiciously abandoned tent suggests frictions have turned murderous. The experienced Sergeant Niall Kennedy knows that things are not always as they seem. But if the missing digger is on the run, what is he running from?
MOSQUITO CREEK, the first novel from Robert Engwerda is set in 1855 on the northern Victorian goldfields. It's a particularly pleasing experience to read about this area of the goldfields, deep in flood, when we've spent such a long desperate period in drought.
Engwerda has done a fantastic job at putting the reader into this location and the time period. There is a real sense of place and time, evoking the sheer weirdness of the alliances, tension, desperation and transience of the Goldfields. It's very easy to forget, in this day of easy transportation, just how much these communities moved around - constantly chasing the latest big gold find. There are references dotted throughout the book to people, last seen in Geelong, or Melbourne, or elsewhere on the goldfields, and it's only when you sit down and think it through that you realise what is now a 3 hour drive for us, must have been a many day walk for them. And they carted their home and chattels with them.
But in terms of a crime fiction novel, MOSQUITO CREEK is doing something different. This isn't your standard murder up front, investigation resolves the case type of book. There are crimes past and present, there is a disappearance, there are miners stranded by the flood. There is also a possible Cholera epidemic, the need for a quarantine station, and a budding romance. As well as a circus, a boat building exercise, and a hefty dose of barking mad officials.
A fair amount of this book is spent introducing Sergeant Niall Kennedy, and that, and the ending to this tale, means this reader has to assume that this will be the first book in a series. Because of that backstory concentration, and probably also because this isn't a traditional crime / investigation style book, there are points where the narrative does wander a little, or maybe get a little fuzzy, but that is not so surprising in a first book, and the difference in approach could impose that style. MOSQUITO CREEK relies more on developing a sense of place and a feeling of the time. It's a book for immersion reading - rather than pace, tension or even to some degree puzzle solving.
It's interesting to see something different being tried in local crime fiction, and the period and location definitely appeal. Where MOSQUITO CREEK really excels is in that evocation of the place, the time and the setting. It gives a realistic glimpse into the physicality of the Goldfields, alongside many more human elements. Obsession, Machiavellian revenge plots, politics and tensions within the Goldfields, differing groups of miners (on ethnic lines, but also some form of convenient tribal alliance), and the difficulties in building a Policing Authority from elements of free society and the convict community. Really, there's too little current day fiction being published set within this most influential place and time, and hopefully there will be followups to MOSQUITO CREEK.
WATCH THE WORLD BURN - Leah Giarratano
Miriam Caine is dining with her son in an up-market restaurant when she bursts into flames.
The restaurant's manager, ex-cop Troy Berrigan, is first to Miriam's aid, but she later dies of her injuries. When police find accelerants on the victim, attention is turned to their whistleblowing former colleague, the only person close enough to have set her on fire.
Clinical psychologist and best-selling author Leah Giarratano is known for exploring various criminal and/or psychological behaviours in all of her books, and in WATCH THE WORLD BURN, the fourth in the Sergeant Jill Jackson series, she's exploring family, along with extreme psychopathic behaviour. Whilst earlier books clearly demonstrate Giarratano's own background in her deft handling of the extremes of human behaviour, somehow, WATCH THE WORLD BURN is more assured, more informative, more affecting and profoundly unsettling.
Readers of the earlier books will know that Jill Jackson had an horrendous experience as a young girl - kidnapped, raped and tortured. Her ongoing battle to cope and move on is an underlying thread in all the books in this series, but in WATCH THE WORLD burn we see Jill put under the most extreme personal pressure and we watch as she completely falls apart, and starts to put herself back together again.
We also watch as a series of different sorts of families cope. Jill's family continue the struggle to support both of their daughters - both victims of Jill's childhood experience in their own ways. We also watch as a young Aboriginal ex-cop struggles to rebuild his life after he was shot, wounded, pushed from the force after he became a whistleblower. As the sole carer for his much younger brother and sister, Troy Berrigan has a family that was torn apart by so many of the problems in Aboriginal society, being put back together by their individual and collective strength. Then there is the family of Miriam Caine. Her son and granddaughter are pulled into Troy and Jill's circle after Miriam bursts into flames one night the very up-market restaurant that Troy manages, dying a painful and seemingly inexplicable death. Followed by a spate of seemingly unconnected acid and arson attacks around Sydney, the police investigation slowly weaves the stories of Jill, Troy and Miriam's families together.
Balanced well between the police investigation and the various personal stories, WATCH THE WORLD BURN quickly becomes an emotional rollercoaster, although don't for a moment think that means that the reader is left feeling manipulated or over-wrought. It's searing in its portrayal of desperation, pain, suffering, madness and hope. There's humour and great humanity here as well, there are strong and safe characters balancing out the damaged. And in creating a bad guy who is somewhat elusive Giarratano has created what seems to be a pitch perfect portrayal of a psychopath - distant, illogical, slightly out of focus even, but ultimately inexplicable.
Readers of Giarratano books need to be aware that they aren't going to be in for an easy read, but they are absolutely guaranteed to feel something. You may also learn something about the slender threads that some people balance on every day. But you cannot come away from WATCH THE WORLD BURN unaffected by the characters created, the pain that they feel, and the nature of nurture.
KING OF THE CROSS - Mark Dapin
King of the Cross is a dazzling novel that explores the criminal world of Jacob Mendoza: legendary Godfather of Kings Cross and for more than four decades, Australia's most powerful and notorious crime figure. Now in his eighties, Mendoza believes it's time to record his epic life story - although finding a competent writer is never easy. As Mendoza unfolds his seductive story of thugs and drugs, murders and mysteries, bikers, bent cops and girls, girls, girls, it emerges that he's not the only one with a past. And the memoir takes shape, other more terrifying criminals are circling the
Anybody with a passing interest in notorious Australian "identities" in the not so distant past isn't going to take too long to twig on whom Mendoza is based, and that same reader probably is going to be excused for any guesses about the writer who narrates this fictional book.
Basically the story is that a journalist working for The Australian Jewish Times makes a complete hash of a story and ends up being fired by the editor. Circumstances intervene, things happen, he finds himself interviewing / writing the life story of Sydney gangster Jacob Mendoza. Mendoza is what he is, although he does try to wrap it up in a lot of long-winded justification. Klein, the writer, isn't what he says he is. He wraps that up in a bit of a story as well.
Most of Mendoza's story is told in a series of long interviews or monologues, whilst most of Klein's story is narrated by him - aiming obviously for an unreliable narrator scenario Undoubtedly the author has a fine eye and understanding of the characters that inhabit Kings Cross, but that fine eye seems somehow to fall sort when it comes to his two central characters. Mendoza's story is, I suppose, supposed to be hilariously funny - and there were some lines that absolutely raised a smile. It was also seemingly supposed to be confrontational - crude, rude and more than a bit risqué. Which has, after all, been done before and whilst I'm a big fan of writers doing this in our own voice, it has to be a more complete package.
Unfortunately I found KING OF THE CROSS a little too tedious, a little too forced and the few good touches didn't quite compensate.
CONSPIRACY 365 February - Gabrielle Lord
Cal's old life ended as soon as the deadly 365-day countdown began. So far he's been attacked by sharks, blamed for a vicious assault on his family, kidnapped by two criminal gang, and left to drown in a fast-filling oil tank.
**Note - it is hard to put this in without adding a spoiler for January, but then each book includes a summary at the start.
Callum Ormond, after being captured by a crime boss, is now almost drowning in an underground oil tank. The enigmatic girl Winter intervenes although she has her own secrets and Callum cannot find it in him to trust her. But who else can he trust? He is on the run from the police and from at least two crime syndicates with their own agendas.
Despite himself, Winter seems to have information that might help Callum uncover the secrets that surround the Ormond family. The Ormond Angel, the Ormond Riddle and the Ormond Singularity.
I'm getting very very worried about the people that help Cal. It's a fraught experience, and the new character of Winter is a good entrant to these books. Perhaps this is part of why this series might be aimed at boys, but would work incredibly well for girls as well. Both sexes are well represented in Cal's peer group.
The pressure is really increasing on Cal in February, and he's finding it very hard to work out who to trust, as well as finding his life on the run becoming increasingly uncomfortable. There are two questions out of this book - can he survive, will he weaken?
Apropos of very little - love the backwards page count that they are using in these books - we start at page 183, reading down to 0!
SHARP SHOOTER - Marianne Delacourt
Tara Sharp should be just another unemployable, twenty-something, ex-private schoolgirl... but she has the gift - or curse as she sees it - of reading people's auras. The trouble is, auras sometimes tell you things about people they don't want you to know.
When a family friend recommends Mr Hara's Paralanguage School, Tara decides to give it a whirl - and graduates with flying colours. So when Mr Hara picks up passes on a job for a hot-shot lawyer she jumps at the chance despite some of his less-than-salubrious clients.
Tara Sharp is a newish entrant in the Australian amateur investigator / mad cap girl / chick lit style of crime fiction. With the added extra of a bit of paranormal ability, as in aura reading.
There's been a lot of entrants in this sort of slightly out of control, breathlessly 20-something, girl on the run, living in straightened circumstances, forging a way in the world type books recently, although I'm struggling to think of another one that has that added paranormal feature (that's not to say that there's not lots and lots of them out there). Tara's not overtly annoying, and the aura reading seemed unexceptional in the context of her character and her life. Some of the fem-jep aspects got a little tiresome after a while, as did the line up of expected clichés - clothes, boys, crushes and love affairs, living back with the parents and so on. Mind you, Mona the Monaro is a fantastic touch!
To be fair, this is not my sort of book. Having said that, for something that I normally wouldn't read it was okay, and it is good to know that there are some local offerings out there. If you're a fan of this sort of lighter, chick-lit styled book, then SHARP SHOOTER should be just the ticket.
CONSPIRACY 365 January - Gabrielle Lord
On New Year's Eve Cal is chased down the street by a staggering sick man with a deadly warning.
They killed your father. They'll kill you. You must survive the next 365 days!"
Conspiracy 365 is a series of 12 novels, released one per month, following the story of 15 year old Callum Ormond. Callum's life is turned upside down after the death of his father from a mysterious virus. Before his death his father has provided clues to the mystery of his virus, and whatever it is in the background of the family that Callum needs to know about, but it's not until he is directly threatened himself that he's forced to find the answer.
These books are targeted at kids between 10 and 15 and whilst they are obviously meant specifically for young boys, they would work equally well for girls. But we were lucky enough to receive January-May as review books, and we're definitely going to be going out and buying the rest of the year as they become available. We're both reading these books, so we'll both be commenting on them giving the girl and boy perspective (albeit from people "slightly" older than the target group!).
Conspiracy 365 is an interesting approach to young adult fiction, combining a web site with competitions and previews and a monthly release of a novel in serialised form. Each novel ends in a cliff hanger which, by the chat on the website, has been an outstanding success in getting readers hooked onto the story.
The story follows Callum being chased by a number of groups all intent on discovering some secret, although Callum himself is trying at the same time to figure out what the secret is they all want.
In the January instalment, Callum finds himself almost drowned after a boating accident, kidnapped, and a fugitive after being wrongly accused of an attack on his family. So Callum, with only his friend Boges believing him, hides out and tries to put the scant facts together about the Ormond family history and what it means to Callum and his family today.
There was only one technical issue in this that I had a problem with, and that was the use of the mobile phone. I kept wondering why the police did not trace Callum via his mobile, or at least get access to his call record to figure out he was in constant contact with his friend. In an otherwise brilliant story, this kept nagging at me.
This series is a very interesting, layered idea, obviously designed to try to make reading more appealing to media-savy consumers - particularly boys. The novels are supported by a website, membership cards, online media and so on. Regardless of the supporting environment, the quality of the story-telling has to hold up in order to grab and keep any reader's attention, although in this case, the supporting multimedia environment is very nicely done.
And the storytelling does hold up. There are tricks and methods used in these books that an adult reader might feel slightly less comfortable with (cliffhanger endings, personal jeopardy and so on), but for young readers, used to a TV world, would probably seem perfectly reasonable and very very appealing.
Callum is on the run from the end of this book, supported and aided in his quest by his best friend. The quest combines an excellent level of physicality as well as online / technological research - the acts spread across both boys in a very realistic manner. Callum's survival living wild in the city, being pursued by people whose motives he doesn't understand is very tense, and scary enough to really give the reader a sense of peril.
The overall sense of tension built around Callum's fate (and in my case a big worry about his best friend), the intricate nature of the quest and the clever layout of clues, along with the way in which Callum sticks to his quest regardless of the amount of pressure placed upon him, well it was excellent.
Roll on February.
GUNSHOT ROAD - Adrian Hyland
Emily Tempest is small, black, as snaky as a taipan's tooth and is the woman least likely ever to embark on a career in policing. But her old mate Superintendent Tom MacGillivray has persuaded her to sign on as the Aboriginal Community Police Officer for the outback (not to mention throwback) township of Bluebush.
GUNSHOT ROAD is the second Emily Tempest novel from Australian author Adrian Hyland. Set in the outback of Australia, GUNSHOT ROAD has one of those magnificently authentic Australian voices that you just know comes from an author who knows his place, and his characters very very well.
Emily Tempest is a tricky woman. She's one of those mouthy, stubborn, opinionated women who will do what she believes is right, no matter who or what says no. She's going to stick to her case, she's going to support her people, she's going to follow her instinct - and everybody else, well they can like it or lump it. Either way - their choice. Emily's her own woman. Joining the police seems like an inexplicable decision for a woman like Emily. And then again, it doesn't - nothing like fighting the system from within after all. Besides, none of her colleagues have the slightest idea what or who she is or what she'll do next. Least of all somebody "Acting" as the boss. Poor Cockburn - he's new in town and he doesn't quite get the idea that you never, ever ever poke a snake with a stick.
When Doc is found dead in his shack, a hammer in his throat and his latest combatant drunk and snoring away in the bunk beside him, Cockburn and just about everybody else is happy to accept the bleeding obvious. Emily knows something's not right and she knows these people - Doc, the accused Wireless, the community, and she comes to know the artist sitting on the rockface above Doc's who can also see the strange patterns in the landscape.
DIAMOND DOVE, the first Emily Tempest novel was a really really good book, but GUNSHOT ROAD is more. Much much more. Hyland's taken this book further into country, aboriginal lore and lifestyle. Whilst weaving a tale of death, deception and much nefarious goings on, which is a reasonable puzzle, carefully laid out, and ultimately plausible. Perhaps a little too plausible. But more than that, into this western "plausibility" Hyland has seamlessly woven Aboriginal lore and dreaming. He's also not shied away from the less savoury aspects of these outback communities and the ravages of the difficult balancing act between traditional and western life for so many people. But he does that with a wonderful touch, with an inspirational feeling of true admiration and affection for these people.
I read GUNSHOT ROAD on a cold Central-Western Victorian day, sat in front of an open fire. Yet I could see the heat haze. Taste the bulldust as it swirled around my feet. Hear the beautiful, haunting, glorious sound of singing to country. I could see Emily, I could sense her exasperation, feel her frustration, hear the determination. GUNSHOT ROAD made me yearn to be out there, perhaps to come across Emily and maybe cheer a bit from a safe distance. To be privileged enough to really hear language, that singing to country and to witness the intrinsic, heartfelt, deep connection to place and a way of life. GUNSHOT ROAD has left me so very very pleased that Hyland wrote a second book, hoping there is a third, and filled with the need to pack the car and head off into the place that Hyland writes so well.