Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Review: FOR REASONS OF THEIR OWN

FOR REASONS OF THEIR OWN by Chris Stuart (xx, 2020)

Reviewed by Fran Hartley

Can the past ever be left behind? Ask a flawed detective, a former refugee and a government desperate to misuse a dead body to reshape Australia’s security policy.

Melbourne is a city on the brink, from arson fed bush fires, searing heatwaves and the potential threat of terrorism. Detective Inspector Robbie Gray, falling foul of Police bureaucracy, gets called to a body found lying in a rural swamp. When the nationality of the victim is revealed, ASIO take over her investigation and she is sidelined. 

Convinced they are misinterpreting the evidence, along with a disenfranchised policeman, she secretly digs for the truth and discovers an entirely different motive, one which transcends international borders and exposes corruption in the humanitarian world. When the killer is arrested, DI Robbie Gray realises that the past contains only hurt and pain and she asks herself whether in certain circumstances, murder may well be justified.

This book will appeal to readers over the age of eighteen who like a crime novel with an unusual slant. It is well written, easy to read and follow. The descriptions of the Melbourne districts are very good indeed. The characters come to life and you quickly feel that you know and sympathise with the dedicated Detective Inspector Robbie Gray, whose recent internal investigation is tarnished when evidence goes missing, leaving Robbie feeling aggrieved and frustrated.

Robbie is sent to observe, undercover, at an International Disaster Conference, a role she feels is below her capabilities, but doubt has been cast on her professional judgement. However, she is called to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding the discovery of a body in a rural swamp, north of Melbourne. Robbie is given a small team that includes Mac, an Aboriginal Police Officer, who has also suffered injustice in a disciplinary matter, which Robbie can empathise with.

Both Robbie and Mac have an admirable desire to search for the truth in what is, to them, clearly a murder. But when the nationality of the murder victim is revealed the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) take over the case, instructing Robbie and her team to “back off”. However, Robbie is convinced the ASIO are on the wrong tack and wants to continue her investigation, suspecting corruption and political manipulation.

Set in Melbourne during a stifling heat wave, drought and raging bush fires, DI Gray has to convince her superior to allow her team to continue to investigate this murder with no apparent motive and, as Robbie suspects, the ASIO wrongly focusing on the murder as a terrorist orientated incident in order to reshape the Australian security policy.

Robbie and her team are challenged by heartbreaking humanitarian issues with the eventual outcome making the reader think deeply about the social injustices that are still happening in our world.

A thoroughly good read, making me want to look forward to another DI Robbie Gray story.

This review was first published in FlaxFlower reviews, which focuses on in-depth reviews of New Zealand books of all kinds, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of Flaxflower founder and editor Bronwyn Elsmore. 

Monday, August 31, 2020

Review: GIRL FROM THE TREE HOUSE

GIRL FROM THE TREE HOUSE by Gudrun Frerichs (2019)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

It all unraveled at the funeral... Horace Reid's death opened the door to our freedom. His widow, Elizabeth, exists only on paper. She disappeared thirty years ago. It's us, the Tribe, who live in her body now. But nobody knows that. Us are Elise, the reluctant host, Lilly the closer, Ama, the proverbial mother, Sky, our wise guide, Amadeus, the warrior, and Luke, the man around the house. There are others, but we make sure they stay hidden and away from harm.

After Horace's funeral, they tried to lock us in a mental hospital. Our sister-in-law had it all carefully planned. Thanks to quick thinking—yes, being a multiple has its advantages—we escaped to New Zealand's South Island. Tucked away in the West Coast wilderness we... well, the plan was to continue our healing. We didn't expect that monsters from our past still had us on their radar. When the police accuse us of murder we have to run again. Where to go, which way to turn? Our neighbor Scott appears helpful, but can we trust him? Can we trust ourselves? Can we trust anyone?

The author of GIRL FROM THE TREE HOUSE, Gudrun Frerichs, worked for 25 years as a psychotherapist specialising in trauma. She's now written this astounding book, a fictional and moving account of Elizabeth, a thirty-two year old woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Elizabeth has many personalities, and this story is told from the perspective of the four core identities, avoiding any graphic descriptions of the reasons how Elizabeth was traumatised to this extent, providing a moving, clear and informative outline of the difficulties she battles every day of her life.

Setting a sensitive, and thoughtful depiction of somebody's experience of DID within a form of psychological thriller plot is an inspired choice by this author, especially as there is nothing manipulative or exploitative about the way that the plot is expanded. There's no gory murders, there are no games played with Elizabeth's motivations or actions, but there is threat, and there's an incredible sense of a woman coming to terms with her life's journey and escaping the control of others.

The different personalities have, as you'd expect, their reasons for being, their tasks in life if you like, and their awareness or not of each other. There's an elegant balancing of threat and empowerment though - there are suggestions that it's because of the multiple personalities that Elizabeth is able to escape a bad situation, take some control of her own life, and it works. It's believable, empathetic without ever feeling manipulative, funny without making you question your reactions, and cleverly pitched.

A masterclass in showing, not telling, acutely observational and informative, GIRL FROM THE TREE HOUSE was an absolute standout read for me this year. It's number one in a planned series "Women of Our Time". Can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to the next one.

GIRL FROM THE TREEHOUSE has been shortlisted for the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel.



Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, a terrific resource - please check it out. Karen also reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best NovelShe kindly shares her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Review: OVER YOUR SHOULDER

OVER YOUR SHOULDER by CJ Carver (Bloodhound Books, 2019)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Twelve years ago, Nick’s brother, Rob, drowned.  His body was never found.  When Nick met Susie at his brother’s funeral, he thought it was destiny.

But when Rob suddenly re-appears, Nick is forced to examine everything he once knew. Why do the police want to talk to Rob? And what is he running away from?

Nick wants to find his brother but if he does, he risks losing the woman he loves. Because Susie has her own secrets, and as the truth emerges, Nick finds it is those closest to us we should fear the most…

“Things were so topsy-turvy I was beginning to wonder if anyone could be taken at face value anymore”. Nick Ashdown’s world has hurtled off the rails. He was watching TV with his wife, Susie, when they saw a news item about a man acting heroically in the face of a lone-wolf shooter. But it wasn’t the possibility of random violence that had shaken Nick, it was the fact that the hero was his younger brother, Rob, who had died in a boating accident 12 years before.

OVER YOUR SHOULDER rockets along as we travel with Nick as he faces reveal after reveal about the past, and about his present, and faces the possibility that his little brother might not be a hero, but a murderer. Nick is so unprepared, so content with his life in the picturesque coastal village of Bosham. He is a graphic designer working not far from home, Susie does weekly commutes into London for her civil service job, his parents don’t live far away, and everyone knows him and his family down at their local.

The reader starts picking up clues along the way as we go on Nick’s journey, and we see things from Susie’s point of view as well as Nick’s. There is a great stereotype reversal in their relationship – Nick would like to have kids and become a stay-at-home dad, but Susie is ambitious, focussed on her career, and she is strong-willed: “I couldn’t imagine many wives letting their husbands continue what others might call a reckless undertaking.” Nick finds himself neck-deep in a world of drug smuggling, big money, chilling villains, possibly dodgy cops, and extreme violence.

Amidst Nick’s adjusting to this new and dangerous world, is his confusion and anger over Rob. Nick and his parents have grieved for him, Rob’s wife has re-married, his children have a new father. Through the book Nick is constantly taken back to the times when he and his little brother were growing up together: “I wanted to go sailing with him. Have a pint with him. Go walking along the shore, identifying the waders probing in the mud for shellfish and crabs, chatting about nothing in particular alongside the sound of curlews. I wanted to see my little brother and give him a hug. After punching him first, of course.”

Nick finds a strength and resilience he didn’t know he had, and he discovers one of his biggest weaknesses is his inability to lie effectively. And as the twists continue, even those readers who have picked up clues along the way will be surprised at the climax! The plotting is excellent, and the coda after the main reveal gives the novel much more substance than it would have had with just a ‘got ya’ ending, and the extra twist at the end keeps you thinking for quite a while after you have finished reading.

Another excellent thriller from C J Carver, have a read!

Alyson Baker is a crime-loving retired librarian in Nelson. This review first appeared on her blog, which you can check out here

Friday, August 28, 2020

Review: THE WILD CARD

THE WILD CARD by Renée (The Cuba Press, 2019)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

"Sure thirty years is a long time. Sure the case was closed. Well, never really a case as such. Fifteen-year-old brown girl tops herself, who cares? Turn the page. That bloody notebook, thought Club. God knows what was in it. Who knew that little bitch could even write?"

Ruby Palmer has been dealt a rough hand. She was left in a kete at the back door of the Porohiwi Home for Children when she was a baby, and then at seven she discovered that Betty – who stopped the bad stuff happening to Ruby at the Home – had drowned.

Now in her thirties, Ruby needs to find out what really happened to her and Betty at the Home – and her only lead is a notebook that uses the symbols in playing cards to tell a story she doesn’t fully understand. But her investigations set off a chain reaction: a man in a balaclava attacks her and there are break-ins at her apartment and the local theatre where she’s acting in The Importance of Being Earnest. As Ruby goes deeper into the mystery at the heart of the Home, she starts to find answers to questions she hadn’t dared ask. 

The author of THE WILD CARD, Renée, is a much loved and prolific writer of novels, memoir, poetry and plays in her native New Zealand. She won the NZ Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement in 2018, following which she wrote this, her first crime novel, at the age of 90.

Tagged by the author as "cosy noir", it comes as no surprise that Renée would have set her first crime novel partially in the world of theatre, given her experience of that environment, and the rest of the premise is strikingly done. THE WILD CARD blends that theatrical background into a story about the abuse that children suffered in State-run homes for many decades in New Zealand. Beautifully written, with a light, almost visual touch, this exploration is all the more telling.

There is a big cast of character introduced here so you'll need to concentrate as Ruby Palmer, now in her thirties, has decided that the time has come to find out what happened to her best friend Betty at the home they were living in as young children. Abandoned as a baby at the back door of the Porohiwi Home for Children, she was seven before Betty came into her life. Betty was the only person that stood up for Ruby, the only person that showed her decency and compassion, and then she drowned. The only lead Ruby has is a notebook filled with symbols in playing card that she must decipher to learn the truth. Along the way Ruby wants to find out her own personal history - who she is, and hopefully even why she was left.

At the same time she's finally got a break in her acting career having been cast as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Unfortunately her quest for the truth leaves her threatened, assaulted, having to rely on the support of friends, and struggling with the demands of the part she's so desperate to keep.

The characterisations drawn by Renée in this book are just wonderful, and the writing style makes it engaging and enjoyable, whilst never losing sight of the quest that Ruby is on. The theatre setting is depicted with considerable authority, and affection, with an absolutely outstanding ending as a bonus. All in all THE WILD CARD is a wonderful book with so much going for it.

As a bonus I've had the chance to do a bit of reading up on Renée since her entry in the Ngaio Marsh awards and she is one hell of a force of nature by the sounds of it. You can get a real sense of the woman behind the writing with her Lockdown Letters Series here, There's even an article there about the writing of a Locked Room crime novel. She is reportedly working on her own second crime novel and I for one am standing by.

THE WILD CARD has been shortlisted for the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel.



Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, a terrific resource - please check it out. Karen also reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best NovelShe kindly shares her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction

Review: AUĒ

AUĒ by Becky Manawatu (Makaro Press, 2019)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

Taukiri was born into sorrow. Auē can be heard in the sound of the sea he loves and hates, and in the music he draws out of the guitar that was his father’s. It spills out of the gang violence that killed his father and sent his mother into hiding, and the shame he feels about abandoning his eight-year-old brother to a violent home.

But Ārama is braver than he looks, and he has a friend and his friend has a dog, and the three of them together might just be strong enough to turn back the tide of sorrow. As long as there’s aroha to give and stories to tell and a good supply of plasters.

Auē: 1. (verb) (-tia) to cry, howl, groan, wail, bawl.
Nō tō mātau mōhiotanga kua mate, kāore i ārikarika te auē o ō mātau waha (HP 1991:19). / When we knew that she had died we howled our eyes out.
(https://maoridictionary.co.nz/word/524) 

Understanding the meaning of the verb auē doesn't quite cover the visceral, gut-wrenching capacity of it in the way that the novel AUĒ depicts it. The characters in this novel experience it in all sorts of ways, including love, lamentation, surprise, annoyance, and sorrow.

AUĒ is on one level, a brutal novel. The subject matter is challenging, confronting and profoundly sorrowful. On another level it's hopeful, the voices that tell their stories are glorious, deeply human and cautiously optimistic. There's amazing writing here, telling difficult tales of human failure in a delicate, almost lyrical style, never downplaying the awfulness but somehow adding hope and light to some pretty dark subject matter.

To be clear, it's the darkest of dark subjects at points, with gun violence, animal cruelty, domestic violence, gang culture and drug addiction. Interwoven into those darker aspects there are insights into local belief systems and glimpses of love and the support and care of family. It also carefully explores the legacy of inter-generational trauma and learned behaviours.

The story is told from three different perspectives, Ārama (eight year old boy), Taukiri (his older brother) and a couple, Jade and Toko. The story is told in alternating viewpoints with the two boys in the present and the couple in the past. Alongside the telling of these three different perspectives are moments of description of place that are breathtakingly beautiful, but it's the internal monologues, pictures and views of the main characters that are the most descriptive, illuminating and sobering. There are also touches from another world, a view from the wind or a spirit, giving perspective and providing deeper understanding.

It's this aspect that makes AUĒ comparable to Alan Duff's ONCE WERE WARRIORS, but a completely different undertaking. They both touch on the same subject matter, the same violence, drug culture, domestic abuse and inter-generational trauma, but AUĒ, on reflection (and you'll be doing a lot of that after reading it), seemed to this reader to be like, but not the same as the other. Perhaps it's the sheer beauty of the voices of the characters here, perhaps it was the little touches of humanity - the coping mechanisms, the bandaids Ārama uses to cover up emotional and physical hurts.

Whatever it was AUĒ was gut-wrenching, uplifting, saddening to the point of tears, horrifying to the point of having to put it down, and hopeful to the point of more tears.



Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, a terrific resource - please check it out. Karen also reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best NovelShe kindly shares her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction

Review: NOT BAD PEOPLE

NOT BAD PEOPLE by Brandy Scott (HarperCollins, 2019)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

Three friends, thirty years of shared secrets, one impulsive gesture .. and a terrible accident. When friendship goes bad, someone has to pay. For fans of Liane Moriarty and Robyn Harding.

It's New Year's Eve. Three thirty-something women - Aimee, Melinda and Lou - best friends for decades, let off sky lanterns filled with resolutions: for meaning, for freedom, for money. As the glowing paper bags float away, there's a bright flare in the distance. It could be a sign of luck - or the start of a complete nightmare that will upend their friendships, families and careers.

The day after their ceremony, the newspapers report a small plane crash - two victims pulled from the wreckage, one a young boy. Were they responsible? Aimee thinks they are, Melinda won't accept it, and Lou has problems of her own. It's a toxic recipe for guilt trips, shame, obsession, blackmail and power games.

They're not bad people. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

New Years Eve often involves some reflection, some celebration, and some odd goings on. For Aimee, Melinda and Lou, starting out their celebration with an illegal Chinese lantern ceremony. Filling each lantern with their own resolution, the women light them and they lift off, after which they soon notice a flare of fire in the distance. Was it lucky, or something very bad (and for this reader why the hell didn't they ring the fire brigade, or the police or do SOMETHING it's JANUARY IN AUSTRALIA for god's sake!)

The next day, and the discovery that the flare was a small plane crashing, and the women start to wonder. Aimee takes the blame, Melinda dismisses it as nothing to do with the lanterns, and Lou's got other things on her mind. Leading to a blow up between the three, their relationship overrun by guilt and obsession.

A slow burning psychological thriller, NOT BAD PEOPLE seems to fit in the chick-lit/thriller style of novel that's been around quite a bit lately. In this outing we have three women fitting into the categories of brave, over-privileged and whinging nicely, with their downfall the sort of poor decision that anyone could make at any moment in time (although to be fair it came as a timely reminder also of the differences between city and country living - December/January and a hint of smoke or flames in these parts leads instantly to a lot of Meerkat like behaviour and a leap for the phone).

NOT BAD PEOPLE is one of those psychological thriller/mistakes in the moment type novels that you can really see making book club lists around the place. There is much scope here for discussions about the differences between good and bad, the way that mistakes happen and the way that people recover or atone for those mistakes.



Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, a terrific resource - please check it out. Karen also reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best NovelShe kindly shares her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Review: THE STRENGTH OF EGGSHELLS

THE STRENGTH OF EGGSHELLS by Kirsty Powell (Cloud Ink Press, 2019)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

Kate sets out on a motorbike to find her past. Why does her mother Jane only communicate through poetry? What became of her grandmother Meredith who travelled up the Whanganui River on a paddle steamer to marry a returned soldier in an ill-fated valley beyond the Bridge to Nowhere? And what should Kate do about her own two pointed love triangle.

THE STRENGTH OF EGGSHELLS explores the lives of strong rural New Zealanders, set against the fragile isolation of a farm upbringing, two world wars and a landscape that is inevitably slipping beyond reach. 

Another in a long line of amazing family saga novels out of New Zealand, THE STRENGTH OF EGGSHELLS is the debut novel of Kirsty Powell.

A tale of the women of three generations of one family, this novel is the story of discovery, understanding and acceptance.

In the present day Kate is self-conscious about her height, and unsure of her background, and the circumstances of her birth mother Jane's residency in a mental hospital. Jane's story is told mostly by the Medical Officer there, Dr Bean, Jane having been badly burnt in a fire. He is a gentle man, and he and Jane use poetry to communicate, with Jane providing hints about her past life, although it's obvious she is holding back details from her daughter as well.

Then there is Kate's Grandmother Meredith. An incomer to a remote valley surrounding the Whanganui River post the First World War, in a soldier settler area that eventually was deserted, and allowed to return mostly to its original splendour. Meredith has a loveless marriage with a man who turned to whisky, and ends up living in a Maori hut behind the farm house, contributing little to the running of the farm. Meredith, however, had turned her hand to everything, she was a strong, determined, calm woman of infinite capacity and longing. You can't hope but think that Kate will discover a connection with her Grandmother, and find some of that strength and capability is somehow genetic.

Kate is looking backwards to the women in her family at a time of need in her own life, discovering a book of Jane's poetry kept by Dr Bean. The overall story is told in a series of chapters narrated by each of these characters. It's a journey of discovery that the reader is taken on at the same time as Kate, which sometimes can be a bit cliched or corny, but in THE STRENGTH OF EGGSHELLS is anything but. The story of women's lives and their strength and commitment to the development of places and families seems to be all too frequently missing from the history of our places, and this novel takes us into interesting territory with the connection between three female generations. The strong, resilient determined but sad Grandmother; the damaged and struggling Mother, and now Kate - the inheritor of much potential and a background that's unclear and needs to be swept into the open to allow her to take advantage of the future. It also doesn't flinch from the violence and sexism of the past, as well as non-gratuitous depictions of rape and murder.

It's an elegant reminder of the rural roots of so many families. Not just that we had somebody who came from the Bush, but that the bush provided those families with a start, and the chance to create strong connections to the place. It reminded this reader yet again that we owe understanding and respect to people who have a much longer connection to the land and know that it's part of their identity and their existence.



Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, a terrific resource - please check it out. Karen also reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best NovelShe kindly shares her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction

Review: CRYPTOBYTE

CRYPTOBYTE by Cat Connor (2019)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

In charge of all three Delta teams and still in the field with Delta A while juggling twin toddlers, Special Agent in Charge Ellie Iverson tackles life, cases, and endless meetings with arrant determination and sometimes with her growing psycho-prophetic skill set.

Approached by a police officer in Missouri for help with two, seemingly unrelated, missing family cases, SAC Iverson agrees to offer assistance. That event cued a series of cryptic text messages, an added twist to an unfolding situation with a long reach and unsettling ramifications.

Before Ellie could take a breath an old friend approached her with a gripping dilemma that snowballs into two overlapping occurrences.

When everything collides Ellie is left reeling at the length in which people will go to get what they want.

This review comes with what is now the standard warning, this really is a series that needs to be read in order. There's a lot going on with Special Agent Ellie Iverson and it always feels like the backstory helps enormously when keeping everything that is happening sorted out.

In short, SAC Iverson works for a special unit within the FBI - known as Delta teams. There are multiple Delta teams out there, and Iverson is now in charge of three of them, but still working in the field with Delta A - a group of officers that she knows and has cared about for a long time now. Whilst juggling twin toddlers, and a growing psycho-prophetic ability.

In CRYTOBYTE (book 11 of the series), they are approached by a police officer in Missouri looking for help with two, up until now, unrelated missing family cases, where these entire families have just vanished, after a series of cryptic text messages.

This whole series is high action, event driven thriller fiction, with a strong female lead, albeit with that slight paranormal element that may or may not work for some readers. They are set in increasingly different case types, spread throughout America, and in the most recent books, there is the complication of family responsibilities as well. The strongest part of the series is undoubtedly the interactions between all the characters - which has always felt more "New Zealand / Australian" humoured than American to this reader, but it works, and is frequently laugh out loud funny. Things can get a bit ropey plot wise at points, but the point of this series has always felt like the action, the dare doing's and those character interactions.

Definitely one for anybody looking for high-octane thrillers with some paranormal elements, and a kick arse, do everything central female central character.



Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, a terrific resource - please check it out. Karen also reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best NovelShe kindly shares her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction