Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Review: LITTLE CRUELTIES

LITTLE CRUELTIES by Liz Nugent (Gallery/Scout Press, 2020)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

This story begins with a funeral. One of three brothers is dead, mourned by his siblings. But which one? And how? And, most importantly: why?

William, Brian, and Luke are each born a year apart in a lower middle class Catholic family in 1960s Dublin. William, the eldest, rises to the top of the heap in the film industry as a successful movie producer. Luke, the baby of the family, surprises everyone by morphing into a worldwide pop star. Brian, the compliant middle son, is the eternal adult in the room: the helpful, steady one, the manager of finances and careers.

But none of them is actually quite what he seems. Wounded by childhood, they have betrayed one another in myriad ways, hiding behind little lies that have developed into full blown treachery. With an unnerving eye for the complexities of families, Nugent delves into the secret life of a deeply troubled household and provides stunning insights into the many forces that shape us from childhood.

Exquisite storytelling from a masterful author. Liz Nugent knows how to take readers to some dark and disturbing places with some at-times foul characters while compelling us to keep turning the pages.

Irish author Nugent has racked up #1 bestseller accolades and several awards for her compulsive standalones that centre on rather horrendous people. Whether it’s a man who ‘snaps’ and beats his wife, a rich couple happy to cover up a horrible crime, or an aging socialite willing to do anything to maintain her fantasy life, Nugent’s characters are often the worst in the room, yet strangely engaging.

Little Cruelties continues Nugent’s magic for making rather revolting folk rather riveting. It’s the tale of three brothers who take sibling rivalry to toxic levels, and opens with all three at a funeral: one brother is in the coffin, has one of the other two put him there? 

The novel is divided into thirds, with readers taken through the perspectives of each of the three Drumm brothers on key moments of their lives over the past decades. 

Will, the eldest, is a womanising ‘family man’ and film producer. The youngest, Luke, shines bright as a young pop star before burning out in a haze of addictions and mental health issues. Middle child Brian seems the boring one, devoted to niece Daisy and shifting from teaching into celebrity management. All three are the offspring of a self-absorbed showbiz mother. A family of grudges and jealousies, damaging each other’s lives (and those of others) whether they mean to or not. As events unfold we come to some pretty horrible realisations about many things. Is any redemption possible?

Nugent has penned a riveting story that blends whodunnit with shades of Greek tragedy.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

Review: CONSOLATION

CONSOLATION by Garry Disher (Text Publishing, 2020)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Winter in Tiverton. Constable Paul Hirschhausen has a snowdropper on his patch. Someone is stealing women’s underwear, and Hirsch knows enough about that kind of crime—how it can escalate—not to take it lightly.

But the more immediate concerns are a call from the high school, a teacher worried about a student who may be in danger at home. Another call, a different school: a man enraged about the principal’s treatment of his daughter.

A little girl in harm’s way and an elderly woman in danger. An absent father who isn’t where he’s supposed to be; another who flees to the back country armed with a rifle. Families under pressure. And the cold, seeping feeling that something is very, very wrong.

Outback Noir’ became a hot commodity thanks to the global success of Jane Harper (THE DRY), Chris Hammer (SCRUBLANDS), and the Mystery Road films and television drama. But long before any of them hit the crime scene, there was the brilliant storytelling of Garry Disher. A couple of year's back, Disher deservedly received the Ned Kelly Lifetime Achievement Award for three decades of storytelling excellence,

Judging by the high quality of his new novel CONSOLATION, there's been no resting on his laurels. Many authors plateau, taper, or wane with long-running series or crime writing careers in general. Disher has shown with CONSOLATION, like he did with PEACE, that he's among the few who keep raising the bar, decades in.

The third outing for Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen sees the likable rural police constable now settled into life in tiny Tiverton, South Australia, wearing out the tyres on his 4WD as he patrols the surrounding ‘wheat and wool’ landscapes. While there's not the buzz and busyness of city life, that doesn't mean nothing happens.

Hirsch is on the trail of a 'snowdropper', someone who's been stealing old women's knickers. Is it just a prank, or could it be a dangerous sign of much worse to come? Meanwhile a teacher worries for a home-schooled student who may be getting neglected, and a furious local confronts a principal at another school about publicly shaming his daughter. Women old and young are in danger, then the angry man violently confronts an officious council worker trying to enter his property, before going bush with his son and a couple of rifles. While all this is going on, 'tradesmen' are conning older folks out of their savings, and there's a suspicious death.

With plenty on his plate, Hirsch tries to keep the peace and put a lid on simmering tensions threatening to boil over, while dealing with city detectives investigating various incidents, plus his own personal stalker. Not to mention he has to step into a leadership role, temporarily, when his own boss gets injured on the job.

Disher adroitly brings many threads together into a cohesive whole while giving readers a deep look at a rural community and the people who live there and pass through. CONSOLATION is a sublime tale tat flows so well it'd be easy to overlook just what a triumph of a novel it is. Disher shows once again that he's a consummate storyteller, the kind who makes the difficult seem oh-so-easy, like watching a talented guitarist launching into a spine-tingling solo live onstage. While the third in a series, CONSOLATION could be read as a standalone.

Whether this is your first taste of Disher's crime tales, or you're a long-time fan, you're in for a treat.


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Review: PEACE

PEACE by Garry Disher (Viper Books, 2020)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Constable Paul Hirschhausen runs a one-cop station in the dry farming country south of the Flinders Ranges. He's still new in town but his community work - welfare checks and a light touch - is starting to pay off. Now Christmas is here and, apart from a grass fire, two boys stealing a vehicle, and Brenda Flann entering the front bar of the pub without exiting her car, Hirsch's life has been peaceful.

Until he's called to an incident on Kitchener Street, a strange and vicious attack that sickens the community. And when the Sydney police ask him to look in on a family living on a forgotten back road, it doesn't look like a season of goodwill at all...

While several fresh antipodean voices have recently garnered global attention and accolades for their outstanding tales set in rural Australia - from the CWA Dagger-winning novels of Jane Harper and Chris Hammer to even more recently the likes of Gabriel Bergmoser with THE HUNTED - Garry Disher shows once again in PEACE why he’s the master who paved the way. 

Put simply - this is a superb tale where the violence simmers in a small community and the heat haze shimmers from the page. Right from the opening lines its clear you’re in the hands of a consummate storyteller. 

A couple of years ago Disher received the Ned Kelly Lifetime Achievement Award, just recognition of a rich crime writing resume, and PEACE shows he ain’t resting on his laurels. It marks the return of likable police constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen from 2013’s terrific BITTER WASH ROAD, which won the German Crime Prize. 

Exiled from Adelaide to tiny Tiverton, Hirsch’s beat involves a lot of long drives, welfare calls, and dealing with drunken shenanigans. At times his biggest stress may be playing Santa or doing his share at a community work bee. But things take a far nastier turn when someone brutally attacks Nan Washburn’s horses, and then a secretive family on the outskirts of town suffers violence that brings big-city detectives to town. 

Disher delivers dirt-caked authenticity with both the countryside setting and its eclectic inhabitants. Hirsch is an engaging hero full of humanity, juggling small-town politics and trying to handle the nastiest of crimes while being marginalised by colleagues who still blame him for the fall of other cops, corrupt or not. Disher has produced another classic.


Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

Monday, November 2, 2020

Through the eyes of children: debut tales win Ngaio Marsh Awards

 

Through the eyes of children: debut tales win Ngaio Marsh Awards

Fresh voices came to the fore at WORD Christchurch Spring Festival on Saturday afternoon as Becky Manawatu and RWR McDonald were named the winners of the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Awards.

Both winners were first-time novelists, and while their winning books were different in many ways, each was told in large part from the perspective of young children dealing with loss and violence in small-town New Zealand, each included a rich cast of diverse characters, and each expertly blended lighter moments with dark events in tense tales that could make readers gasp and laugh.

Manawatu (Ngāi Tahu) scooped the Best Novel prize for AUĒ (Makaro Press), a novel infused with domestic violence and gang life, told from the perspectives of eight-year-old Arama, his teenage brother Tauriki, and young woman Jade. She’s the first debut author to win Best Novel since 2010.

"A breath-taking expose of lives lived on the margins, and the fight for redemption and absolution,” said the judges. “Manawatu doesn’t use crime as a plot device but shows it woven into the fabric of her characters’ lives, defining them, sometimes destroying them, and serving as a perverse unifier.”

AUĒ joins THIS MORTAL BOY by Fiona Kidman as the only novels to have won both the Ngaio Marsh Award and the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

RWR McDonald grew up on a sheep and deer farm in South Otago, and now lives in Melbourne with his two daughters and extended rainbow family. He won the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel for THE NANCYS (Allen & Unwin), an exuberant small-town murder mystery where eleven-year-old Tippy Chan teams with her visiting uncle and his boyfriend to solve the murder of her teacher.

“Hilarious and inventive; the dynamic between the young protagonist and the adult characters is unusual and special,” said the judges. “A clever hat-tip to one of the most indelible female characters in the genre, and a story that blends crime and humour in unexpected ways.”

It’s a little surreal to realise this is the tenth anniversary of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, said founder Craig Sisterson. The awards were established in 2010 to celebrate excellence in local crime, mystery, thriller, and suspense writing. Sisterson noted that the Ngaios were modelled somewhat on the Hammett Prize in North America, which has been won by the likes of Margaret Atwood and focuses on ‘literary excellence’ in novels entwined with crime, so isn’t restricted to detective novels or whodunnits.

“We’ve been blessed to have some extraordinary books to consider and celebrate over the past decade, and this year has further added to the growing depth and diversity of local crime writing.”

Becky Manawatu received a trophy and $1,000 courtesy of WORD Christchurch. McDonald won a trophy and cash prize from the Ngaio Marsh Awards. “We feel very fortunate to have been able to hold a real life event before a live audience to celebrate our finalists and winners this year,” said Sisterson. “Huge thanks to Rachael King and WORD Christchurch for all their hard work in such a challenging year, as well as for their ongoing support every year since we launched in 2010.”

For more information about the Ngaio Marsh Awards, like on Facebook or follow on Twitter

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