Her by Garry Disher
Historical , Recommended , Review / 14/09/2017

Garry Disher is probably best known for two crime series – the Peninsula Crimes books centred around the police in Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula and the Wyatt books, recently rebooted, which focus on a career thief. But he has other strings to his bow, with both contemporary and historical “literary” novels in his long career. Her, a historical novel set in the northern Victorian countryside in the years following the turn of the century, gives a blunt and confronting look at of the time.   The main character of Her does not even have a name for the first third of the novel. In 1909, at a young age the protagonist is sold by her family to the local scrap man and for years she is only known as “You”. The scrap man already has a wife and a teenager (known as Big Girl) who he possibly acquired in a similar way and who he later gets pregnant. You is put to work, catching rabbits, making items out of scrap and rags for sale and learning how to be a pickpocket and a thief. Life is already tough for the three women and the abusive, manipulative actions of the scrap man towards them make it even tougher.   Disher follows You as she grows up in this environment. When she is older she names herself Lily and goes travelling with the…

The Twentieth Man by Tony Jones
Crime , Historical , Review , Thriller / 07/08/2017

ABC journalist and host of Q&A Tony Jones put the cat among the pigeons last year when he suggested that there was Croation terrorism in Australia in the 1970s. There was fierce debate at that time around this suggestion about Croatian extremists and the involvement of the Communist Yugoslavian Government in potentially creating or manipulating the threat. In The Twentieth Man, Jones doubles down on his claims, in a historical thriller that gives Australian its own Day of the Jackal. The Twentieth Man opens with a historical bombing in the heart of Sydney in 1972. The bombs are planted by an anonymous Croatian terrorist seeking to destroy targets associated with the Yugoslavian government. Jones uses this opening to introduce a range of characters and it is a while before the narrative settles down around a few key players, particularly Anna Rosen, junior ABC journalist and daughter of a known Communist, Al Sharp, with the Federal Police, and rogue ASIO agent Tom Moriarty. Later in the book the action moves to Yugoslavia where a group of twenty Croatians have infiltrated the country with the aim of creating a popular uprising against the Communist Government. The Twentieth Man of the title is the survivor of this mission. Jones has crafted a fine historical thriller. The threat, when it emerges, is…

Half Wild by Pip Smith
Crime , Historical , Review / 25/07/2017

In 2005, the Police and Justice Museum in Sydney had an exhibition of police photographs from the early twentieth century. One of these that caught the eye of author Pip Smith was of a man called Harry Crawford, arrested for murder. It turned out that Crawford was actually a woman, Eugenia Falleni, who had been passing herself off as Crawford since 1899. Crawford/Falleni was arrested and convicted for the murder of one of his wives, although the circumstances surrounding this case were vague and sensationalised by its protagonist, known in the media as the “man-woman”. Pip Smith has taken the bare bones of this story and contemporaneous transcripts and newspaper articles to fashion a captivating version of Falleni’s life. Half Wild works in four distinct sections. The first, and most successful of these is the first person narration of Falleni’s childhood in New Zealand. Falleni was one of a brood of Italian children literally running wild on the streets of Wellington and even then battling with her identity and sexuality. This section of the book is rambunctious, sometimes surreal, and utterly engaging, although disturbing in parts. The short second section is Falleni’s reinvention of herself into the Scottish immigrant Harry…

House of Names by Colm Toibin

Plenty of modern authors have taken their hand to mythology. Neil Gaiman and AS Byatt have both had a go at Norse Mythology and recently Margaret Atwood retold the story of Penelope. Now Booker Prize winning Irish novelist Colm Tóibín, possibly better known for more sedate novels such as the recent Brooklyn, takes a turn at some bloody Greek mythology. House of Names retells the story of Clytemnestra and her children Iphigenia, Electra and Orestes. Clytemnestra was the wife of Agamemnon, known for winning the Trojan wars. But it was not an easy start to his campaign, the gods prevented his ships from leaving and he was told that he would need to sacrifice his oldest daughter Iphigenia to appease them. Tricked into bringing Iphigenia to the camp to be married to Achilles, Clytemnestra has to watch as her daughter is taken for sacrifice. She spends the next years plotting her revenge against her husband, allying herself with the slippery Aegisthus to do so. But the killing of Agamemnon puts in motion another round of revenge and retribution when Orestes is taken captive and, on his return, plots with his sister Electra to kill their mother. Tóibín uses different narrative techniques for Clytemnestra,…

A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert

Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy in Winter, explores the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine and the impact on its Jewish population by focusing on one small village.  There is always a question whether we need more books set in World War II. But in an age of continuing Holocaust denial and ongoing genocidal wars, reliving, remembering and investigating this time becomes more and more important. When the book opens two small boys are running through the night, it will be some time before Seiffert catches up with them again, by which time they will be truly on their own. The next morning, the SS and the Ukrainian police round up all of the Jews in the village and march them to a holding area. In keeping with the sharp focus of this book, the process is told through the eyes of the elderly school master and his elderly mother who are beaten as they are herded through the town. The rest of the local populace does nothing but watch through shuttered windows as their former neighbours are taken from their homes. Seiffert’s narrative ranges across a diverse cast of characters. One is Otto Pohl, an engineer who has been employed by…

Spoils by Brian van Reet
Historical , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 28/04/2017

In Spoils, Brian Van Reet returns to the early days of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. By following the lives of two US soldiers and one of the mujahideen, he creates a visceral but nuanced exploration of that conflict. The book opens with a firefight at a road crossing outside an Iraqi village which the American troops have nicknamed Triangletown. Specialist Cassandra Wigheard, a female gunner is wounded and captured by the mujahideen. Van Reet then flicks back in time to explore how she and the mujahideen arrived at that point, including the view of a second soldier, Sleed, who fails to support Cassandra’s platoon as he was too busy looting an Iraqi palace. About half way through, van Reet returns to this present and the plight of Cassandra and her two crew mates captured by the mujahideen cell and occasionally on the army’s hunt for them. Inside the mujahideen cell itself there is dissent around what to do with the prisoners, their new leader seeing opportunity for propaganda. This is a small story in the context of the broader war. The initial conflict is a limited roadside firefight and the characters are a long way down the chain of command….

Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty
Crime , Historical , Recommended , Review / 27/03/2017

It is a common trope in crime fiction that the protagonist detective often finds themselves in some sort of mortal peril. So much so that it starts to feel like a bit of cliché.  But for Sean Duffy, a Catholic policeman in a mainly Protestant police force in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, mortal peril is just a fact of life. From the first book in this award winning crime series Sean has been checking under his car for mercury tilt switches every time he leaves his house. So it comes as no surprise to long term fans that book 6, sporting the mouthful name Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly, opens with Sean being marched to his execution through a remnant patch of Irish forest. But, being Sean, as he puffs his way asthmatically through a bog he still manages to keep his mordant sense of humour: “A bullet in the head will fix an incipient asthma attack every time.” Flashback to Sean visiting his parents with his girlfriend and new baby Emma and being relieved to be called back to Carickfergus to investigate the murder of a small time drug dealer. From the start his…

City of Secrets by Stewart O’Nan

Stewart O’Nan explores the world of terrorists and terrorism in a historical context in City of Secrets. Set in Jerusalem in 1946, O’Nan focuses on the exploits of Jewish resistance fighters, working to end the British Mandate of Palestine. The central player in City of Secrets is Brand, a Lithuanian survivor who lost his wife, parents and sister in the Holocaust. Brand only survived himself due to his mechanical skills and a survival instinct that saw his fellow prisoners die while he stood by, a failure that still haunts him. Washing up in post-war Palestine he joins the Haganah, a group of Jewish resistance fighters and takes on a false identity as Jossi, a taxi driver in Jerusalem. The Haganah was a more moderate resistance force and had joined with the British during World War Two, while the more extreme groups Irgun and Stern Gang continued their bombing campaign. Now, with the war over and the British turing away Jewish refugees, Brand and his fellow activists are drawn into the Irgun. As the violence of their campaign escalates so do the risks of getting caught. At the same time Brand is in a desperate relationship with Eva, a fellow survivor…

The Jekyll Revelation by Robert Masello
Fantasy , Historical , Review / 17/02/2017

The Jekyll Revelation is a strange hybrid of a novel. It constantly flicks between the diaries of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, and the struggles of a present day environmental scientist tracking coyotes in Topanga Canyon outside of Los Angeles. In the process deep secrets are revealed. The Robert Louis Stevenson story line is told in diary form. It starts with a murder then flashes back to Stevenson’s sojourn with his family in a Swiss health retreat while he writes Treasure Island. Stevenson was seeking (and received according to his diary) radical treatment for a chronic lung condition. The story of Stevenson’s stay at the sanitarium and his bizarre treatment is told in the best tradition of gothic horror. The results provide more than the inspiration for the novel about Jekyll and Hyde which, once published and adapted for the West End stage, draws Stevenson into the Jack the Ripper investigation. The Jekyll Revelation leans heavily on historical record to create a fictional Stevenson. And Robert Masello effectively manages to blur the line between what is likely to be the truth, fictional licence and out and out fantasy. Meanwhile, in the bright sunshine of Topanga Canyon, Rafael Salazar is dealing with…

The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith
Historical , Review / 06/02/2017

Martin Cruz Smith takes a break from his long running Arkady Renko Russian crime series which started with Gorky Park to explore a different corner of history. The Girl from Venice takes readers to Italy in the dying days of the Second World War. Italy is being bombed by the allies and is riven by division as Mussolini and the fascists cling on to power. At the same time the country is playing host to the German Western Front command and an increasingly desperate German army, many of whom can see the writing on the wall. But the focus of the novel is Innocenzo, or Cenzo, a fisherman of Pallesteria, a small town across the lagoon from Venice. When Cenzo picks up what he thinks to be a dead girl floating in the lagoon he steps into a world of trouble. The girl, Gulia, very much alive, has escaped from a German attack that killed her Jewish family and the two end up in the middle of a number of power plays as various people try to manoeuvre as the war ends. Chief among these is Cenzo’s brother, a famous actor and propagandist for the Mussolini regime. Cenzo, while having…

The Good People by Hannah Kent
Historical , Literature , Review / 13/12/2016

Hannah Kent rose quickly to justified prominence with her stunning first novel Burial Rites. That book, set in the harshness of Iceland took a true story and brought it viscerally to life. While the method is the same, and there are similarities between the two books, The Good People explores a very different landscape and a very different culture. The Good People opens in a small village in Ireland in the 1850s. Norra and her husband have been eking out an existence and trying to look after their disabled grandson Michael. The four-year-old cannot talk or use his legs, he was left with them by their son-in-law when their daughter died. When her husband dies suddenly Norra is left adrift. In the highly superstitious villages this death is seen as evidence that Michael is a changeling, a child stolen by the fairies, or Good People. The village itself is caught between the old ways and the new. Kent effectively captures the tension between the desire to put the old superstitions aside and the pressure on villagers from the new priest to fully commit to Christianity. The old ways are represented by Nance, a woman who understands the fairy lore and…

Darktown by Thomas Mullen
Crime , Historical , Recommended , Review / 23/09/2016

A crime novel set in Atlanta in 1948, Darktown uses the genre to shine a light on a point in time in American history and, in doing so, on present day America. Thomas Mullen uses as his jumping off point the true story of the appointment of the first eight black policemen in Atlanta. They do not have an office, instead they are forced to operate out of the basement of a local YMCA. They were not given cars and had to call in white detectives when a matter needed investigation. Distrusted almost as much by the locals in their own, segregated neighbourhoods as by their fellow police officers, they were nevertheless part of the vanguard of a nascent civil rights movement. Lucius Boggs, son of the local preacher and recently returned from the Second World War, is one of the first eight black policemen in Atlanta. He and his fellow recruits are keen to clean up their part of town, rife with bootleggers, gambling and prostitution. To add to their problems, many of those enterprises are either sponsored or actively managed by their white police colleagues who make money from turning a blind eye and who are not keen to see any change to the…

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

With Black Lives Matter in the news in the US it is perhaps no surprise that fiction and non-fiction explorations of slavery are once again coming to the fore. Fiction which focuses on slavery, while important to an understanding of historical context, also casts a light on current events. Recent films like 12 Years a Slave, the remaking of Roots on TV and now, among a number of new books which take slavery as their focus, comes Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad begins with the origins of the slave trade. The story of Cora’s grandmother who was transported to America and passed through a number of hands before arriving at a cotton plantation in Georgia from which she never left.  But the focus of the novel is on Cora, forced to find her own way after her mother escaped from the plantation, when she was eleven, leaving her behind. Cora, encouraged by a fellow slave, also decides to flee despite the severe and violent consequences of failure. When she does, Cora discovers the underground railroad used to transport escaped slaves North. In Whitehead’s world this is no metaphorical device but an actual railroad dug into the earth by unknown hands, run by white station agents committed…

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith
Literature , Recommended , Review / 16/06/2016

At one point in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos it is the late 1950s and a young Australian art student is in conversation with a middle age New Yorker. She is trying to explain to him why an Australian audience would be more likely to identify a good piece of classical music as European rather than Australian. “What does that say about Australians?” He asks, and she replies: “That we don’t trust our own talents. That anything foreign or exotic is automatically better or more refined.” Australian cultural cringe in a nutshell. An observation which has little to do with the plot or major concerns of the novel but just one of the many themes of this accomplished and engaging novel. The events of 1958 are the fulcrum of the novel. Ellie Shipley, a young Australian art restorer and academic is talked into creating a forgery of a painting by a female 17th century Dutch artist. When he discovers the theft of his family heirloom, the painting’s owner Marty de Groot takes on a false identity to track her down. Forty two years later, and Ellie is an art expert in Sydney, assisting with the curation of an…

The Long Count by JM Gulvin
Crime , Historical , Review / 08/06/2016

JM Gulvin is initially a little coy about the timeframe of The Long Count, the first in a new series centered around Texas Ranger John Quarrie, or John Q to his friends. Hints are dropped through the early text – Vietnam gets a mention and it appears that student rioters are taking up the time of the police – slowly building a picture of the late 1960s.  The secrets that drive this book are also closely held and sparingly doled out, through to the startling revelations left to the very end of the book. When the book opens, John Q, his young son James and his friend Pious are grabbling – freediving for catfish in the submerged wreck of a train. The long count of the title refers to the length of time an experienced grabbler can stay submerged. But their idyll is disturbed by the discovery of bones in the wreckage. This is closely followed by John Q being called out to investigate the killing of a policeman. That killing, followed a separate murder, and spirals out into a wave of other crimes and John Q starts to track the killer across Texas. Soon the trail points to Ishmael, an…

A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald by Natasha Lester
Historical , Review , Romance / 31/05/2016

Natasha Lester’s latest novel takes readers into the heart of Jazz Age New York. Despite the promise of the title, F Scott Fitzgerald does make an appearance even as a cameo, although a few historical figures appear or rate a mention. The reference to Fitzgerald in the title, dropped fairly heavy handedly at the beginning of the novel, is the idea of the more modern woman, unshackled from the Victorian mores that pervaded American society through the early twentieth century. Evie Lockhart, the protagonist takes this approach to life to heart. After being unable to save a woman in childbirth, she determines to become an obstetrician despite all of the pressures on her to not even apply, never mind succeed. Evie joins the Zeigfried Follies to fund her way through medical school, despite an undertaking to the school not to do anything to bring it into disrepute. At that time only one woman had graduated from medicine and was not celebrated for her achievement. Evie’s struggles to succeed against a disapproving establishment and its escalating attempts to remove her, coupled with her double life as a singer and dancer is one of the highlights of this novel. Lester has other…

The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis
Historical , Literature , Review / 23/05/2016

Georgian London, Summer 1763, a year in which, to quote Janet Ellis’s note, “nothing much happened”. This means there is nothing to distract the protagonist of The Butcher’s Hook or her family from their seemingly ordinary, upper middle class lives. The Butcher’s Hook is a fairly macabre character study. Anne Jaccob, eldest daughter of the Jaccob family, bursts from the book from the first page. She appears contemporary but is also very much of her age. The way she and her family behave, though, is shaped by the mores and expectations of the time. Anne is a clever girl but is not sent to school, she has a tutor who leaves her father’s service under a cloud. Left to her own devices, Anne becomes a singular personality, finding it hard to make connections with other girls her age when the opportunity is presented and creating an intense inner life. Anne is a teenager and full of passion, unwilling to be shackled to the odious Onions, the man who her parents have chosen for her. Instead, she falls deeply for the butcher’s nephew and they begin a clandestine relationship. She then bucks against a system that forbids this relationship, going to extreme…

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

Chris Cleave opens his forth novel with a sentence that sums up his main character: “War was declared at 11:15 and Mary North signed up at noon”. Mary does not get what she expects, ending up in the teaching service and helping to evacuate children from London to the countryside. Mary is just one of the rounded and unforgettable characters in Cleave’s new novel set in the first half of World War Two. But she is the heart and soul of this work – a jaunty but fierce, undaunted young woman trying to find her way in a world that is coming apart around her. Mary is not the only character that Cleave follows into the war. There is Mary’s best friend Hilda, her new boss Tom, who is happy not to fight, and his friend Alistair Heath, an art conservator with the Tate who has gone to war and ends up defending Malta from the Germans. Also trying to survive the war is ten year old American boy Zachary. Zachary is African American and does not fare well when evacuated to the country with the other children. Zachary ends up back in London during the Blitz with his father…