The Reckoning by John Grisham
Crime , Historical , Review / 13/12/2018

John Grisham’s first book A Time to Kill was set in the fictional town of Clanton in the Mississippi region of Ford County. He has returned to Ford County a few times in his career and in The Reckoning he is back again. This is Clanton in 1946, just after the end of the Second World War, still surviving on cotton and low paid labour. When the book opens Pete Banning is preparing to commit an act which will reverberate through that small community for years to come. Pete Banning, latest in a long line of cotton farmers in Clanton, returned from the war a changed man. He had been missing presumed dead, his family having been notified of his death three years earlier. His experiences in the war, which he refuses to share but which are detailed later in the book, shaped him and his outlook on life. When the book opens, Pete plans and carries out a murder. He walks into the Methodist church, kills the preacher Dexter Bell, and essentially admits to the crime but refuses to explain why he did it. The crime splits the small community, many of whom revered Pete as a decorated serviceman….

November Road by Lou Berney
Crime , Historical , Recommended , Review / 07/12/2018

The Kennedy assassination is the literary gift that keeps on giving. Authors like Don Delillo, James Ellroy, Norman Mailer, Tim Baker and Stephen King just to name a few have used the assassination as the jumping off point to tell bigger stories. Lou Berney goes the other way. In November Road, the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath is used to tell an intimate tale of love and loss, with plenty of blood and violence along the way. Frank Guidry is a hood with not a huge serving of morals. Based in New Orleans, he works for the Marcello crime organisation. When November Road opens he is selling out his friends and sleeping with a string of women. Then the Kennedy assassination happens and it turns out that he may have tangentially been involved, having a few days before organised for a car to be waiting at a particular spot in Dallas. This was the getaway car for the actual shooter and before long Guidry has been given the job to make that car disappear. Only he quickly realises that, as a loose end, once this is done he too will be made to disappear. While he does not know it…

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Pat Barker came to prominence in the 1990s with her trilogy of novels set in the First World War (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road), the third of which took out the Booker Prize. In The Silence of the Girls she goes much further back in time, to the Trojan Wars. This story, told in The Iliad, has been reinterpreted and retold many times. Barker takes a new tack, telling the story not from the perspective of the soldiers but the women who were their chattels and their prizes and their slaves. The Iliad opens with an argument between Achilles and Agamemnon over a woman. That woman is Briseis, a prize of war claimed by Achilles earlier in the campaign. Barker opens her book earlier in time, with Briseis watching as Achilles and his troops sack her city and kill her family. She and the other women are taken back to the Greek camp and distributed as prizes. Briseis, the biggest prize, is ‘awarded’ to Achilles. Through Briseis’s story, Barker explores how women are used, abused, marginalised, ignored and blamed. Early in the book,  Briseis is brought as a child bride to King Mynes and ends up…

Preservation by Jock Serong
Crime , Historical , Review / 23/11/2018

Australian author Jock Serong never does the same thing twice. He has gone from corruption in sport in The Rules of Backyard Cricket to a political thriller in On the Java Ridge and now to historical investigation in Preservation. But in each case he shines a light on some aspect of Australian life or, in some respects the Australian condition. In Preservation, besides being a cracking tale of survival, betrayal and psychopathy, Serong explores the earliest days of the colony of Sydney. Preservation is based on a true story. In 1797, a boat called the Sydney Cove running rum into the fledgling colony of Sydney (rum being a currency at that time) from India, runs aground on a tiny island just north of Tasmania. A group of seventeen, including four Englishmen and thirteen Lascars, leave the rest of the survivors behind on the island to go for help. They founder off the coast of Victoria, make land and then proceed to walk the fifteen hundred kilometres to Sydney. Only three survived the walk. Serong builds his tale around these three but also their interrogator, Grayling and his wife, who has been struck down by a debilitating illness. It emerges early…

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Ghost Wall, the sixth book by British author Sarah Moss, is as short and sharp as a flint knife. The book is a coming-of-age tale that explores the power of the past to inform and drive action. Along the way, Moss deeply questions the Brexit movement and gender power dynamics. Ghost Wall opens in prehistoric times, with the death of an Iron Age woman at the hands of her tribe. Cut to almost modern day, sometime not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and teenage Sylvie and her parents have joined a university project conducting an experiment in living archaeology in the Northumbrian countryside. The aim of the project is for the family, along with the professor and his three young adult students, to live as far as possible as people did in the Iron Age. As Sylvie observes: … that was the whole point of the re-enactment, that we ourselves become the ghosts, learning to walk the land as they walked it two thousand years ago, to tend our fire as they tended theirs and hope that some of their thoughts, their way of understanding the world, would follow the dance of muscle and bone. To do…

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
Literature , Review / 31/10/2018

Washington Black is the second book for Esi Edugyan to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It mixes brutal realism and social commentary with a quixotic fantasy with steampunk trimmings that takes its protagonist across the globe. Washington Black is a young slave on a Barbados sugar plantation called Faith in 1830. The reader finds out that he is soon to be free but the sting is in the journey that gets him there and the way he is treated once he attains that status. Life on Faith is hard and becomes harder when the plantation owner dies and the running is taken over by the violent Erasmus Wilde, a man who sees the slave population as inhuman and expendable. Erasmus arrives with his brother Christopher, a dreamer and scientists who is building a flying machine that he calls the Cloud Cutter. Christopher, aka Titch, asks for and is given the young Black as a servant and goes to work making his dreams a reality. When the brothers learn that their father has died, Titch flees with Black in tow beginning a years-long odyssey. Black’s journeying takes him to Virginia, the arctic where he is abandoned by Titch, Newfoundland, England,…

The Last Brother by Andrew Gross
Historical , Review , Thriller / 04/10/2018

Thriller writer Andrew Gross dips into his own family history for inspiration for his latest book The Last Brother. While there is plenty of action and a little suspense this is down the line historical fiction exploring the growth of the rag trade in New York in the early twentieth century and the organised crime that grew up around it. The Last Brother opens with a tragedy. One child of a Jewish immigrant family of six children dies in an accident putting Harry, the twin of the boy who died, on a different course to his siblings. Sol, the oldest son goes on to study accounting while the youngest brother Morris at thirteen goes to work for a coat maker and his wife. The narrative proper starts years later when Morris and Sol are running a successful business and Harry is running with some petty criminals. Morris and Sol are under pressure from the unions who are backed by the local mob and when one of his fellow coat makers is attacked and his stock destroyed Morris takes it on himself to see the mob boss Buchalter. It turns out that Morris and Buchalter have a long history, which Gross…

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry
Crime , Historical , Review / 02/10/2018

Ambrose Parry is the pen name of multi-award winning Scottish crime writer Chris Brookmyre and his wife Marisa Haetzman. It was Haetzman’s research into medical practice in Edinburgh in the 1850s that put the two down the track of collaborating on a novel set in the period. Being a crime novel, The Way of All Flesh opens with a death – a prostitute named Evie, found by one of her regular clients, but also friend, Will Raven. Raven runs from the scene, straight into the arms of the debt collectors looking for repayment of the money he had borrowed to help Evie out. Raven is hoping that his new apprenticeship with famous “male midewife” (aka obstetrician) James Simpson, will help him earn the money that he needs. In Simpson’s house, which also serves as his clinic, is housemaid Sarah who has the capacity to be more and yearns for something better. It takes some time for the murder mystery to come into focus. Some news about other deaths slowly builds in both Raven and Sarah a suspicion that something strange is afoot. They form a loose partnership as they tentatively investigate. Both characters are engaging and distinctive enough to avoid…

The Boy at the Keyhole by Stephen Giles
Historical , Review , Thriller / 20/09/2018

The Boy at the Keyhole screams gothic from its opening pages. A nine year old boy is being both nursed and chastised by the housekeeper in the kitchen of a rambling English house in Cornwall. The year is 1961 and Samuel Wade, whose father has died, is being cared for by the housekeeper Ruth while his mother is in America trying to rescue the family fortune. The house itself is full of secrets and is fertile ground for Samuel’s imagination to run wild particularly when his best friend Joseph suggests that perhaps his mother is not actually away but has been killed by Ruth. Australian author Stephen Giles has previously written books for children (the equally gothic Ivy Pocket series written under the pseudonym Caleb Krisp). The Boy at the Keyhole is his first book for adults but very much locates itself in a child’s point of view. While this is not a first person narrative, everything the reader knows or sees is from Samuel’s perspective. And this is important as it makes it possible to see how he misinterprets everything around him to fit within his point of view. Samuel’s is a point of view that is clearly influenced…

The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers

The Seventh Cross is not a new book, at least not in the usual sense. It is a new translation of a book written by Anna Seghers, an author from a Jewish family that had fled Germany and was living in Paris in the late 1930s. The book itself, written before the start of the Second World War is not about that war or the Holocaust. But Seghers could see all of these coming and her novel allows readers to trace a line from the totalitarian, anti-semitic, fascist attitudes of the mid-1930s to the Germany that plunged the world into war less than five years later. The Seventh Cross is set in 1935 and centres around an escape from the concentration camp. The camp had been established to punish political prisoners. Although it turns out that the definition of a political prisoner is anyone who the local authorities don’t particularly like. Seven men escape and, as they are recaptured they are strung up against a row of trees at the entrance to the camp as punishment and warning to others. These are crosses of the title. The seventh cross is reserves for George Heisler, the escapee that Seghers spends the most…

Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth
Historical , Recommended , Review / 01/08/2018

Australian author Paul Howarth’s debut novel is a blood soaked, confronting exploration of the Australian frontier of the late nineteenth century. Not for the faint of heart, this coming of age story is reminiscent of the works of modern American western writers like Cormac McCarthy. When the book opens it is 1885, Billy and Tommy are sixteen and fourteen year-olds living on their family property in the drought affected wilds of central Queensland, in North-Eastern Australia. Their father is just managing to eke out a subsistence living on a slowly dying property while also feuding with his much more powerful neighbour John Sullivan. The boys’ world is thrown into disarray when they come home from a day out to find their mother and father dead and their younger sister shot. They ride to the neighbouring Sullivan property where they are quickly convinced that the culprits are members of the local Aboriginal tribe, the Kurrong. Sullivan has been steadily trying to wipe the Kurrong out and uses the boys to bring in the sadistic head of the Native Police, Noone. The two, fuelled by thoughts of revenge, are allowed to ride out with Sullivan, Noone and his posse of Aboriginal trackers…

The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo
Historical , Literature , Review / 29/06/2018

Enza Gandolfo’s new novel takes as its centerpiece the 1970 collapse of the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne. This tragedy resonates through the lives of the people involved and the people who continue to live in the shadow of the Bridge. Most of the narrative is set forty years later and centres around another tragedy, one that is much more intimate and unfortunately common than the collapse of a major engineering work.  Antonello is a 22 year old rigger working on the Westgate Bridge in 1970. An immigrant from Italy, he has found his place in the multicultural melting pot that was the construction crew. When the unfinished bridge collapses, killing many of his workmates Antonello retreats into a shell. Forty years later, Antonello’s teenage granddaughter is killed in a car accident, the driver Jo was her best friend and all four teenagers in the car had been drinking. The accident itself happened in the shadow of the Westgate Bridge.  The Bridge is heavy going for most of its length as it delves deeply into the psychology of Jo in the aftermath of the accident and Antonello, still suffering forty years on but slowly finding a way to deal with his pain. Thrown into the mix is Jo’s lawyer Sarah who…