Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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Nine Days
by Toni Jordan
A brilliant historical read! (4/22/2019)
Nine Days is the third novel by Australian author Toni Jordan and was inspired by a photograph from the State Library of Victoria’s Argus newspaper collection of war photographs. Starting in pre-war suburban Melbourne, it tells the story of the working-class Westaway family over the following seventy years.

Each of nine characters has a devoted chapter in which they narrate the details of their particular life-changing day: thus Nine Days. As each chapter unfolds, significant details are added to the picture until the reader finally grasps the enormity of events in this family’s wartime experience.

Jordan gives the reader a cast of characters with real depth, characters to love and despise, characters that exasperate, characters to laugh and sympathise with, as each chapter shows events from their perspective. Jordan’s descriptions are strongly evocative of wartime Melbourne and each narrative is invested with an authenticity of language appropriate to that character, giving the story a truly genuine feel. Each narrative is connected not only by the characters but also by other important elements: a lucky shilling, an amethyst pendant, an Arnott’s biscuit tin, twins, art and photography.

The story incorporates various topics, among them poverty and hunger, abortion and contraception, responsibility, gossip and respectability, bravery and patriotism. A wartime story is bound to include death, so of course there is heartache, grief and sorrow, but there is also love and joy and plenty of humour.

I particularly loved the irony of Mrs Hustings stating “it’s a shame the world is so full of gossips”. I would have loved more of Kip, whose dry humour and smart quips had me from page one. Toni Jordan has lost none of the magic of her previous novels, “Addition” and “Fall Girl”, and has, in fact, has surpassed these. What will she do next? I can hardly wait!
Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen
by Mary Norris
Informative and entertaining. (4/19/2019)
“Why do we lean on dead languages for new things? Perhaps expressing these things in the language that is oldest, in words that we have in common with many other languages, gives us a touchstone.”

Greek To Me: adventures of the Comma Queen is a memoir by self-admitted philhellene and best-selling American author, Mary Norris. She has been on the staff of The New Yorker for some 35 years, and a Page OK’er for twenty of those. Norris has been referred to by some as a prose goddess, or a comma queen. She begins by declaring her fascination with all things Greek, and explaining how and why she came to study ancient Greek under the aegis of The New Yorker.

She explains how the Greek alphabet derives from the Phoenician, and many other alphabets from Greek; why Athena is a good model for a copy editor; and she declares her respect for those authors of definitive works on Greek and Greece.

This is a memoir that isn’t bound by chronology but is filled with Norris’s love for Greek, and her experiences with Greek and in Greece. Norris takes us on her somewhat comic pilgrimage to Elefsina in search of the Eleusinian Mysteries; she details her short stage career in Greek tragedies, one that had her recalling her family’s own tragedy and drawing on experiences of her own and those close to her; she describes days copy editing, nights immersed in Greek; skinny-dipping in Aphrodite’s Bathing place in Crete; visits to, and exploration of, the Acropolis.

The echoes and connections in the English language that Norris makes with ancient Greek are sometimes obvious, sometimes personal and quite tenuous: when she explains it, an anthology is a word bouquet; Dipsás? (Are you thirsty?) has an obvious connection with dipsomaniac.

Norris notes today’s reverse trends: audio books taking us back to the oral tradition; reading on devices requiring scrolling so many thousands of years after scrolls were abandoned for books; and texting language that omits vowels, just as the Phoenician alphabet did.

On alphabets, she tells us: “A ‘character’ is a symbol for recording language… the word comes from the ancient Greek charásso, meaning ‘to make sharp, cut into furrows, engrave.’ The leap from a symbol graved in stone to a person endowed with a sharply defined personality is a good example of the way a word ripples out into metaphor.”

For the unenlightened, there is much to be learned from this memoir: where the terms uppercase and lowercase come from; that omicron literally means small O and Omega, big O; how the direction of text originated; the absence of spacing; the irony that the modern Greek word for eucalyptus derives from ancient Greek, but via English, as the English botanists who named it in Australia in 1788 did so from ancient Greek.
The etymology is often interesting: “If surgeons knew that the word surgery comes from the ancient Greek cheirougia (hand work) meaning ‘handiwork’, and could apply as well to needlepoint as to brain surgery, they might not be so arrogant.” Informative and entertaining.
Machines Like Me
by Ian McEwan
a fascinating read, highly topical and incredibly thought-provoking. (4/17/2019)
“We learned a lot about the brain, trying to imitate it. But so far, science has had nothing but trouble understanding the mind. Singly, or minds en masse. The mind in science has been little more than a fashion parade. Freud, behaviourism, cognitive psychology. Scraps of insight. Nothing deep or predictive that could give psychoanalysis or economics a good name.”

Machines Like Me is the seventeenth novel by award/prize-winning British author, Ian McEwan. It’s England in 1982, but a very different 1982 from the one with which most readers are familiar. Alan Turing alive and celebrated, and (probably consequently) technology is as far advanced as that known in the second decade of the twenty-first century. The Falklands war lost to the Argentines, with Maggie Thatcher (for a while) somehow holding onto power; grumblings about Poll Tax and rumblings about leaving the European Union; the Beatles re-formed; and AIDS a short-lived, well-treated, illness.

And this is Charlie Friend’s Britain. He's thirty-two, unemployed and living in a damp and dingy flat in Clapham. He’s good at losing money and self-delusion. He’s infatuated with his upstairs neighbour, a twenty-two-year-old student named Miranda. He staves off poverty by online share and currency trading. And he's just spent his inheritance, £86,000, on an artificial human.

Adam is one of twenty-five (Adams and Eves): “the first truly viable manufactured human with plausible intelligence and looks, believable motion and shifts of expression.” When Adam is all charged up and turned on for the first time, still on his factory settings, as it were, he begins to warn Charlie about trusting Miranda, but is interrupted. Charlie doesn’t want to hear it, because his plan is for Miranda to share setting up the personal preferences of Adam’s parameters, effectively making Adam their “child”, and he hopes this will bring them closer.

By the time Charlie does want to hear, it's too late. Charlie and Miranda have set those parameters and Adam is reticent, conflicted. It’s an interesting experiment, and Charlie soon realises that “…an artificial human had to get down among us, imperfect, fallen us, and rub along.” As their lives carry on with a degree of unpredictability, Adam’s behaviour sometimes surprises, sometimes delights but also dismays them both.

McEwan gives the reader plenty to think about, to mull over and discuss, as he manipulates the challenges they face from their own experiences and interactions, and adds the wrinkle of political upheavals. For example, he has his characters arguing about the Falklands War from a very different perspective.

Topics that have likely been discussed ad infinitum in artificial intelligence circles, like: When can a machine be regarded as a human? and the concept of robot ethics, in this tale come from another angle: Is it possible to be unfaithful with a machine? Jealous of a machine? Can a machine feel love? Can a machine lie?

As Alan Turing’s life and achievements are quite integral to the story, it helps to be acquainted with these (quickly rectified on Wikipedia for the unenlightened), and while an in-depth knowledge of Britain’s political figures in the 1980s is not essential, it would no doubt enhance the reading experience. The Brighton Bombing, Thatcher, Healey and Benn are there (or close approximations of them) even if McEwan alters their fates to suit his story.

McEwan’s characters are quite believable and there’s even a bit of subtle humour in a tale that looks at what might have been, and what perhaps could be in the very near future. This is a fascinating read, highly topical and incredibly thought-provoking.
The Crossing Places: A Ruth Galloway Mystery
by Elly Griffiths
An outstanding debut novel (4/15/2019)
The Crossing Places is the first book in the Ruth Galloway series by award-winning British author, Elly Griffiths. Norfolk DCI Harry Nelson has been haunted by the unsolved case of little Lucy Downey’s disappearance for ten years. When some human bones are discovered at the salt marshes near Kings Lynn, Harry calls on archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway to give an opinion on the bones. Ruth’s cottage is quite close, and she is interested in anything to do with the marshes. The bones, and the accompanying Iron Age artefacts, turn out to be a noteworthy find for archaeology, but no resolution for the Downey family.

Nelson is impressed by Ruth’s professionalism, and he makes an impression on her too: “He was an odd man, she thought, brusque and unfriendly, but it seemed as if he had really cared about that little girl.” It’s this caring, perhaps, that sees her ready to help.

Then another little girl goes missing, and Nelson asks for Ruth’s input on the letters he has been regularly receiving, letters telling him in the vaguest terms where Lucy, and now young Scarlet, are. The letters are filled with a mixture of strange references: biblical, Norse legend, literary, Greek legend, pagan and archaeological, and successively take an increasingly exasperated, at times almost taunting, tone at Nelson’s failure to find the missing girls.

This specialised knowledge means that, if the letters are actually from the killer, suspicion falls on certain people who were in the area ten years earlier: Ruth was on a dig with colleagues and volunteers, excavating a beach henge; a group of Druids were part of a protest against it. Could one of these seemingly gentle, nature-loving souls be a murderer? A grisly find on her doorstep then has Ruth wondering if she’s being warned off.

Griffiths tells the story using Ruth and Harry as her main narrators, with occasional passages from the perspective of a captive girl. The plot is believable, the archaeology interesting and the characters are quite convincing for all their flaws and quirks. It is certainly refreshing to read a female protagonist who is not slim and gorgeous. There are twists and red herrings to keep the reader guessing right up to the final chapters, and little surprise that will ensure readers are eager for the second instalment, The Janus Stone. An outstanding debut novel.
The Department of Sensitive Crimes: A Detective Varg Novel
by Alexander McCall Smith
Delightfully tongue-in-cheek. (4/13/2019)
The Department of Sensitive Crimes is the first full-length novel in the Detective Varg series by popular British author, Alexander McCall-Smith. And he’s having a lend of us, the reader. If that’s not obvious from the title and the characters, then the cases they deal with should confirm it. Those characters, though, do give him enormous scope for insightful observations and wise words.

The DoSC consists of Carl (incredibly conscientious), Erik (obsessed by fishing), Ulf (kind and sensitive and in impossible love with his married colleague), Anna. The annoyingly enthusiastic but less than competent Officer Blomquist also lends a hand. And let’s not forget Martin, Ulf’s deaf, depressed, lip-reading dog, Mrs Hogfors, his neighbour and Dr Svensson, his therapist.

The cases, passed on from Malmö’s Criminal Investigation Authority because they are slightly unusual, are also a rich source of material for philosophical discussion: an unwitnessed stabbing in the back of a knee; a missing boyfriend who’s imaginary; and a possible werewolf. As Ulf and his team carry out their investigations, they are extremely prone to heading off on (often amusing) tangents during questioning. All are successfully resolved, but not without much deep discussion of the behaviours encountered.

McCall Smith’s characters discuss, debate and ponder topics as diverse as imaginary friends, politically correct terminology for small people, the canine environmental footprint, osmotic knowledge, vegan objection to pets and whether the obsessed can be happy.

When Ulf muses on gentlemanly behaviour, it’s very pertinent to the current “me too” cases: “...although he knew that nobody talked about being a gentleman any more, the concept still existed somewhere under the burden of the new language of relationships, the language that stressed self-determination and personal space. That was not all that different from the code of gentlemanly conduct that had previously prevented men from inappropriate conduct in their relations with women. The things that men were now supposed not to do were precisely the things that gentlemen were not meant to do anyway - so what was the difference? Were we simply becoming old-fashioned again, as societies tended to do when they saw the consequences of tearing up the behavioural rule book?”

While it sounds like a crime novel, McCall Smith describes it as Scandi Blanc (as opposed to Scandi Noir) and anyone who is reading his work for the crime aspect has the wrong end of the stick: McCall Smith’s crime books are an exercise in examining human behaviour and the gentle philosophy which that inspires. Delightfully tongue-in-cheek.
Monkeewrench: (UK title: Want To Play?)
by P.J. Tracy
A stunning debut novel. (4/2/2019)
Want To Play? (also titled Monkeewrench) is the first book in the best-selling Monkeewrench series by award-winning American mother-daughter writing duo, P J Tracy. At their office in Minneapolis, the owners of software firm Monkeewrench are almost ready to launch their new game, Serial Killer Detective (SKUD). Over five hundred gamers have been trying out the game on their test site, and advance sales are encouraging. They’re doing some final stage tweaking when they learn of a murder at Lakewood Cemetery: an exact copy of the second murder in their game.

For Detective Leo Magozzi and his partner on the homicide squad, Gino Rosleth, this is the second murder in two days, and when the Monkeewrench team contact them about the murder, they are horrified to learn that both murders are copied from the game. Worse still, a further eighteen murders comprise the game, and they are starting with a huge suspect list. They are inclined to include the Monkeewrench crew as suspects, although Magozzi’s gut feeling is that one of their number, Grace Macbride, is not involved.

Meanwhile, in a small Catholic church in Calumet, Wisconsin, a reclusive couple is discovered shot dead. To Sheriff Michael Halloran, it almost looks like a hit. The paranoia that ruled the couple’s lives, evident from a deadly stash of weapons, was apparently justified. As Mike investigates further, it seems this is not the only strange thing about the couple. Leo Magozzi and his team work around the clock trying to prevent the next murder while in Calumet, Mike Halloran tries to track down the old couple’s child. At this point, their investigations intersect.

The Tracy’s characters are appealing and their dialogue provides plenty of humour, much of it quite dark. They also use it to good effect to draw out the tension as the story heads towards an exciting climax. The story is cleverly plotted with quite a few red herrings and the odd twist that will keep readers guessing until the final, gob-smacking reveal. In itself, a novel written by two authors is an interesting concept; this one is seamless and the duo is obviously successful, if a further nine books in the series are any indication. A stunning debut novel.
The Stranger Diaries
by Elly Griffiths
gripping thriller (3/8/2019)
“It’s one thing to fear a thing for yourself, another to hear it confirmed in a matter-of-fact way by a Detective Sergeant. It’s as if the angel of death has flown over the room, flapping his grisly wings.”

The Stranger Diaries is the first stand-alone novel by British author, Elly Griffiths. When her good friend and colleague in the English Department of Talgarth High School is murdered, Clare Cassidy is shocked. Ella Elphick was a much-loved and respected teacher, and she can’t imagine why anyone would viciously stab her to death. Clare is determined to protect her sixteen-year-old daughter Georgia, a student of Ella’s, from exposure to this awful crime. Might Georgia, though, know more about this murder than she is admitting; perhaps even more than she realises?

Herself an ex-student of Talgarth, DS Harbinder Kaur seems inexplicably suspicious of Clare, and wants to know more about a rumoured affair between Ella and the department head, but Clare is reticent. When Clare checks her personal diary from that time, she’s surprised at the emotions she recorded. But what shocks and scares her is the sentence in italics, addressed to her, that she definitely did not write.

When DS Kaur reveals the text of a note left by the body, Clare, as prospective author of a biography of nineteenth-century Gothic author, R.M. Holland, recognises it as a quote from his short story, The Stranger. A practical joke in the form of a costumed dummy placed in Holland’s study (preserved in Talgarth’s attic) sets Clare’s nerves even more on edge.

Readers familiar with the two (so far) series that Griffiths has written will not be one bit surprised at how well-written this piece of crime fiction is: the three narratives (Clare, Harbinder and Georgia) detail what happens after Ella is murdered (with diary entries and flashbacks to earlier events), and the overlap of these different narratives offers alternative perspectives, gradually revealing facts not initially apparent.

Each revelation brings another possible suspect, until one of those too is murdered. Is life imitating art? The murders look like re-enactments of murders in R.M. Holland’s short story, The Stranger, with elements of Wilkie’s The Woman in White and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Clues are subtly inserted as the story steadily progresses, before then racing headlong to a dramatic climax.

In her gripping thriller, Griffiths manages to include stabbing, garrotting and stigmata; gossip, infidelity and false alibis; a white witch, a ghost and a brave dog; ritual and symbolic artefacts. There are red herrings and not a few surprises, and even the most astute reader is likely to be kept guessing until the final chapters. Recommended!
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishers
This Is What Happened
by Mick Herron
Excellent British crime fiction. (2/21/2019)
This Is What Happened is the third stand-alone novel by award-winning British author, Mick Herron. Twenty-six-year-old Maggie Barnes hadn't made any friends in the time she'd been in London. She lived in a tiny flat and worked a fairly boring job in the post room down in the basement of the Quilp House. A toxic ex-boyfriend had her avoiding Facebook; she'd dipped a toe into the Twittersphere and had seven followers, several of those probably bots.

When Harvey Wells came along to the café she frequented in the park, Maggie was at first wary. But he knew all about her, and when he explained what he needed her to do, and why, she was both flattered and excited. The idea that she could do something worthwhile for her country was rather thrilling.

Dickon Broom had a not-quite PhD in Philosophy at Cambridge, and worked as a language instructor. He’d had a good position at Marylebone Intensive School of English until a student made trouble for him. That rather queered the pitch at his last interview for a teaching position, and these days he relied on giving private lessons (not ideal) for an income. But now he had another problem to deal with, one that stood in the way of the life he deserved to have

Meredith’s younger sister had apparently been missing for two years. She felt bad about that: they'd lost contact after their parents’ funeral. The police didn't seem interested, treating the whole thing as a case of someone who had decided to disappear, so Meredith was making her own enquiries, and now she had someone in her sights.

Herron’s third stand alone is a little different, but still has many of his trademarks: it has all his careful scene setting; his characters are quite believable; their dialogue natural. While the astute reader will, by the first third of the story, have figured out much of what is going on, there are still a good number of twists, surprises and red herrings to keep it interesting.

The humour is there, but much more subtle than the often laugh-out-loud moments in his Jackson Lamb series, and mostly quite black. Readers hoping for any Slough House character cameos will be disappointed, but fans knowing Herron’s tendency to kill off characters will be racing to the dramatic final pages to discover who survives. Excellent British crime fiction.
Nobody Walks
by Mick Herron
Outstanding British crime fiction. (2/18/2019)
Nobody Walks is the second stand-alone novel by award-winning British author, Mick Herron. Tom Bettany barely makes it back to London for his son, Liam’s funeral. They were estranged for four years, Tom was out of the country, and a colleague of Liam’s rang to let him know. The calls from the police had been more vague, but when he arrived, DS Welles told him that Liam’s death was accidental: high on a particularly potent type of dope, he fell off his balcony.

Tom, though, had been ex-Service before he severed all ties and, at his son’s flat, something sets off an alarm bell for him. He is soon convinced that Liam was murdered, and is determined to find out who is responsible. But his questions are upsetting quite a few people, and equipping himself with the necessary announces his return the crime bosses whose long incarceration he effected during his “joe” days.

Then someone on high at Regent’s Park sends young J.K. Coe (unofficially) with a message: a “do not disturb” on one name, an implication of responsibility for another. The source alone flags the information with a high index of suspicion, so Bettany sets out to verify, while ensuring to stay under the radar of the various parties eager to get up close and physical with him.

Fans of the Jackson Lamb series will be pleased to know that this story is set in the same universe, with at least six names known from that series playing roles or rating mentions here, one of whom comprehensively proves that the fate meted out to them in a later book is absolutely a just desert, if insufficiently punitive.

Coe was introduced in the novella, The List, and took his place in Slough House in Spook Street; in this novel, the reader learns the details of the ordeal that landed him under Jackson Lamb’s supervision. Once again, Herron produces a fast-paced crime novel with twists and red herrings to keep the reader guessing and the pages turning right up to the jaw-dropping revelations of the final chapters. Outstanding British crime fiction.
Miss Kopp's Midnight Confessions: A Kopp Sisters Novel
by Amy Stewart
Excellent historical crime fiction (2/12/2019)
Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions is the third book in the Kopp Sisters series by NYT best-selling American author, Amy Stewart. As Deputy Sheriff and Matron of Hackensack jail, Constance Kopp deals with several so-called morality cases where young girls, often runaways, are arrested for Waywardness or Illegal Cohabitation. Detective Courter and Paterson’s only female police officer, Mrs Belle Headison, are of the opinion that these girls need to be sent to the reformatory until they attain 21, while Constance and Sheriff Heath believe they can be rehabilitated with the right support, in such cases where the arrest is not actually on entirely frivolous grounds.

Edna Heustis is one such young lady whom Constance manages to have released with a clever defence, and then finds herself informally appointed, through a casual remark from the presiding judge, as a probation officer of sorts. But not all the cases are quite so innocent and Constance learns some facts of life that may see an unfortunate girl in regrettable circumstances. Minnie Davis looks headed for the Reformatory but, when Constance sees that place first hand, she is determined to prevent it.

Meanwhile, young Fleurette is champing at the bit for more freedom, her current wish being a place in May Ward’s popular vaudeville troupe. What Fleurette wants has Constance re-examining her own beliefs on appropriate behaviour for a young lady. Norma’s distrust of strangers reaches new heights and sees her taking unprecedented action, with some unexpected consequences. In trying to realise her fondest desire, Fleurette learns that the reality is not only disappointing but also rather tedious.

In this instalment, Constance: finally gets her Deputy’s badge; can’t escape the voracious press and their highly inaccurate reporting; is consequently plagued by letters offering marriage, clever rejections to all of which are produced with great alacrity by Norma; and is dismayed to hear that the coming elections will furnish her with a new Sheriff, possibly the man who is currently the bane of her life, Detective Courter.

Stewart’s Historical Notes and Sources are interesting and informative, revealing that Constance Kopp and her sisters were real people, much as described, as are quite a few of the other characters. Many of the events that form the plot also occurred, if not always when stated. Stewart takes the known historical facts and fleshes them out into a marvellous tale.

Stewart effortlessly portrays the characteristics of everyday life of the early twentieth century and clearly demonstrates how different life was over a hundred years ago, including the utter dependence and powerlessness of women at this time in history. The letters proposing marriage, and the replies drafted by Norma provide some wry humour, as does the dialogue. Excellent historical crime fiction that will have readers seeking out the fourth book, Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit.
Lady Cop Makes Trouble: Girl Waits with Gun #2
by Amy Stewart
Excellent historical crime fiction. (1/29/2019)
Lady Cop Makes Trouble is the second book in the Kopp Sisters series by NYT best-selling American author, Amy Stewart. While she has been a very active Deputy for Sheriff Robert Heath at Hackensack for two months, Constance Kopp learns that her job is not as secure as she had hoped. Two months later, Constance is filling the role of jail matron for the female prisoners while she waits for her badge: as an elected official, Heath has found obtaining approval for employing the first female deputy is challenging.

One of her charges perplexingly admits to murder despite evidence to the contrary. Then a prisoner escapes under Constance’s watch, putting both her job and the Sheriff’s freedom in jeopardy. As her sisters keep themselves busy with their preferred pursuits (carrier pigeons, dressmaking and acting), Constance decides she must track down the escapee herself.

Constance does some excellent detective work and, being a well-built lady, does not eschew chase and tackle when required. In this instalment, Constance and Sheriff Heath prove that they make a very capable team, holding matching ideas about law enforcement and criminal detention, and affording each other respect for their intelligence and abilities.

Stewart’s Historical Notes and Sources are interesting and informative, revealing that Constance Kopp and her sisters were real people, much as described, as are quite a few of the other characters. Many of the events that form the plot also occurred, if not always when stated. Stewart takes the known historical facts and fleshes them out into a marvellous tale.

Stewart effortlessly portrays the characteristics of everyday life of the early twentieth century and clearly demonstrates how different life was over a hundred years ago. The (often humorous) print column headlines to which, in the first book, the sisters continuously drew each other’s attention, or occasionally invented to suit their particular situation, are noticeably absent in this book, but there is still humour in their dialogue. Excellent historical crime fiction that will have readers seeking out the third book, Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions.
Girl Waits with Gun
by Amy Stewart
Excellent historical crime fiction. (1/15/2019)
Girl Waits With Gun is the first book in the Kopp Sisters series by NYT best-selling American author, Amy Stewart. When, on a fine July day in 1914, silk factory heir Henry Kaufman recklessly drives his motorcar into the buggy conveying Constance Kopp and her sisters to town, the ladies suffer minor injuries but the buggy, their only means of transport, is wrecked. Henry and his thuggish friends make to drive off, but Constance refuses to be intimidated, vociferously insisting that he accept responsibility for the damage, which astonishes onlookers and annoys Henry.

By November, the Kopp sisters have been the target of verbal abuse, written “Black Hand” threats, damage to their home and attempted arson, and Constance’s sister Norma is convinced that withdrawal would have been a better course of action. Of course, sixteen-year-old Fleurette, so far protected from the world, just finds it all terribly exciting.

It’s not just the demands for reparation that have attracted the ire of young Kaufman: Constance also seems to have involved herself in a possible kidnapping case in which Kaufman is implicated. And even with Sheriff Robert Heath allocating deputies to protect the sisters, they seem to be in dire straits when the latest threat arrives.

Readers new to the Kopp Sisters series may be surprised learn from Stewart’s Historical Notes and Sources that Constance Kopp and her sisters were real people, much as described, as are quite a few of the other characters. Many of the events that form the plot also occurred, if not always when stated. Stewart takes the known historical facts and fleshes them out into a marvellous tale.

What won’t amaze is the utter dependence and powerlessness of women at this time in history. Stewart effortlessly portrays the characteristics of everyday life of the early twentieth century and clearly demonstrates how different life was over a hundred years ago. Miss Kopp, however, is clever, resourceful and persistent, although not even these qualities can protect her from some adverse events. Her fierce protectiveness of her sisters adds to her appeal.

The print column headlines to which the sisters continuously draw each other’s attention, or occasionally invent to suit their particular situation, are often a source of humour. There is some first-rate detective work done, and the last line will have readers eager for the next instalment, Lady Cop Makes Trouble. Excellent historical crime fiction.
Tales from the Inner City
by Shaun Tan
An utterly beautiful book! (1/7/2019)
“Where money gathers, so do pigeons. They flock to great financial centers like so many accountants in smart grey waistcoats and glittering collars, bright-eyed, strutting, nodding, darting purposefully between the fiscal-black heels of merchant bankers, bartering every walking minute for a tidy profit.”

Tales from the Inner City is a picture book for adults by award-winning Australian illustrator and author, Shaun Tan. What a wonderful book! Shaun Tan is so talented. There are twenty-five tales, the beginning of each denoted by the black silhouette of a creature: perhaps an animal, bird, fish or insect. This is followed by text, sometimes as prose, sometimes as verse. Some stories are very short, others up to thirty-six pages long. Mostly at the end, but sometimes throughout the story, colour illustrations depict some part of the tale.

Those illustrations, wow! They are exquisite, evocative, luminous. The stories that accompany them vary: some are very sad; some are delightfully funny; some are sweet; some are portentous; some are insightful; and some perfectly illustrate the human race’s blindness to what is. Most are wise and some are clever, and Tan’s prose is often just as evocative as his art: “How much do I love our family? This much. When nothing turns out to be what we hoped, we still hope it turns out to be something. We are never the ones to say that life is disappointing. We are always too busy doing stuff., even if we have no idea why.”

All this elegance on quality glossy paper contained within a superb hardcover binding. The cover story (Moonfish) is likely to be a favourite, both for the story and the illustration, but the frogs, the dog, the owl, the cat, the bears and the butterflies are exceptional among a book full of tales bound to appeal to many readers. What will this brilliant man come up with next? An utterly beautiful book!
The Secrets She Keeps: A Novel
by Michael Robotham
a cleverly constructed psychological thriller (12/21/2018)
The Secrets She Keeps is the fourth stand-alone novel by Australian author, Michael Robotham. Two women from different backgrounds find they have something in common: they are to give birth in a few weeks. For ex-journalist and mummy-blogger Meghan Shaughnessy, it will be her third, and this one is unplanned. Supermarket employee Agatha Fyfle tells Meg it’s her first. Neither, however, is being completely honest, and with good reasons. Meg carries an overwhelming guilt about the baby’s conception; Agatha’s reasons are much darker.

Robotham uses a dual narrative to tell the tale. It soon becomes apparent that Agatha is an unreliable narrator whose her awful childhood is meant to mitigate her actions as an adult, although some of those affected have difficulty seeing it this way. Meg’s emotions are more relatable and certainly her anguish is well-conveyed.

Everyone involved has secrets that hide their very human flaws, not the least of which is self-interest, but as the story races towards the nail-biting conclusion, the behaviour of some characters will surprise the reader. Within the framework of a cleverly constructed psychological thriller, Robotham manages to incorporate child abduction, adultery, child sexual assault and murder. Definitely a page-turner.
Cicada
by Shaun Tan
Utterly charming. (12/18/2018)
Cicada is a picture-book intended for 7-9-year-olds, written and skilfully illustrated by award-winning Australian illustrator and author, Shaun Tan. Cicada has been working tirelessly as a data processor, without thanks, or privilege or reward, for the same humans, for seventeen years. Seventeen years: we may not remember the significance of that period of time until the aha! moment, when it will bring a smile to the faces of most readers. Tan combines his evocative artwork with a poignant but clever little tale that may well make the reader look a little differently at the humble cicada. Could they really be laughing at us? Utterly charming.
Me Before You: A Novel
by Jojo Moyes
Ultimately a heart-wrenching love story, this novel is also funny and thought-provoking. (12/12/2018)
Me Before You is the first book in the Me Before You series by award-winning British author, Jojo Moyes. Louisa Clark’s café wages are much relied-upon: her mum, Josie is the stay-at-home carer for Granddad; all of her sister Katrina’s pay goes to bringing up her own young son; and her dad Bernard’s job at the furniture factory is looking less secure every day. So when the Buttered Bun closes down, Lou needs another job pronto. She’s never worked as a carer before, but the pay’s better than at the chicken processing plant, and Lou’s been assured there’ll be no wiping of, you know, required (there’s a trained carer for that stuff).

Camilla Traynor has told Lou she’s basically needed as a companion for her son, Will, who is a quadriplegic since a traffic accident two years ago. But Will’s anger, his mercurial moods, his negativity, these are an unpleasant, if understandable, surprise for Lou. She’s determined to stick it out: she can’t afford to lose this job. But Camilla hasn’t been entirely honest. Before long, Lou discovers the truth, and finds herself doing her utmost to bring enjoyment into Will’s life.

For anyone who has even glanced at the remarks on the cover of later editions of this book, the trajectory of the story and the ending will be predictable, but such is the quality of the characters Moyes creates, and their dialogue, that most readers will not be able to resist reading to the end, although this, as many advise, is best not read in public. And before that end is reached, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and the odd surprise or two.

The novel is mostly a first-person narrative told by Lou, but with occasional (clearly denoted) chapters from the perspective of other significant characters. Moyes tackles several topical and divisive issues: voluntary euthanasia and the right to die; how quality of life is dependent on perspective; the stigma attached to being disabled, the patronising attitudes encountered and the attendant, if unintentional, discrimination suffered. Ultimately a heart-wrenching love story, this novel is also funny and thought-provoking.
The Goldfinch: A Novel
by Donna Tartt
A good literary read that would have benefited from some judicious editing. (12/10/2018)
Award-winning American author, Donna Tartt begins her third novel with her twenty-seven-year-old protagonist, Theo Decker, in December, hiding out in an Amsterdam hotel room, reflecting on his life, while scanning newspapers for any available information about a recent murder. Over the next seven hundred plus pages, these in-depth reflections form a meticulously detailed account of the Theo’s life, beginning with the circumstances, when he was just thirteen, of his mother’s death, an event of which he says: “Things would have turned out better if she had lived.” It was then that he acquired the eponymous Goldfinch, the single remaining painting by 17th century Dutch Master, Carel Fabritius.

The ride that Tartt takes the reader on starts with Theo a virtual orphan in pseudo-foster care, then in the care of his negligent father, consuming copious quantities of drugs and alcohol. When fifteen-year-old Theo looks in the mirror, he notes his resemblance to his (safe-to-say) despised father, Larry, and when Larry’s girlfriend Xandra flings at him “You and your dad are a whole lot more alike than you might think. You’re his kid, through and through”, his denial is vehement. It becomes apparent from his later behaviour (drugs, alcohol, betrayal of good friends, criminal dishonesty) that she was indeed perceptive.

Readers familiar with Australian author Steve Toltz’s epic debut novel, A Fraction of the Whole (2008) may notice similarities, both in the length (somewhat daunting), the careless parenting, the roller-coaster life, and the black humour (in lesser quantity), although Tartt’s work is much less far-fetched. She certainly achieves a vivid portrayal of a thirteen-year-old boy’s grief at the loss of his mother.

Tartt has a talent for character description: “I found myself blinking up in the late afternoon glare at a very tall, very very tanned, very thin man, of indeterminate age. He looked partly like a rodeo guy and partly like a fucked-up lounge entertainer. His gold-rimmed aviators were tinted purple at the top; he was wearing a white sports jacket over a red cowboy shirt with pearl snaps and black jeans, but the main thing I noticed was his hair: part toupee, part transplanted or sprayed-on, with a texture like fibreglass insulation and a dark brown color like shoe polish in the tin.” A good literary read that would have benefited from some judicious editing.
The Nowhere Child
by Christian White
A very impressive debut novel. (12/4/2018)
The Nowhere Child is the first novel by award-winning Australian author, Christian White. In early 1990, two-year-old Sammy Went is abducted from her home in Manson, Kentucky, in broad daylight. Despite extensive searches and a thorough investigation, no trace of her was ever found. Twenty-eight years later, Melbourne photography teacher, Kimberly Leamy is approached by an American man who shows her a photograph of Sammy Went. The photo shows that Sammy bears a striking resemblance to two-year-old Kim. He claims to believe that Kim is Sammy Went.

Naturally, Kim dismisses the idea: no way her now-deceased mother, Carol Leamy could ever have kidnapped a child. But the idea persists in her head; the American shows her proof, and when Kim confronts her step-father, the expected denial does not come. It’s enough to spur Kim into travelling to Kentucky, back to the town where it all happened.

As a tragic event often will, Sammy’s kidnapping fractured the already strained Went family irreparably. The town of Manson, too, felt the upheaval that such an event can cause. When Kim arrives there, her presence, and the possibility that she really is the long-lost Sammy Went, once again spreads unrest amongst certain members of the community: several had dark secrets and not everyone told all they knew back then.

White’s initial premise is a fascinating one: to imagine that you are not who you have always believed yourself to be, what emotions must that stir up? For those you have, all your life, considered family, and for those who believe you form part of their family, what a disruption of everything they know! Then, to make things even more interesting, White throws in a gay father and a mother deeply ensconced in a fundamentalist church. Plenty of twists and quite a few red herrings will keep the reader guessing right up to a very dramatic climax. A very impressive debut novel.
Past the Shallows
by Favel Parrett
Moving and heart-breaking, this is an amazing debut novel. (11/26/2018)
Past The Shallows is the first novel by award-winning Australian author, Favel Parrett. Since his Mum died in a car accident, Harry Curren, now almost nine years old, lives with his Dad and his older brother, Miles, on coastal southern Tasmania. Joe’s old enough to live on his own in Grandad’s house. It’s school holidays, and Harry would like to spend time with his brothers, even wander the beach when they go for a surf, but after Uncle Nick drowned, Dad makes Miles go on the boat with him and Jeff and Martin, not something Miles enjoys.

Living with Dad is no picnic: his moods are unpredictable, and when he’s angry, Steven Curren can be violent, so the boys try to tread lightly. There’s Aunty Jean who does stuff for them, but she’s nothing like her sister. And Harry’s best friend Stuart, but he’s not always at the caravan. One day, though, he follows a friendly little kelpie through the bush to a shack, before realising that’s where George Fuller lives. Everyone stays away from George, Harry’s not sure why.

Parrett gives the reader a story that’s spare on detail, but the shocking truth of what happened back then is gradually revealed. Her descriptive prose is beautiful, in particular her renderings of the sea and surfing. The comparisons with Tim Winton’s work are certainly valid. The relationship between the three brothers is heartening and Harry is impossible not to love, to care about, to feel for. Moving and heart-breaking, this is an amazing debut novel.
London Rules: A Slough House Novel
by Mick Herron
Another excellent dose of British spy fiction (11/26/2018)
London Rules is the fifth book in the Slough House series by prize-winning British author, Mick Herron. During a sweltering summer in Slough House, the slow horses perform, with a minimum of enthusiasm, the tasks their boss, Jackson Lamb has dreamed up: Louisa Guy scans library records for borrowers of possible terrorist texts; River Cartwright pretends to compare rate payments with the electoral roll to reveal possible terrorist safe houses, while he worries about his demented grandfather; and J.K. Coe composes fake emails for agents who need to disappear after interacting too closely with the general public.

Still on the wagon, Catherine Standish mops up after Lamb while also monitoring the psychological temperature of their reduced number, in particular: grief over those recently lost, the effect of (now-drug-free for 62 days!) Shirley Dander’s anger management course, the stability of the ever-silent, traumatised Coe, River’s concerns for the O.B., and Roddy Ho’s continuing over-inflated belief in his own popularity.

Meanwhile, in the real world, a terrorist attack on a Derbyshire village leaves twelve dead, a pipe bomb at a zoo has a similar death toll, and the discovery of a bomb on a train averts another potential disaster. As Regent’s Park searches for terrorists, First Desk Claude Whelan also has to cope with the PM’s demands for certain background checks, an MP with PM ambitions, the MP’s tabloid journalist wife and of course, his Second Desk, Lady Di Taverner, who has designs on his job.

When there’s an attempt on Roddy Ho’s life, the slow horses are at first incredulous, then puzzled. Coe seldom contributes, but when he does open his mouth, it’s worth listening, even if Lamb’s sharp mind is already a long way towards figuring it out. And once again, the slow horses are out on an op. Apart from a generous helping of snappy dialogue, fists, knees, elbows, a wrench, a knife, a coat-hanger, guns, a bottle of bleach, and a tin of paint come into play.

As always, Jackson Lamb is rude, inappropriate, sharp and sly. He has a lot of fun with addressing the unfortunately-named Devon Welles. This instalment sees the first of the London Rules, “cover your arse” adhered to by many players, and ultimately, Ho maintains his oblivion regards the general opinion of his appeal. The idea that “…Lamb will go to any lengths to protect a joe, but would watch in mild amusement if the rest of the world hanged itself” is soundly reinforced.

Herron’s plot is imaginative but easily believable, with the odd twist to keep it interesting; there’s plenty of humour, much of it black, that will have readers snickering, giggling and laughing out loud. This fifth instalment of the series, while it contains some spoilers for earlier books, can easily be read as a stand-alone, but with a series as entertaining as this one, why would you? Another excellent dose of British spy fiction.

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