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Friday, January 23, 2015

'The Protected' by Claire Zorn



From the BLURB:

Hannah’s world is in pieces and she doesn’t need the school counsellor to tell her she has deep-seated psychological issues. With a seriously depressed mum, an injured dad and a dead sister, who wouldn’t have problems?

Hannah should feel terrible but for the first time in ages, she feels a glimmer of hope and isn’t afraid anymore. Is it because the elusive Josh is taking an interest in her? Or does it run deeper than that?

In a family torn apart by grief and guilt, one girl’s struggle to come to terms with years of torment shows just how long old wounds can take to heal.


‘The Protected’ was the 2014 contemporary young adult novel from Australian author Claire Zorn.

I hope everyone will forgive me for being late to the Claire Zorn Fan Club. Her 2013 debut YA novel ‘The Sky So Heavy’ went bananas – it was shortlisted for an Aurealis Award and made the Children’s Book Council of Australia Older Readers shortlist, and perhaps most prestigious of all was that last year it also made the Gold Inky shortlist (voted for by teens). But I haven’t read it yet, and I am so ashamed. Which is why I wanted to find my way to her latest YA novel, released last year – ‘The Protected’.

When the book begins it’s nearly been one year since Hannah’s older sister Katie died in a car crash that also left Hannah, and especially, her dad with serious injuries … although Hannah’s are more inward;
 I have three months left to call Katie my older sister. Then the gap will close and I will pass her. I will get older. But Katie will always be fifteen, eleven months and twenty-one days old. She will always have a nose piercing and a long curly knot of dark hair. She will always think that The Cure is the greatest band of all time. She will always have a red band of sunburn on her lower back from our last beach holiday.
Forever.

When I started reading this I was a bit concerned that it had echoes of other YA plot tropes. There’s a dead sister (‘The Sky is Everywhere’ and ‘Saving June’), and pretty quickly we learn that the dearly-departed was not the nicest person (slightly 'Lessons From a Dead Girl') … but then Claire Zorn does something quite admirable indeed.

Told in Hannah’s first-person we come to realise that her mother has been in a state of depression since Katie’s death, and with an inquest coming up to investigate her father’s possible culpable driving, tensions in the family home are climbing as high as the temperature outside. Hannah has started reluctantly seeing her school counsellor ahead of the inquest, and talking to Anne is bringing up a lot of issues that go beyond Katie’s death – like the fact that before her sister died, Hannah was being severely bullied at school.

From there the story takes on a completely different trajectory – not only is Hannah coping with her grief, but she has a lot of unresolved anger directed at ‘The Clones’ who made her life a living hell before the accident, and at her older sister who wasn’t there for Hannah when she needed her most.

Hannah’s story completely blindsided me – I thought I knew the tropes it was following; but with the realisation of Hannah’s being a victim of serious bullying, there comes a far sharper and more complex narrative. The students who were so cruel to Hannah suddenly stopped after she became ‘the sister of the dead girl’ – but that left her with so much unresolved hurt, anger and bitterness that’s further confused by Katie’s failure to protect her little sister, and of course by her death and the repercussions since (particularly on her parents’ increasingly strained marriage).

‘The Protected’ does very well to remind readers that death and grief are never clean-cut, easy things. Screw the ‘Ten Stages of Grief’, because these feelings don’t follow rhyme or reason. Hannah really has to realise that the events ‘before’ are just as deserving of her grief and heartbreak as what came ‘after’ she lost Katie and her family changed forever.

There were a few things I didn’t love in this book – an over-reliance on school counsellor Anne and a kindly neighbour called Mrs Van to help Hannah acknowledge and eventually overcome her grief, for instance. I’m never a huge fan of adults being a young protagonists’ saviour … but at the same time there were a lot of ‘before’ events in which adults failed to help Hannah, so in a way it was nice that she could eventually come to trust and even rely on them again. More powerful, I thought, was the introduction of a new student at Hannah’s school – a boy called Josh who is the first person to venture beyond Hannah’s grief and attempt to reach out to her. This isn’t a big, flashy romance – it’s realer and more subdued than that, and the value in Josh’s friendship is far greater for Hannah’s healing.

I really loved Claire Zorn’s ‘The Protected’. It caught me off guard as a messier and beautifully raw examination of grief, anger, and hurt. Here is a story about the fragility of an already fractured family, interspersed with truly powerful commentary on school bullying. Consider me a proud new member of the Claire Zorn fanclub.


4.5/5


  

Monday, January 19, 2015

‘Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries’ by Julia Spencer-Fleming


Clare Fergusson is the priest at St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Miller's Kill, New York. Untraditional in every sense, she's not just a "lady," she's a tough ex-Army chopper pilot, and nobody's fool. When a mystery appears at her church door, she meets the town's police chief, Russ Van Alstyne, who's also ex-Army and a cynical good shepherd for the stray sheep of his hometown. As they start investigating, they discover a world of trouble, an attraction to each other...  
Julia Spencer-Fleming's novels have won the Macavity, Agatha, Anthony and Dilys Awards.

‘Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries’ is the Julia Spencer-Fleming mystery-thriller series (with a touch of romance), currently with eight books and more scheduled.

I don’t read much crime fiction, but the series I do read I am unfailingly loyal to – Karin Slaughter’s ‘Grant County’ and ‘Will Trent’ series mostly. Normally Slaughter’s instalments are all the crime-fic I need; occasionally I’ll venture to lightweight “cozy mysteries”, but Slaughter is the only hard-boiled I read religiously and that’s mostly thanks to her books being so cutthroat and gruesome they’re about all I can stomach. Balancing out Slaughter’s macabre explorations is the other reason I stick so closely to her crime series – the characters and their complex relationships. For that reason, whenever I get the occasional whim to go looking for a new crime series to tide me over, I always look for something that also balances the thriller/relationships ratio. And I found it in Spencer-Fleming’s ‘Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries’.

I do so love discovering a series with a hefty backlist for me to dive into, but before I started the ‘Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries’, I wanted some assurances that there was some sort of emotional exploration running through the books to propel the characters as much as their search for justice with each new instalment. I can’t read something like ‘Jack Reacher’, I’ve tried, but a series in which a protagonist blows in and blows out of towns and leaves a trail of conquests in his wake (never to be seen again) is just not for me. I want relationships to carry the series, as much as a good whodunit with each new book. So when I read a lengthy (spoiler-y!) review of the series on ‘Heroes and Heartbreakers’, I was thrilled. Janga provides a quote from Spencer-Fleming, about her initial idea for the series;

I knew I wanted to tell a love story about a brand-new female Episcopal priest and a married small-town chief of police. I knew I wanted it to be smart, and grown-up, and to ask questions like, “What do we sacrifice to honor our commitments?” and “What if finding your soul mate only leads to heartache?” I didn’t know if the ending would be happy or tragic. I didn’t know if I could balance the story of Russ and Clare, and the people of Millers Kill whose lives intersect with theirs, and the demands of a tightly-plotted mystery. I really didn’t know the central question over five—soon to be six—books was going to be: Will they or won’t they?

I read first book ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ over a weekend, and then proceeded to inhale the next seven books over the course of a fortnight … thanks to my well-stocked local library, I had all the books at my fingertips and the romantic cliff-hangers at the end of each book were certainly enough to keep me on a roll.

Each book has a mystery whodunit at its centre – and they vary in appeal. First book ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ concerns a newborn baby being left on the doorstop of Clare’s church, and a few days later the baby’s suspected teen mother is found murdered … this was probably my favourite mystery of all the books, for offering up brilliantly complex circumstances under which to meet Clare and Russ. Other books didn’t hold my interest quite so much – third book ‘Out of the Deep I Cry’ flips between present-day and a cold case from 1930 which failed to appeal. Fourth book ‘To Darkness and to Death’ was my least favourite because it’s told from more than just Clare and Russ’s usual perspective to instead encompass a number of criminals, murderers, and victims in an unintentional comedy-of-errors mystery which sees one kidnapping having a domino-effect that leads to murder and terrorism. Yikes.

But one great thing about this mystery series is that Julia Spencer-Fleming doesn’t rely on violence against women to drive her mysteries. Much like police procedurals on TV, mystery authors can sometimes rely on the old “damsel in distress” storyline for each and every book – oftentimes mangling it into “all the awful ways women can be killed” with each new instalment. Karin Slaughter has been accused of this – she addresses it in her FAQ even – and maybe because I read her so religiously she’s about all that I can stomach in that arena. So coming into Spencer-Fleming’s series where the mysteries are dynamic and fresh, without relying on the death of numerous women in each new instalment, is much appreciated.

Small towns have the same evils that big cities do, just in smaller numbers. And instead of some anonymous stranger, the evil is always someone’s neighbour or husband or friend. That’s the hard part, that you can’t blame some ‘other’ when awful things happen. The ‘other’ is one of us. 
—In the Bleak Midwinter Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries, #1

Of course the real draw-card of this series – and what had me gobbling up 8 books in one fortnight – is the tangled partnership of Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne. Clare is an ex fighter pilot, and Russ is a Vietnam Vet quite a few years older than Clare, self-proclaimed atheist and married to boot. These two get along like a house-on-fire from the first – both of them straight shooters who normally play their cards close to their chests, but with one another they find an unlikely and instantaneous friendship …

“Never? You never break down and cry?”

A flush rose in her cheeks. “Okay, almost never. Certainly not with someone I haven’t known for very long.” She clapped her hands to her cheeks. “Oh, this is embarrassing.”
He sat in one of the four wooden chairs clustered around the kitchen table. “Funny. It doesn’t feel as if we haven’t known each other for very long. Does it?”
She blinked. “Honestly? No. It doesn’t.” 
—In the Bleak Midwinter Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries, #1

Over the course of 8 books, Russ and Clare acknowledge their feelings for one another and then wrestle with the many reasons they can’t be together – his marriage, their age-difference, the impropriety of the local Episcopal priest and the Chief of Police … it’s a delicious tug-of-war that plays out with both their moral compasses, yet underneath it all is their simmering, growing affection for one another that cannot be denied;

He kissed her, kissed her right down to her foundations, kissed her until she was a cathedral burning: lead melting, saints shattering, not a stone left on stone. He lifted his hands, hers, pressed her against the bookcase, interlocking their fingers and palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss and the edge of the shelves but into the back of her hands, hanging there with his sweet weight against her, nailed to the wood by her own reckless desire.

Then his hands were on her face, her jaw, sliding through her hair, plucking out the pins keeping it in place, tracing the edge of her collar. “How does this come off?” he asked, his voice like dusk against her ear.
“Uhn.” Thinking was like sweeping through cobwebs. “It buttons. In the back.”
The rub of his knuckle, a tug, and her collar came free. 
—I Shall Not Want Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries, #6

I can see why romance readers have found their way to this mystery series. It’s a darn delicious set-up, and Julia Spencer-Fleming is good about gifting her readers’ pay-off to all the forbidden romance. If I have any complaints about this aspect of the series, it’s that Russ’s wife – Linda – is severely under-developed, a limp non-character whose sole purpose is to be a roadblock. I think there could have been more wrung out of this forbidden-fruit aspect to the Russ/Clare dynamic if Linda had been allowed to be a more well-rounded character.

But I can’t deny it was this aspect to the series that saw me gobbling them up in two weeks. It’s in Russ and Clare’s relationship that Spencer-Fleming really shines, and the books take on more robust dimensions that ensure readers will keep coming back;

She knew Russ, knew him like she knew the Book of Common Prayer, carried him as a lamp beneath her breastbone. 
One Was a Soldier Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries, #7

In book #6 ‘I Shall Not Want’ we get a concurrent storyline running alongside Russ and Clare’s – concerning a young rookie cop and the slightly older single mum who joins the force – theirs is also a romance, and as equally slow-simmered as Clare and Russ’s was in the very beginning.

I highly recommend ‘Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries’ for those romance readers who want to try a mystery series, and for mystery fans who like plenty of human drama amidst the whodunnits.  

4/5



Thursday, January 15, 2015

The celebrity who's using social media for good


New piece I wrote for Daily Life about the actor Stephen Amell:


'Arrow' actor Stephen Amell directs his millions of Facebook followers to worthy causes, while promoting respectful conduct - he could teach his celebrity contemporaries a thing or two about being awesome online.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

'A Hoe Lot of Trouble' a Nina Quinn Mystery #1 by Heather Webber



From the BLURB:

Meet Nina Quinn, garden landscaper extraordinaire and very amateur sleuth, in this charming cosy series that is perfect for fans of Carolyn Hart.

Nina Quinn has had enough of her cheating cop husband. His affair with his partner has driven her close to the edge--and him out of their home. Nina, the owner of Taken By Surprise, a landscaping business that specializes in surprise garden makeovers, already has too much on her plate--her delinquent stepson has let his pet snake loose in the house, and her nosy mother won't stop pestering her to get her bridesmaid's dress fitted for her sister's upcoming nuptials. But it's the strange disappearance of gardening tools--including a very expensive set of hoes--that really throws a wrench in things. And when she gets a call that her oldest friend's father-in-law, a beloved old man who introduced her to landscaping, has been murdered, Nina knows that it's time to start digging for clues to the frustrating, mysterious, and downright evil things that have disturbed her peaceful Ohio hometown.

‘A Hoe Lot of Trouble’ is the first book in the ‘Nina Quinn’ cozy mystery series by Heather Webber.

The books opens with 29-year-old Nina Quinn stuffing photos of her cheating cop husband down the garbage disposal. Nina and Kevin have been married for eight years, he an older widower came into the marriage with then seven-year-old son, Riley – but after an incident with lipstick on his boxers, Kevin came clean to cheating on Nina with his new partner. Now Nina is living with Riley while Kevin shacks up with his new squeeze … at the same time Riley’s pet snake is MIA, and gardening tools from Nina’s thriving ‘Taken By Surprise’ landscaping business are missing. To top it all off, one of Nina’s close childhood friends has just been devastated by the sudden death of her father-in-law, and reaches out to Nina to ask for help from her (and Kevin) when the family suspects foul play.

I love me a good cozy-mystery. It’s a sub-genre I fell I love with after ploughing through Charlaine Harris’s ‘Aurora Teagarden’ and ‘Lily Bard’ backlist, but I haven’t really had much luck in finding a cozy series I love as much as either of those since. If you don’t know what a ‘cozy’ is, check out cozy-mystery.com for some guidance – but in a nutshell there’s usually a punny title, small town mystery, unlikely armchair sleuth and I personally have a preference for some romance to balance-out the murder rate. Webber’s ‘Nina Quinn’ ticks all these boxes, but still didn’t manage to sucker me in as wholeheartedly as Charlaine Harris did in her cozy hey-day.

Nina’s tentative connection to the investigation in her friend’s father-in-law’s death is that she has the ‘inside-scoop’ with her husband as the local cop. Little does Nina’s friend know that Nina and Kevin are splitsville, but Nina is still intrigued enough by the oddities in the man’s death to stick her nose in. This isn’t unusual for a cozy, when an average Joe thinks they can bring something to an unsolved case that the police can’t – it’s kinda the whole suspend disbelief catalyst behind every cozy. But normally the person’s average Joe job compliments their sleuthing in some way – Aurora Teagarden was a librarian, and all walks of life came through her stacks. Lily Bard was a cleaner, and literally had access to the skeletons in people’s closets. Nina’s being a landscape gardener really has no impact on the case (a side-story about Nina’s tools going missing ends up nowhere near the actual murder) and for that reason the entire series feels like it’s starting out on uneven ground … especially because Nina’s having a cop-husband is definitely not going to last, if the events in this book are anything to go by.

On the topic of Nina and Kevin – I really wasn’t put off by a cheating spouse storyline. Truth be told, I more often than not enjoy a good infidelity storyline – it aligns me with the wronged partner protagonist straight away, and there’s just something bruise-pokingly good about reading infidelities.

He cleared his throat. What was left of his dark hair blew in the breeze. Finally he looked at me, his green eyes troubles. “I’m sorry about Kevin, Nina.” 
Ahh. News travelled fast in the Ceceri household. My mother must have gotten to him while I talked to Riley. 
“It’s okay, Dad.” 
“I know what your mother thought of him, but I always thought him honourable.” 
“I think he still is, in some ways.” Man, that was hard to say. 
“Not in the ways that count.” 
I bit my lip. “I suppose you’re right.”
 
Furthermore, one of my all-time favourite crime thriller series started out with the protagonists being divorced after his cheating (Karin Slaughter’s ‘GrantCounty’). But the Kevin/Nina story in ‘A Hoe Lot of Trouble’ feels frustratingly underdeveloped – I think it’s a real cop out that Kevin has moved out of home when the story starts, so is out-of-sight-out-of-mind for most of the book. A very tentative alternate romance is hinted at with Riley’s vice-principal, but it’s so far off in the distance I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t even a major plot in book #2.

The lack of Kevin and the development of their fractured marriage was indicative of another issue I had with this first book – all the secondary characters! There were so many, I lost track of who was actually involved in Nina’s amateur sleuthing, who worked for her in landscaping, who was on the police force, and who was associated with Riley’s school – Nina’s inner-circle was so underdeveloped that she felt lonely in this book. Even her step-son is underdeveloped, even as he’s living under her roof; and while she speaks of affection for him, his sullen typical teenager cliché character left me feeling doubly-wounded on Nina’s behalf, that her ex has lumped her with his ungrateful son.

But there were bright spots in this book. Nina is a genuinely likeable character, trudging on and committing to helping her friend even amidst her own heartbreak. She also doesn’t break down with the loss of her husband, but gets angry and starts to get even – an admirable turnover. The mystery is intriguing, and kept me turning pages even while the lacking relationships bought some of the book’s momentum down.

I will read more in this series, if only because I’m intrigued to see where the odd family dynamic of Kevin/Nina and Riley goes. But I do hope that Webber gets better at establishing Nina’s inner-circle, and lets this feisty protagonist confront her husband rather than quietly rallying away from him.

3/5


Saturday, January 10, 2015

'All the Bright Places' by Jennifer Niven

 Received from the publisher 

From the BLURB:

Theodore Finch wants to take his own life. I'm broken, and no one can fix it.

Violet Markey us devastated by her sister's death. In that instant we went plowing through the guardrail, my words died too.

They meet on the ledge of the school bell tower, and so their story begins. It's only together they can be themselves . . . 


I send a message to Violet: 'You are all the colors in one, at full brightness.'


You're so weird, Finch. But that's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me.


But, as Violet's world grows, Finch's begins to shrink. How far will Violet go to save the boy she has come to love?


All the Bright Places’ is the new contemporary young adult novel by Jennifer Niven.

I first heard about this book because it caused quite a stir in the youth literature world, when film rights were bought before it had even hit bookshelves – with wunderkind Elle Fanning attached to play one of the lead roles. Pretty quickly I read it likened to John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars crossed with Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park as the “next big thing” – which is a surefire way to put me off and turn me into an instant sceptic.

Then I received an advance copy from Penguin Teen Australia, along with a letter from the author. It was the letter that really intrigued me, as Niven explained the circumstances around the idea for her book being the sudden death of her literary agent: “part of me wanted to just stop. Stop writing, stop working. But another part of me said no, push through this, and don’t just push through it, make something great happen.” Intersecting with her grief were sudden memories of the first boy she ever loved, and Niven concluded her letter; “All the Bright Places was written about a very hard, sad, lovely time during a very hard, sad, stressful time – but in just six weeks, the book was born.” Cutting through all the PR rhetoric of “next big thing” and “if you liked X and X, you’ll love Y!” – this brief letter was Niven putting her heart and dark inspiration on the page, and I was impressed.

There’s more painful beauty in the story itself – the story of Theodore Finch and Violet Markey who become each other’s unlikely saviours in the worst of circumstances. Theodore is fascinated by death, and constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death. The explosive opening chapter has them meeting on the ledge of their school’s bell tower – in a case of ‘girl and boy save each other,’ which carries throughout the book. But when death keeps encroaching on Theodore’s thoughts, Violet doesn’t know how she can keep him here and keep him safe from himself.

Jennifer Niven has written a beautiful balancing act in ‘All the Bright Places’ –at once a thoughtful exploration into mental illness and teen suicide, lightened with a first-love story of tender honesty;

I feel like I’m living for these moments – the moments when I’m just about to lie down beside him, when I know it’s getting ready to happen, his skin on mine, his mouth on mine, and then when he’s touching me and the electric current is shooting through me everywhere. It’s like all the other hours of the day are spent looking forward to right now. 
We kiss until my lips are numb, stopping ourselves at the very edge of Someday, saying not yet, not here, even though it takes willpower I didn’t know I had. My mind is spinning with him and the unexpected Almost of today. 
When he gets home, he writes me a message: I am thinking rather consistently of Someday. 
I write, Someday soon. 
Finch: Someday when?

This is a very thoughtful book for how Niven delves into mental illness and suicide – two topics that may make parents and schools wring their hands in worry when their children (inevitably) find their way to this bestseller. But these are not topics to fear, especially when they’re explored in youth literature and with an author like Niven – even her Author’s Note is a thoughtful coda on the topics: “If you think something is wrong, speak up. You are not alone. It is not your fault. Help is out there.” And a number of organisations are listed – those for suicide prevention and mental illness diagnosis as well as anti-bullying organisations.

The book does take an (inevitable) dark turn – it’s foreshadowed from the first page, when our fated heroes meet atop a ledge. But Niven lays the groundwork so well that when the worst happens, a cast of stellar secondary characters help fill the void – highlighting the impact on those left behind, and the strength of them to survive after such loss.

I do appreciate why this book was compared to the likes of The Fault in Ours Stars and Eleanor & Park – there is loss and sadness here, and such books do have same themes and even romances that follow a similar trajectory. But perhaps their kindest comparison is because such authors take the pain of life and colour it with hope for young readers – and that’s why these book stand out and leave their mark.

All the Bright Places is a favourite of 2015; I can’t wait for the film adaptation and to read more from Niven.


5/5

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

'The Murder of Allison Baden-Clay' by David Murray


From the BLURB:

How did a father with no criminal history come to be on trial for the brutal murder of his wife?

It began with a phone call to Brisbane police on 20 April 2012. Allison, wife of real-estate agent Gerard Baden-Clay, was missing.

When investigating officers arrived at the family home, in one of the city's wealthiest suburbs, a neatly dressed Gerard had been getting the couple's three daughters ready for school. Scratches on his face were shaving cuts, he told them. Police weren't so sure and opened one of Australia's biggest ever missing persons investigations.

Ten days after Gerard reported Allison's disappearance, the body of the former beauty queen was discovered on a creek bank 14 kilometres from home.

The Murder of Allison Baden-Clay is written by the investigative journalist who covered the case from the start. It weaves together exclusive interviews and police and court records to explain how a father with no criminal history came to be on trial for a brutal murder. It's also a story about everyday choices and their consequences.

I don’t normally read true crime novels – truth be told, I don’t read much non-fiction in general but true crime is a particular genre I avoid. This is odd, I’ll admit, since I am an avid-newsreader and will often get sucked into particular current events, often harrowing, and wonder about them for days on end. But true crime books just don’t appeal … until I got sucked into Serial Podcast, that ode to investigative journalism hosted by Sarah Koenig and spin-off of This American Life. The first season delves into the 1999 murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee, and her ex-boyfriend Adnan Masud Syed life-sentence conviction for her murder.

It was the end (and my enjoyment) of the 12-episode season one of Serial podcast that prompted me to read outside my normal comfort zone … and I picked up David Murray’s true crime novel about the 2012 disappearance and subsequent murder trial of Allison Baden-Clay because another pop-culture phenomenon got me thinking back on the case. I saw ‘Gone Girl’ – the adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller – this year, and the story of a wife-gone-missing and her husband faltering in the glare of the media spotlight had me drawing some serious parallels to the Baden-Clay case (as was Flynn’s intention – having researched many past famous cases of uxoricide for her book).

So I delved into David Murray’s true crime book – the case still so fresh, as the guilty verdict (and sentence of life imprisonment) of Allison’s husband Gerard Baden-Clay was handed down in July 2014. David Murray – a journalist for The Courier-Mail and Sunday Mail – was on the case from the first hints of a drama unfolding back in April 2012, when Gerard Baden-Clay phoned police to report his wife missing.

The book opens on April 20, 2012 with Gerard making a phone-call to police to say he woke up to find his wife gone, unreturned from her usual morning walk and himself starting to worry because she had a conference to attend. When the first two officers on the scene see Gerard Baden-Clay they are struck by a weeping wound on his cheek, what looks to be scratch marks, but he claims are cuts from shaving. It is these startling wounds that immediately kick investigations into high-gear, and ultimately lead police to Gerard Baden-Clay as their prime suspect in the murder of his wife, once her body is found days later, unceremoniously dumped down a creek embankment.

David Murray then draws back from the case to take a broader look at the lives of Allison Dickie, and her future husband Gerard Clay (name changed to ‘Baden’-Clay to reflect his family’s affiliation to Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout Movement).

At times David Murray’s investigations into the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents of Allison and Gerard bored me … but the somewhat excessive information becomes crucial later on, as Murray rather masterfully builds a character depiction of Allison, but especially her elusive husband.

Journalist David Murray having contacts in the wealthy Brookfield area where the Baden-Clays lived started calling around town almost immediately to get an idea of this family in the wake of their tragedy. He was told glowing stories of Allison’s kindness and hard work, her self-sacrifice and love for her three young daughters. What he found about Gerard was trickier – sometimes hearing scathing character assessments from disgruntled former colleagues, locals who found Gerard’s entire family odd and self-important, and Murray was told the worst-kept secret in town was Gerard’s numerous affairs buried behind his family-man persona.

Living in Melbourne when this case was unfolding in Queensland, I quickly realised that I only knew the bare bones of this case which was dominating headlines around Australia, but especially in Queensland. I didn’t realise that there was such gossip and many armchair-detectives speculating almost immediately that “the husband did it”, or the numerous compelling pieces of evidence that left little doubt in people’s minds. In one particularly fascinating chapter, Murray comments on the new-age of reporting that was born out of this case that saw reporters ‘live-tweeting’ from inside the courtroom, and saw the case discussed (much like Serial podcast was) by internet-sleuths:

The amateur sleuth has long been a staple in crime fiction. The idea that average Joes and Josephines can crack cases that have stumped the professionals appeals to armchair detectives the world over. 

Because I was so unfamiliar with all but the bare facts of the case, I found details into the Queensland police force’s amazingly detailed and steadfast case really fascinating. But I understand there’s probably not a lot here that Queenslanders who were glued to their TV screens didn’t already know – no thanks again to the Internet buzz the case created.

Almost 1500 lines of inquiry were run out during Operation Kilo Intrigue, three times as many as the average murder investigation. 

But on the flipside of no really new or startling information, I found that David Murray’s true investigative strength lay in deciphering the ‘character’ of Gerard Baden-Clay. I think this case especially resonated because fairly soon the public realised that, behind the smiling photos and public appearances, the Baden-Clay’s lives and marriage were in tatters. Financial crisis and extramarital affairs were plaguing them; yet family, friends and the wider community thought them to be a tight-knit, happy family. There’s always going to be intrigue in ripping away a seemingly perfect veneer to show a darker underbelly – it’s the human condition to be fascinated by the masks we wear.

Murray unravels Gerard’s many lies and misdirection’s about his real estate business, his mistress and the story he weaved that seemed to even convince himself that he was untouchable. At one point in deciphering Gerard, Murray reached out to an ex-FBI consultant who specialised in body language. Murray sent him a link to Gerard Baden-Clay’s one impromptu media interview that was indeed very damning, and seemed to paint him as a consummate actor – imitating grief. To compare what this FBI specialist thinks about Gerard’s performance, Murray watches a clip of Tom Meagher, in a grotesquely fascinating chapter;

I went back to YouTube and searched for clips of Tom Meagher. It seemed an obvious comparison and revealed a tale of two husbands. Meagher’s wife, Jill, vanished after a night out with friends in Melbourne in September 2012. It occurred just three months after Gerard Baden-Clay had been charged with murdering the wife he reported missing. As initial reports about Jill’s disappearance became public, a few cynics eyed her husband with suspicion. But Tom was an open book, throwing himself in front of the media in a constant push to keep his wife’s face on TV and in the newspapers.

David Murray’s book is also an ode to the Queensland police force who left no stone unturned, as well as a hat-tip to the everyday citizens who were quite incredible in helping to search for Allison. One story in particular about the boss of the Queensland Herbarium who went above-and-beyond as a specialist witness for the police, investigating plant varieties discovered matted in Allison’s hair was particularly touching, even while still so macabre.

Where the book falters is also, ironically, where Serial Podcast dropped the ball a bit too. As a recent article on the podcast pointed out; "Serial doesn’t really explore the wider issue of someone killing a woman,” and nor does Murray. I think there’s little doubt that there was psychological and emotional abuse happening to Allison at the hands of Gerard during their marriage. In a couple of paragraphs at the very end of the book there’s a description of how Allison’s cousin (who works for the Ipswich Women's Centre Against Domestic Violence) attended a Domestic Violence workshop and was shocked (and then oddly comforted) to see a photo of Gerard Baden-Clay flash up on the screen during a talk about types of men who kill their partners – Gerard being labelled a Narcisisst. Murray then makes a one-line mention of Allison’s cousin starting a Facebook page for people dealing with domestic abuse to share stories and seek support … this struck me as odd, when Murray went into so much fine detail about the Queensland Herbarium boss conducting research into plant varieties that he wouldn’t look further into this side of Allison Baden-Clay’s murder.

So. I’ve done it – read a true crime novel for the first time in years. It was a morbidly ‘enjoyable’ (that doesn’t feel like the right word, somehow?) reading experience. I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to pick another one up – I admired Murray’s attention to detail, his efforts to paint a full picture of Allison and how remarkable she was – consequently, highlighting what the world lost when she was murdered. Much like Serial pocast, this book is also an ode to investigative journalism, and it's eerie connections to Gone Girl make it a fascinating read to boot. 

4/5

Friday, January 2, 2015

'The Maxwell Sisters' by Loretta Hill

Received via NetGalley

From the BLURB:

All families have their problems. No more so than the Maxwells of Tawny Brooks Winery. Situated in the heart of the Margaret River wine region, this world-renowned winery was the childhood home to three sisters, Natasha, Eve and Phoebe.

Today all three women are enmeshed in their city lives and eager to forget their past - and their fractured sibling relationships. Until Phoebe decides to get married at home . . .

Now the sisters must all return to face a host of family obligations, vintage in full swing and interfering in-laws who just can't take a hint. As one romance blossoms and others fall apart, it seems they are all in need of some sisterly advice. But old wounds cut deep. Somehow, The Maxwell Sisters must find a way back to one another – or risk losing each other forever.

‘The Maxwell Sisters’ is the new contemporary fiction novel from Australia author Loretta Hill, who so impressed me with her Pilbara-set romance books: 'The Girl in the Hard Hat' and 'The Girl in Steel-Capped Boots' among them. ‘Maxwell Sisters’ is the first book, and I’m told (by the author herself, via Twitter) that at least two more books are planned in the same Margaret River wine region. 

I had a bit of a sinking feeling as I started reading this, only because it had elements of a Monica McInerney novel I read in 2013, a novel I happened to hate. ‘The Alphabet Sisters’ was about three sisters reuniting at their family home after years of silence following an explosive feud – namely around the youngest sister stealing the middle sister’s fiancée. When they reunited the middle and youngest sister had to have it out (but never really did) over the betrayal, and oldest sister (long thought to be perfect) had to slowly reveal how her marriage was collapsing.

Loretta Hill's had similar elements to McInerney’s novel … or what I thought were similar elements at first. ‘The Maxwell Sisters’ sees youngest sister Phoebe getting married, and calling her feuding middle and older sisters home a month early under the guise of wedding arrangements, but really to mend fences.

Phoebe is marrying Spider, celebrity TV chef and her sister Eve’s former restaurant partner, and best friend … but unbeknownst to her, he’s also the man Eve has unrequitedly loved for years now, and she’s still struggling to come to terms with what could have been.

Meanwhile, eldest “perfect” sister Natasha is returning home with some bad news … her marriage is over, and she and her husband Heath have been living in separate states for the last month. But when she arrives at her parents infamous winery, she is surprised to discover Heath there too – adamant that they still have a marriage worth saving, and banking on Tash not wanting to lose face with her family by pre-emptively telling them about her marriage breakdown.

The stage being set, and the sister’s initially being at odds with one another, Hill’s and McInerney’s books become vastly different in their plots and execution – where ‘The Alphabet Sisters’ fell flat in pretty much every single way for me, I read Hill’s ‘The Maxwell Sisters’ as being a phenomenal contemporary romance cross between King Lear and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ … as the sister’s enjoy spending a month together under the stealthy influence of their beloved patriarch, a famous wine man who has often been called “mad” for his belief in celestial tides affecting the grapes. The Maxwell sisters must grapple with their misconceptions and assumptions about one another’s lives and feelings – having so lost touch with one other over the last few years, the novel becomes about how these three reconnect and fit back into each other’s lives.

Along the way there is romance to be had – for Eve it’s the new manager her father has employed, the delicious Adam “Adonis” (as she calls him) who is running from his own problems. Natasha must decide if she’s really ready to turn her back on her husband and their previously blissful marriage, and Phoebe becomes increasingly suspicious of Spider in the lead-up to their wedding … Hill’s romances for the three are excellent, especially for being so nuanced and proportionate to the bigger issues going on in the sister’s lives and familial relationships. Just as her Pilbara books were more about the female characters surviving in tough, male-dominated work places (that, for their remote locations, became living quarters too), ‘The Maxwell Sisters’ is likewise more about the sister’s realigning with each other than it is solely a vehicle for their love lives to get back in order. I think that’s where Hill really excels in her contemporary fiction – she never forgets the real heart of the story, the meatier characterisation and bonds are not playing second-fiddle to the lovey-dovey stuff.

That being said – and although Hill did a remarkable job of making me root for all the sisters (even the Mary Sue-esque character of Phoebe), I especially loved Eve’s story with Adam/Adonis, which starts off snarky and then progresses to sparky. I especially loved Eve’s story because she is the more underdog sister –unmarried, lusting after her sister’s fiancée (and has been for years) a failed business owner and the shorter/curvier one, compared to her willowy sisters.

By the time she got back to the couch, Phoebe and Natasha were already seated there on either side of her father. They had both seized the opportunity to get his attention while she had rushed off to get stuff organised. How familiar the scene was. As a young girl, she had often thought of herself as the Cinderella of the family. Only the analogy was definitely flawed – neither of her sisters were ugly and her life was still a pumpkin.
‘Here, Dad, drink this.’ She held out the glass of water to her father and sat down on the edge of the coffee table.He took it rather absentmindedly as he gazed at each of his daughters in turn. ‘Look at you all.’ He sipped his water. ‘All of you in the same room. My beautiful girls. My life is literally flashing before my eyes.’

As I was reading this (and I did so in one sitting – staying up until 1AM) I found myself hoping, finger-crossing that Loretta Hill would be turning this into a series … and as I discovered on Twitter, she is! I’m especially keen because there are two other wineries mentioned, and the breadcrumbs laid for the stories around those family-run wineries are intriguing … there’s mention of a Jack Franklin, “the region’s most notorious womaniser,” and member of a rival family; “the Franklins and the Maxwells had been mortal enemies from day one, especially when it came to wine.” Seriously, I cannot wait!

I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of this e-book via NetGalley, and I did find it funny that after reading it on December 18, it became the first book to make my ‘Favourite Books of 2015’ list, and so soon after mentioning ‘The Maxwell Sisters’ in my ‘Most Anticipated Books of 2015’ list too! It really was a wonderful read, and I can’t wait to return to the region and meet the Franklin family next. Loretta Hill is such a wonderful voice in Australian contemporary fiction; beautifully balancing romance and family tales that tug at the heart.

5/5