'To Hell and Back' is a memoir detailing one policewoman’s trials and tribulations working within the ranks of the Victoria Police Force from the early 1980’s to the present day. Despite numerous instances of harassment, false accusations and character assassinations, the member still manages to maintain her sanity and perform her policing duties to the best of her ability. Ultimately, this is a story about one person’s struggle to say and do the right thing, to follow procedure, no matter what the eventual cost to herself or her career.
A policewoman's story of discrimination, bullying and harassment. Incredibly difficult subject matter, relating a very personal experience. Equally one can imagine that it would have been a difficult, although hopefully cathartic experience, relating the events Carolyn Pethick outlines in TO HELL AND BACK.
I've had many goes at writing something about this book until it finally dawned on me - I can't review a story like this / I'm not comfortable rating something this personal. Whether or not it was an enjoyable, informative or difficult experience reading it, is nothing compared to the author's aim in writing it.
Review - An Isolated Incident, Emily Maguire
When 25-year-old Bella Michaels is brutally murdered in the small town of Strathdee, the community is stunned and a media storm descends.
Unwillingly thrust into the eye of that storm is Bella's beloved older sister, Chris, a barmaid at the local pub, whose apparent easygoing nature conceals hard-won wisdom and the kind of street-smarts only experience can bring.
AN ISOLATED INCIDENT is one of those books I've been trying to read for a ridiculously long time now, so being able to finally get to it in the context of our f2f bookclub gathering was an added bonus.
This is such a fascinating book, one that worked particularly well for our group. Normally we find the discussion is at its most vibrant when the book isn't particularly liked, or when there is a mix of opinions, but in this case there wasn't a contradictory opinion in the room.
There's been an increase in "consequences' crime fiction recently. Books that consider, in particular, the fallout from violent crime in terms of victim's family, friends and community. AN ISOLATED INCIDENT is obviously such a book where the death of Bella Michael's affects her sister Chris, her ex-brother-in-law, work colleagues, friends, the small town from which Bella and Chris come, and finally the way that the media follows the story and the journalist that stays with it.
There is much to admire in the way that AN ISOLATED INCIDENT is structured. The exploration of outcomes is done without sensationalism and it reads as truthful, warts and all. Chris is not perfect, and she's harder on herself than anybody around her could be. Through her experience it becomes obvious how difficult the situation is for families and those around the victims. There's victim blaming, backgrounds and lifestyles being raked over, instant decisions about likely killers, finger pointing, whisper campaigns and character assassination. As the time between the death of Bella and the charging of a guilty party strings out, interest wans in some quarters, and seems to become more spurious, petty and pointless from others. Balancing between the grief of loss, and the weight of other's opinions, Chris is left attempting to make sense of her own life, her loss, grief, what to do now, her relationships with everybody and who she can trust.
Everything about AN ISOLATED INCIDENT is beautifully done. It's involving and extremely moving, and very cleverly populated by characters who aren't perfect, but aren't particularly bad into the bargain. There's absolutely nothing in anything that any of them have done to deserve the fallout that goes with Bella's murder, and much that makes you stop and think of how much ordinary people have to consider when placed in extraordinary circumstances.
Review - Days Are Like Grass, Sue Younger
A beautiful New Zealand summer. An ugly past that won’t stay buried.
Paediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman has reluctantly returned to Auckland from London. Calm, rational and in control, she loves delicately repairing her small patients’ wounds. Tragically, wounds sometimes made by the children’s own families.
Yossi wants to marry Claire. He thinks they’ve come to the safest place on earth, worlds away from the violence he knew growing up. He revels in the glorious summer, the idyllic islands of the gulf.
A family drama / saga styled novel, with crime overtones, DAYS ARE LIKE GRASS is beautifully written. Moving, descriptive, populated by fully realised characters there is much in this novel that is thought-provoking, and profoundly affecting.
Avoiding any sense of voyeurism or manipulation, Sue Younger has constructed a multi-layered story about consequences, and past and present actions. Paediatric surgeon, mother, lover, Claire is a woman with a past. She's driven to want the best for her patients - often times victims of abuse and disadvantage - her controlled nature creates difficulties in her professional and personal lives.
Many years before a young female hitch-hiker disappeared in New Zealand, after accepting a lift from a man she didn't know. Claire, on the other hand, knows the man and lives with the consequences of his actions every day. The man was her father, someone many people think is a rapist and murderer. Claire has lived with the whispers and the looks ever since. Why she's returned to New Zealand with her fifteen-year-old daughter Roimata and her fiance Yossi makes sense on one level, and seems unfathomable on another - especially when a local reporter notices the connection when reporting on the tussle over the fate of a young patient.
In the middle of the friction between her own past and present, between the parents of her young patient and Claire's own insistence on the correct pathways for treatment, there's extra pressure when Roimata's father's family reach out as well. Somehow in the middle of all of this, the calm, loving, patient Yossi even starts to feel like a problem as he agitates to get married, for them to be a traditional family, even as he seems increasingly content with his life.
Needless to say a lot of drama, a lot of pressure, and a lot of potential for things to get badly out of control. All of which feels perfectly realistic as Claire is such a fragile, tightly wound character, not destined to cope well with the piling on of problems. As a central character for such a story, she's an interesting undertaking. Frequently unlikable, nearly constantly frustrating, the default setting for most readers will be to turn to the opposing forces. It's tempting to call something like that a "brave" move on the part of the author, but it actually makes enormous sense in terms of the narrative. This is the story of a difficult life, impacted upon by pressures that couldn't be avoided, blighted always by the spectre of her father. Claire's flawed, human, and whilst you might not agree with everything she ever does, says or believes in, you can't help but empathise with a woman who is struggling to let go of control, struggling with the difficulties of easing up on barriers she's spent a lifetime constructing.
Whilst this reader might have some issues with the definition of DAYS ARE LIKE GRASS as a crime novel, in that the consequences of crime are more indirect than usually expected, I'm more than happy to be accused of quibbling over minutiae. It is most definitely an exceptional reading experience.
Review - The Squad, Yoni Bashan
A gritty and compelling account of an elite police group, the Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad (MEOCS).
Sydney Daily Telegraph crime reporter Yoni Bashan has obviously used some insider knowledge of his own, alongside that of members of the Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad (MEOCS) to craft a true crime book that's very readable, informative and surprisingly moving in places.
The subject matter is unpleasant obviously - with an intermingling of families and organised crime activities that covers drugs, murders and some brutal turf wars. The Squad is a highly specialised police unit tasked with an incredibly difficult job - investigating the crimes, identifying the perpetrators and ensuring convictions in a highly charged, dangerous environment. There's inter-generational feuding, and a closed society which is incredibly difficult for them to penetrate and a group of criminals that never rat out their own, or the opposition.
Told from the point of view of the police, THE SQUAD is well paced, written in a very readable style, engaging and involving without being sensationalised or overtly moralistic. It's a warts and all "what it is, is what it is" style of tale of a group of cops who take their responsibilities very seriously indeed. There's plenty of background to the formation of The Squad within the pages, and some of the political / on-high pressure that they deal with as well, all of which combined to make THE SQUAD very interesting reading indeed.
Review - The Last Time We Spoke, Fiona Sussman
On the night that Carla Reid plans on celebrating her wedding anniversary with her husband Kevin and their grown son Jack, their New Zealand farmstead has never felt more like home. But when Ben Toroa and another aspiring gang member brutally force their way into the house with robbery and more on their minds, the night and the rest of both their lives take a radically different direction.
As Carla struggles to come to terms with the aftermath and bereavement of different kinds, and Ben faces the consequences in prison, their stories will be forever entwined.
New Zealand author Fiona Sussman has created something absolutely remarkable in her blended crime and contemporary fiction novel THE LAST TIME WE SPOKE. Winner of the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel this is a novel that contrasts the brutality and thoughtlessness of a crime, against the heartbreaking loss resulting, and the way that a woman recovers, and rebuilds her life in the aftermath.
It's a story that's all too familiar. An illiterate disadvantaged young boy, caught up in gang life, gets involved in a brutal, vicious home invasion that leaves one person dead, another seriously injured never to recover, and a woman struggling with that reality, to say nothing of what they did to her on the night. That woman, a farmer's wife had led a normal life involving family and the farm, nothing in her past could possibly have prepared her for the way that one violent act would tear her world apart. And then there is the problem of how she moves on. This woman loses everything that is near and dear to her on that night, and when the media attention has faded, when the perpetrators are identified and jailed, there's still the problem of why and what does she do with a life that's ripped to shreds.
Sussman has created an astounding exploration of consequences in THE LAST TIME WE SPOKE. What Carla Reid does with the pieces of her life is confronting, distressing in places, hopeful and profoundly uplifting in others. What causes a young offender like Ben Toroa to do what he did is considered, carefully and respectfully developed. There's no sense here that Sussman is excusing offenders, rather, she explores, as with the consequences of crime, the consequences of disadvantage, peer pressure and lack of hope. There are aspects of this novel that are a physical, not just a mental experience, searingly uncomfortable and yet, moving and affecting.
In the end it does all come down to hope - you hope that Carla Reid will continue to move on. You hope that Ben Toroa will continue to understand his choices haven't been wise or necessary. Ultimately, THE LAST TIME WE SPOKE will leave readers thinking about consequences long after the novel has come to an end.
Review - Dead Lemons, Finn Bell
In the far south a young girl goes missing, lost without trace in the wilderness beyond her remote family cottage. A year later her father disappears in the same place. Then nothing. At all. Eventually the years grow over the grief. The decades wear away the questions, life flows past the forgotten tragedy.
Until Finn moves into the abandoned home, looking for a fresh start.
When reviewing Best Crime entrant PANCAKE MONEY, the second book from Finn Bell in the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards, I wasn't aware that DEAD LEMONS had won Best First Novel. Not even slightly surprised to be honest. These are both very good books.
As mentioned then, these novels are grouped together as "The Far South Series" the grouping coming from location rather than any connection between characters and storylines so whilst you absolutely should read them both, you can do that in any order you like.
The central character named Finn (I'm going to assume not completely autobiographical...) is a complicated man, trying to rebuild a complicated life. In a wheelchair after a bad accident, he's got some seriously big demons from his past and his present to deal with. The past disappearance of a young girl and her father seem like a bit of distraction therapy, as he moves into an abandoned house, starts to explore the local community, and come to grips with some big mistakes made. Helping him come to terms with the drunken car accident that put him in the chair, the subsequent break up of his marriage and most of his friendships, is local therapist Betty, the professional help he obviously desperately needs. Helping him with more local issues is hairdresser Patricia who guides him in getting to know the personalities and history of the town, but would he listen when everybody warned him to stay the hell away from the weird neighbours down the road? There's much in the broken, repentant character of now that reflects the bull-headed, determined character of the past. So stick his nose in he does, and the expected personal jeopardy he deals with is complicated by his confinement to a wheelchair in some rather unexpected ways.
Part of the strength of DEAD LEMONS is the restrained, dry sense of gallows humour. Even when Finn is at his most extreme jeopardy it's hard not to laugh at some of the predicaments he's gotten himself into, and the slightly bizarre ways he rescues himself, or at the very least protects himself, until help arrives. That's not to say that it's all humour, with some confronting aspects woven into this story, including as is required by convention, a warning about some animal cruelty that's short, sharp and brutal. As is some of the treatment dished out to Finn, as he discovers more about a place that he seems to have become reluctantly attached to along the way.
The plot here is believable, complex without being complicated, fitting nicely into a small town, surrounded by a rural area, populated by people who know everyone, have secrets, and are darn good at keeping them to themselves. You will have to accept the odd bump and jolt along the way with some motivations for events not being as seamless as it could be, but as a stranger in a strange place, Finn works as a catalyst for discovering the truth, partly because he doesn't want to let sleeping dogs lie, and partly because he seems like a character who will do anything to avoid confronting his own problems.
As the blurb puts it "Now he must choose between exoneration and condemnation, justice and vengeance." Readers are all too often left wondering which one he gets to choose, and which one he deserves.
Review - Holy Death, Peter Mulraney
Murder. Arson. Revenge.
Detective Inspector West investigates the grisly deaths of two elderly priests: one in a suspicious fire; the other obviously murdered.
The inspector is not the only one hunting the priest killer.
If you like murder mixed with mystery and conflict, you’ll probably love the suspense and intrigue in Peter Mulraney’s Holy Death, the third book in his Inspector West series.
Grabbed a copy of this after seeing it on the list of Ned Kelly entrants for 2017 - without paying a lot of attention to the category it was entered in. (I've been cherry-picking from the list when I see a copy of the book available anywhere). I have to confess I went back and checked as I thought it was a debut novel, and was having a bit of trouble reconciling some elements. HOLY DEATH is the 3rd in the, I believe, self-published Inspector West series.
I have to confess I absolutely struggled with this one. Formal in dialogue style, I couldn't get the timeframe straight in my head - if asked I'd say this was an historical series, set a long time ago. Which it probably isn't. With what felt like a very wordy style, there's back story there, but still there's something about Inspector West that didn't quite jell with this reader. Hence the feeling that it may have been a debut - which it obviously isn't.
As with all these things, other reader's mileage will vary dramatically.
Review - Planet Jackson, Brad Norington
Kathy Jackson was hailed as a heroine for blowing the whistle on the million-dollar fraud of Michael Williamson, the corrupt boss of the Health Services Union. While remaining steadfast in this very public ordeal, she endured bitter personal attacks from enemies in the Labor Party and the union movement.
But what if Jackson was just as corrupt as Williamson? Or worse?
This is the real HSU story. The unbelievable misuse of the union dues of some of the lowest paid workers in Australia.
When Kathy Jackson was revealed as the whistle-blower on million-dollar fraud in the Health Services Union it's hard to believe she couldn't have foreseen her own fate. Even after reading PLANET JACKSON it's still impossible to believe that somebody with their own snout so deeply in the trough of union funds could not have seen that her own behaviour would be revealed.
Allowing for the slightly anti-union whiff about this book, it's an appalling story, detailed and frankly gobsmacking. Much, quite rightly, has been made about the millions of dollars ripped out of a union representing some of the lowest paid workers in Australia, but officials of any organisation with such a blatant disregard for other people's money, for propriety and for decent and lawful behaviour should be outed and punished accordingly. The fact that in this case those sorts of people were also mixing in the upper stratosphere of political circles as well seems to go a long way towards explaining the general contempt that many have for so-called "leaders" in some sections of the community these days.
The story in PLANET JACKSON is appalling. This woman and her like are appalling. The book is interesting, although there's something slightly off-putting about the anti-union subtext. This particular incident occurred within a union - there are plenty of other examples of self-serving, greedy, white-collar criminals - it's not just a "union" thing.
Review - Mayhem, Matthew Thompson
Meet BADNE$$. He's the enigmatic, impulsive, exasperating, destructive, big-hearted Aussie outlaw who stole millions of dollars in daring bank robberies and became a folk hero as big as Ned Kelly when he masterminded two spectacular prison breaks in the space of six weeks.
There's absolutely no doubt that author Matthew Thompson intended MAYHEM to be a fast paced, gonzo styled expose of Australian outlaw Christopher Binse. If you like that style, then the problems telling where the myth of Binse's own making ends, and the recounting starts might not be so concerning. For this reader there seemed to be some self-awareness issues, with Binse and the author, coming across as number 1 subscribers to the myth they were attempting to build.
I will admit that I was over the idea of Binse's hard man reputation when the blame for everything bad that ever happened to him came down to the women in his life. It wasn't helped by the feeling that somehow this was a "naughty little boy" and that everything would have been just okay if somebody else had stopped him. Nor was it clear that there was any awareness that his father came across as a complete waste of space, and whilst some early intervention in the justice system might have derailed the worst of the behaviour, trying to make out that Binse is an exasperating, big-hearted "Aussie outlaw" was frankly frustrating and annoying.
Either way, the style of the book was slightly too "reverential" for this reader's liking. It seemed too focused on the myth, and not enough on the reality of who Binse is and what he did. Whilst they might have had a go at redemption, at no stage did Binse ever really seem like the "tortured soul" of the blurb. Rather the whole thing felt like a transparent reputation construction, and an attempt to turn a thug into some sort of "misunderstood hero". There's nothing much in this story that seems in any way educational for any wild children of the future, and a lot that serves as a tutorial in how to blame everybody else if they do get into trouble.
Review - The Good Cop, Justine Ford
'A - Assume nothing. B - Believe nothing. C - Check everything.' Ron Iddles
In an incredible twenty-five year career as a homicide detective, Ron Iddles' conviction rate was 99%. Yet that only partly explains why Iddles is known to cops and crims alike as 'The Great Man'.
I will admit to being mightily intrigued by this biography mostly because of the reputation of the subject. Ron Iddles is well known in Victoria as a dedicated cop, a champion of the victims of murder, and a dedicated and dogged investigator who never said never on any case.
This is a man who has lead a worthwhile public / working life. There are aspects in THE GOOD COP that explain what sacrifices he and his family have made in the pursuit of that career much of which serves as a very hefty reminder of the old chestnut, behind many great men... The book takes readers back through some of the family background and possible motivations for Iddles joining the police force, and it gives the occasional insight into what continued to drive him to solve the seemingly unsolvable. It also showed very clearly that the man was also susceptible to burnout, of turning to driving trucks as a way of clearing his head of the horrible things he dealt with in the day job.
Unfortunately, THE GOOD COP, doesn't feel like it does Ron Iddles justice. For such a strong story there was something in the style of the writing in this book that was too flat and bland with a strange, almost passive voice. What short sharp bursts of over the top hero worship there are, were quickly followed by repetitive chunks of uninteresting, sticky prose which didn't engage this reader at all.
In the end, THE GOOD COP was disappointing. An interesting personal story, not well served by a decidedly lack-lustre telling.