On the first day of summer in 1993, two strangers arrive in the town of Cedar Valley.
One is a calm looking man in a brown suit. He makes his way down the main street and walks directly to Cedar Valley Curios & Old Wares, sitting down on the footpath, where he leans silently against the big glass window for hours.
“On a normal morning, a lone police car would be parked out the front of the station, waiting for something illegal to happen.”
Cedar Valley, Holly Throsby’s second novel, begins with the arrival of two strangers on the first day of summer in 1993. One, Benny Miller, has come to live in a house which an old friend of her recently deceased mother has offered to her. The other, a man dressed in a suit, tie and jumper, clothes which are wholly unsuitable for a hot Australian summer. When the man sits down outside Cedar Valley Curios & Old Wares and quietly dies there is a mystery to be solved. There’s a secondary mystery in the form of Vivian Moon, Benny’s mother, who was a distant figure to her and in coming to Cedar Valley she hopes learn something about her as well. Told through the eyes of Benny and two other main characters. Cora Franks, the proprietor of Cedar Valley Curios and Old Wares, and Detective Sergeant Anthony Simmons Cedar Valley is a story of a small town and the relationships, both past and present, within it.
As someone who grew up in regional Australia, albeit in a larger population centre, I thoroughly enjoyed Cedar Valley. Holly Throsby writes with a dry wit and a keen eye for the characters and the town itself. In telling stories set in rural Australia authors can sometimes be guilty of condescension, to almost sneer at the quietness of rural life, Holly Throsby beautifully avoids this with a gentle wry affection for Cedar Valley and it’s residents. She also gives her characters plenty of space to develop and grow as the novel progresses and there’s a nostalgia, in some cases sadness, in telling the story of a time past. In conclusion Holly Throsby has crafted a warm-hearted portrait of a small Australian town and the people who reside there. If she should write about Cedar Valley again I’d be more than happy to spend another summer afternoon on the couch re-visiting the town and the people who live there.
Call For The Dead, John le Carre
After a routine security check by George Smiley, civil servant Samuel Fennan apparently kills himself. When Smiley finds Circus head Maston is trying to blame him for the man's death, he begins his own investigation, meeting with Fennan's widow to find out what could have led him to such desperation. But on the very day that Smiley is ordered off the enquiry he receives an urgent letter from the dead man. Do the East Germans - and their agents - know more about this man's death than the Circus previously imagined?
Over the summer, along with reviewing new novels, I’m also planning to review some of my favourites starting with John Le Carre’s Call For The Dead. Although Le Carre is arguably the greatest spy novelist of all time his first two novels, Call For The Dead and A Murder Of Quality, fit more closely within the crime/mystery genre. It was only after the release of Le Carre’s third novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, that he became known as a writer of espionage novels.
Call For The Dead was released in the same year as Thunderball, the tenth James Bond, and it’s hard to imagine two more opposite characters than James Bond and George Smiley. One an all action figure, the other, in Le Carre’s unflattering opening description of George Smiley’s wedding, a bullfrog who had ‘waddled down the aisle in search of the kiss that would turn him into a Prince’. Despite this less than flattering introduction, George Smiley has not only endured, he’s become one of the greatest literary characters of all time.
After an introductory first chapter the story begins in earnest in chapter two with George Smiley being summoned to the Cambridge Circus at 2am to explain why Samuel Arthur Fennan, a career civil servant whom Smiley had interviewed a few days earlier, had committed suicide. Smiley has no explanation, other than the fact that Fennan’s suicide note doesn’t tally with his recollection of the meeting, and he is sent to Fennan’s home in Surrey to investigate. Smiley very quickly senses something is wrong and after being ordered to not investigate any further, he resigns and continues the investigation privately. Joining Smiley in his investigation are two familiar characters, Peter Guillam and Inspector Mendel, in whom he both trusts and you can see the beginnings of the loyalty he has towards both of them. I’m a huge fan of the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spytelevision series and one of the few criticisms I have of it is that the character of Mendel is condensed. In Call For The Deadyou learn more of his past and why he’s someone who Smiley would trust.
At 160 pages Call For The Dead is probably the shortest of all the John Le Carre novels, it is still however an interesting read for anyone who likes a mystery novel in which the brain is more important than brawn or someone who just wants to know where it all began for George Smiley and John Le Carre.
Book review - The Stolen Child, Lisa Carey
Visiting the island of her ancestors for the very first time, American midwife Brigid seeks sanctuary. It may now be the mid-20th century but progress in the remote Irish community seems to have stalled somewhere around a hundred years earlier; there’s no electricity, phones, shops or amenities on this unforgiving little island. The stalwart remaining residents of St Brigids are dwindling in numbers and have been resolutely advised by mainland authorities that the end is near. The entire population of St Brigids to be relocated.
It took a bit of a mental time shift to conceive of such a community being quite so backward in the 1950’s, remote location or not. The reluctance of the island folk to join mainstream life with all its conveniences is just another factor in this eerie book of jealousy, Celtic witchery, love and hope. Not quite a mystery work and perhaps being more of a historical drama, THE STOLEN CHILD references real islands and communities that were abandoned last century to either the encroaching ocean, progress or reasons unknown. Make no mistake, the setting, events and lives in this novel are bleak and difficult to read of without being desperately sorry for anyone who had to live this life way back when.
The stories of St Brigid, woman/saint/crusader are hauntingly fascinating and the power of her influence still being exerted on this island gives a claustrophobic feeling to the narrative. These families are trapped by many things other than the geographic location of the island with its rough seas and inclement weather. They all carry the burden that their ancestors would wish them to remain working the land and raising their families on the island of St Brigids. That weight of the past is a constant in THE STOLEN CHILD. St Brigids initially was occupied by a pious all-female community of nuns, paired off under God to each other into life long relationships, with no need for anything other than the comfort of each other and their harsh but beautiful world beside the sea.
THE STOLEN CHILD has been beautifully and respectfully written, weaving the folklore of the region over an immersive story about the ties that bound people to each other and to place.
Book review - The Upstairs Room, Kate Murray-Browne
Is it the house itself that is making Eleanor sick or is it the disturbed vestigial imprint of those who lived it in before?
With just a hint of the woo-woo for the modern age, THE UPSTAIRS ROOM is a polished and unsettling novel that skates between being a ghost story of a kind, and a very accomplished modern relationship drama. The book has terrific flow. We’re well aware of the ever present malevolent shadow of doom hanging over all occupants of the house, and we also soon realize that all of them are in face suffering from the same malady; only it takes different forms for each of them. The sensation of hopelessness weighing down their actions inexorably creeps them towards disaster and it is a suspenseful journey towards resolution.
THE UPSTAIRS ROOM cleverly taps into common relationship concerns; the imbalance of power, the writing off of women’s real concerns as female melodrama and people’s ability to live in the same house as others and yet live separate lives. The people in this book are trapped by financial restrictions, societal expectations and then there’s the whole creepy house syndrome doing no one any favours. THE UPSTAIRS ROOM is a deliciously spooky read which includes an immersive personal narrative of three complicated adults who find themselves adrift in their lives whilst at the same time unable to distance themselves from the problems that haunt them.
REVIEW - COFFIN ROAD by Peter May
A man is washed up on a deserted beach on the Hebridean Isle of Harris, barely alive and borderline hypothermic. He has no idea who he is or how he got there. The only clue to his identity is a map tracing a track called the Coffin Road. He does not know where it will lead him, but filled with dread, fear and uncertainty he knows he must follow it.
A mystery set within a bubble very much heightens the senses when reading COFFIN ROAD. The action is placed within an isolated small seaside town and there are very few characters for the reader to learn about and glean clues from. The lead, who has lost his memory, retraces his steps in an effort to find out who he is, what kind of man he is, and what it is that he has done that has left him with such a leaden feeling of dread.
May reaches deep into the psyche of his lead character and we are immersed very quickly in his nightmare. Having washed up on a beach with injuries, Neal Maclean seems to have no family, no close friends, and lives in a cottage bereft of meaning personal effects with only his dog for company. He is compelled however to traverse what is locally known as Coffin Road, a walkers trail along the coastline. As fleeting memories return to Neal, it becomes even more puzzling to him as to why he has chosen to remove himself from all he has known to live in this beautiful but remote part of Scotland. When he discovers a man’s body on a nearby island, Neal becomes more convinced that the reason why he came to be alone in this remote part of the world was because he had felt a need to hide.
Peter May never loses his way in COFFIN ROAD, coaxing his reader forward as Neal Maclean becomes more desperate to solve the mystery that his own life. COFFIN ROAD is a beautifully descriptive novel as well as being a very personal one; the roar of the wind and the crashing of the ocean are ever present as the melancholic backdrop to one mans’ desperation. The amnesia is thankfully only a minor plot device (that old chestnut) and it is not a novel about one man rediscovering himself – there are other forces at play that are very left field to the moody first half of this book.
Fans of Peter May will gleefully add COFFIN ROAD to their collection and new readers would be pleased with this almost closed room mystery that needs very few literary props to satisfy.
Review - VERTIGO, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
"Do you think it's possible to live again, Monsieur? ... I mean ... is it possible to die and then ... live again in someone else?"
Being a huge Hitchock fan this book particularly intrigued, but even if you’ve never seen a single Hitchcock film in your life, VERTIGO is an engaging, fascinating, and frequently beautiful book. If you are also a fan of the film, then there is greater nuance here than the film, and plenty to conjecture about for the reader.
Set at the start of World War II, the central character of Flavières is troubled by many things, not just the need at one point to flee the war’s encroachment. He seems, on the face of it, a man who was destined to be obsessed with the wife of his friend. Her behaviour whilst mysterious, is mesmerising and her beauty in the eyes of Flavières incomparable. His obsession and the moral dilemmas presented to him by her husband’s insistence that he continue the friendship are understated, yet beautifully illustrated.
The reasons posited for her behaviour are unexpected and yet oddly believable, but nothing is ever that straight-forward and VERTIGO delivers some twists and turns and stings in the tail that make it end up sitting somewhere between a mystery and a morality play.
Beautifully translated with nary a bump to be detected in the language, VERTIGO is complicated, clever and another of those wonderful, one sitting reading experiences.
"Do you know where your sons & daughters are? If they're with the Messiah, God help them...."
Year of Publication:
SLEUTH ASTRID: Lost Voice of the Grand Final, Hazel Edwards
Sleuth Astrid is a hi tech, mind-reading chook who rides a Harley, uses a z-com and solves mysteries like finding the footy coach's lost voice. Hazel researched with footy fans and went to a match. Zany illustrations with chapter picture clues by Jane Connory.
SLEUTH ASTRID: The Mind Reading Chook, Hazel Edwards
Sleuth Astrid is a hi tech, mind-reading chook who rides a Harley, uses a z-com and solves mysteries like finding the magician’s lost sense of humour.
I don't want to start any arguments here, but my mind-reading chook is an Australorp, currently known as "Underfoot", although a renaming ceremony is now on the cards. I've always been convinced she was a mind reader, although I'm pretty sure there's been no laboratory accidents in her vicinity. But she's the one, out of the very big flock of chooks in these parts, that always seems to be where I'm heading before I've even decided to go there. Of course it might be that she's such a guts that she secretly tracks movements in the hope of treats to get out from "Underfoot", but I much prefer the idea that she's able to read minds, solve problems, leap not very tall buildings, and generally be a multi-skilled chook! Just like Sleuth Astrid.
Needless to say the idea of SLEUTH ASTRID appealed from the first mention. And both of these books "THE MIND READING CHOOK" and "LOST VOICE OF THE GRAND FINAL" are really quite clever. Part of the Easy to Read Mysteries category on Hazel's website, they are designed to allow younger readers to simply enjoy the stories, whilst the more adventurous or older would find the puzzles along the way engaging as well. The language is direct and very readable, the story's clever, quirky and particularly Australian. The connection with the Grand Final is a lovely touch that might also help with getting young, sports-mad kids to engage with reading.
Previously available in print format, these ebooks are now available directly from Hazel's site (http://www.hazeledwards.com/shop/category/easy-to-read-mysteries). Plus there's classroom performance scripts, a Design Your Own Sleuth section and other bits and pieces. It's great to see kids reading like this popping up in electronic format. Even for kids of "slightly" more advanced years.
RED DIRT TALKING - Jacqueline Wright
Set in the outback of Western Australia, this novel centres around the disappearance of Kuj, an eight-year-old girl, during a bitter custody battle. Annie, an anthropology graduate newly arrived from the city, is increasingly distracted from her work by the mysterious event. As Annie searches for the truth beneath the township’s wild speculations, she find herself increasingly drawn towards Mick Hooper, a muscly, laid-back Australian man with secrets of his own.
Somewhere in the back of my head, as I've read more and more books set in Australia, there's always been a little question. Which RED DIRT TALKING has answered. Why can't we have more books written from the Aboriginal perspective? And what better way to look at that perspective from the point of view of an incomer to a remote outback community.
Set within community RED DIRT TALKING is having a red hot go at a heap of issues, and because of that, if you're looking for something that's a formulaic, straight-forward mystery, then that's not what's going on here. Although it could be argued that why it's taken so long for something this good, this direct, this clever to emerge... is a whole other sort of mystery.
Up front, I loved this book, so keep that in the back of your mind as you're wading through this review. There was something profoundly real about the way that Annie arrived in town with her agenda, her timeframes, her pressures and her ways. And in the way that her priorities were politely, gently, consistently... ignored. There's something about the way that outback communities work, their timeframes that oh so rang true and clear as a bell. Nothing overt, nothing cruel or vicious, but the message is clear - come to our land, our world then it's our rules, our timeframes, our priorities, and most importantly, our ways of respect and operating which prevail. A subtle reminder, but a reminder nonetheless.
Deliver those reminders and that pitch perfect observation of community and outsiders with some very dry, witty asides, but set it in the gloriously slow languid pace and you've got a perfect view of community life - warts and all. Add to that some excellent characters - from the crashing, frequently annoying Annie to the laconic Mick and the hilarious Maggot the garbo and the community and its inhabitants were so clearly drawn you could see them. There were also laugh out loud moments what with the games played with new arrivals (Toyota anyone), and the been there, done that nature of many encounters. There were also moments of great sadness and the stark reality of life, camp dwelling not being a particularly easy way of life.
The message from the mystery element of a missing little girl is there, buried in the overall story of the book and it's worth looking for. A couple of hundred years past, and still new in town, it strikes me there's a bit of Annie in a lot of us. Perhaps it's time to stop and listen, maybe watch and learn a few things from the old hands.