Category Archives: Book Reviews

Scrublands – Chris Hammer

What do Gillian Flynn, Minette Walters, Patricia Cornwall and Chris Hammer all have in common. Some might even ask ‘Chris who?’. But the novice Australian ‘whodunnit’ writer joins that elite company by winning the UK’s Dagger Award last year for a debut crime novel. And, as tilts go, even I, a non officiendo of the genre, till recent times, can see it’s a mighty effort first up.

Prior to striking it big with the mega-selling ‘Scrublands’, Hammer was best known as a SBS journalist. He, in this capacity, reported on the Millennial Drought for the network, afterwards producing a well-received non-fiction tome, ‘The River’, on what he discovered. As is their wont, of course, those in power in Canberra ignored his warnings, as well as those of all the other doomsayers – so therefore we have our present day situation.

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Our continent’s barrenness and aridity has played out in much recent fiction, some outstanding, including Harper’s ‘The Dry’ and Winton’s superb ‘Shepherd’s Hut’. In my view Hammer has a way to go before he reaches their exalted levels, but if we are in the midst of a golden age of Aussie crime writing, then this fellow would seem to be well at its core.

Now what would cause a well-liked local priest to take a gun out and calmly open fire on his congregation as they made their way to worship at his church? He killed five before being fatally shot himself. On the first anniversary of that event that, not only rocked the small parched community of Riversend, but the whole nation, the Fairfax Press sends ace reporter, Martin Scarsdale, to write a piece on the lasting effects of the tragedy. In doing so he soon encounters anomalies in the original investigation’s take on what made a church official inflict such trauma on his flock. There are yet more deaths, including that of two German backpackers. Can they be linked to the priest – and just how many local women has God’s representative bedded? Of course, Scarsdale also has his own demons to work his way through, perhaps with the assistance of a comely cafe-keeper.

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It is a marvellously convoluted plot that Hammer has pieced together in his mind and placed on the pages before us. The only issue for this reader is that there’s not the wordsmithery to match. On the back cover blurb Hammer is described as ‘Winton-like’ and ‘reminiscent of Jane Harper’. I think that’s overstating it. For my money he’s still a way off that…but give him time. There’s potential, so we’ll see.

The author’s website = https://chrishammerauthor.com/ =

Three Women – Lisa Taddeo

The court case where Maggie finally legally confronts her tormentor, Knodel, is the best/worst part of Lisa Taddeo’s ‘Three Women’. The subsequent playing out of the facts, supposedly involved, proceeds to be a riveting/appalling affair making for engrossing reading. The odds were stacked against the woman from the get-go but, in the spirit of #MeToo, she knew she had, for her own well-being, to give it a go. But he was a successful man with all the forces such a man can muster ranged against her. What chance did she have? Knodel, just confirmed as his state’s teacher of the year, is a slimy toe-rag of a man who grooms and stalks his not entirely unwilling, but acutely naive, student into intimate activities with him. In profile he is no Ailles or Weinstein, but the trial attracts some attention. Before ‘Three Women’ it was just a ripple. I suspect that’s different now. Knodel’s ducks were lined up expertly so Maggie was crushed. Has the book changed all that?

There are reminders in Maggie’s tale of the excellent ‘Unbelievable’ that appeared on our small screens during the course of 2019. This is also based on fact. Another teen is not taken seriously, is forced to recant her allegations and then is arrested for wasting police time. It takes two determined female police officers to finally give her some redemption. It was one of the best offerings of the year. With Taddeo, has Maggie finally garnered the same? It is interesting to go on-line to check out the images of Maggie and the odious Knodel, taken during the course of the trial, as well as to read the contemporary newspaper reports of the case.

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For many this title has been one of the books of the year. The women, real figures whom Taddeo, after having the notion to write the publication, chose, after an extensive search, for their honesty and openness. And the tome is nothing if not frank.

It’s quite compelling to peruse. Apart from Maggie there are also Lina and Sloane. The former was sexually assaulted in a horrid way while still at school, suffered through a loveless marriage and is trying to reconnect with an old boyfriend. Sloane, after suffering bulimia in her younger years, is now, with her partner, experimenting with threesomes.

Together their stories are shared with the reader as Taddeo attempts to get to the bottom of what makes her subjects tick and what spurs them on. They are all flawed, as are most of us. Life is not necessarily full of happy endings and at times the author allows us in on some intensely moving scenarios. At one stage Maggie tells her all too fragile parents how Knodel took away her youth. Her dad retreats to bis garage. ‘She found him crying under the rafters. She hates herself…He doesn’t say a word but opens his arms to his daughter and she runs into them. They are, after all, the best arms in the world. They cry together till he stops, and then she does.’ That got to me. Later we find life does indeed become too much for him. Maggie sings ‘Blackbird’ to him as he lies in his coffin.

I know there are far more good men out there than there are bad – far more highly professional and respectable male teachers than there are repulsive Knodels in this world. But gee, as a male, this was tough going at times.

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I hope all three of the main figures can sit easily, in hindsight, now that their most intimate natures have been made naked to the world. It is brave writing, but nothing compares to the courage of being one of the author’s trio. I trust the book and its success has finally crushed Knodel. It would be hard to imagine it could be otherwise after its revelations – but who knows in the land that gives us a leader such as Trump.

The author’s website = https://www.lisataddeo.com/

Islands – Peggy Frew

Recently my lovely lady started to watch ‘Yellowstone’ on Netflix. It had positive reviews and possessed a fine cast headed by Kevin Costner. What would be not to like? Leigh enjoyed the introductory movie-length first episode, but once she proceeded into the regular series, she found it too fractured – the timelines were all over the place, so much so she hadn’t much idea what was going on. I’m not sure she persevered with it.

It was like that for this reader with Peggy Frew’s ‘Islands’ – only I carried on till the end. Her earlier publications – ‘House of Sticks’ and ‘Hope Farm’ were exceptionally good but, as with Leigh and ‘Yellowstone’, despite the book’s positive reviews with the critics I consulted, I struggled.

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That Ms Frew is not a fine practitioner was not the problem – her wordsmithery excels. What one reviewer described as her succeeding with ‘…an uncomfortable and disorientating narrative’, I found just such tough going. I struggled to get a handle on what was going on in this tale of a dysfunctional family unit coming to grips with the disappearance of one of its number.

The island of the title is Victoria’s Phillip Island; home of little penguins, glorious seascapes and a tourist destination of repute. It provided a holiday escape for the family in question, as it has for the forty-something author in her own life. She has stated she has been working on the manuscript for this book since her twenties.

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Islands’ centres on two sisters, Junie and Anna, with the latter being the missing mystery figure. Did she simply run away or was there something more sinister involved? She was a wild child so all options were open. We approach the story from events occurring in all decades, it seems, since the sixties, but not presented in an exactly straightforward manner. One thing the novel does do, along with some very fine television I have been watching of late (‘A Confession’ being one example), is to convey the utter devastation a missing child can cause. Just awful, especially if no closure is gained.

The author’s FB page = https://www.facebook.com/Peggy-Frew-199324223461911/

Electric Hotel – Dominic Smith

Vamp. What has the world done to deserve your European contempt and mockery? How we let you into this country is beyond a thinking man’s sense. You should go back to your homeland where they eat babies and drown in sexual vice.’

Sabine Montrose, you represent perhaps the greatest threat to civil society. In regards to your recent film ‘The Electric Hotel’ I am writing to tell you that Christian married women everywhere will mull your name alongside the devil’s, for it is in his company that you belong. An archangel seductress and a Vampyre ripped from Poe.’

So, if you think trolls are are a modern-day phenomenon, think again. They existed in the early decades of the C20th too. I suspect they’ve always existed, just in differing forms. Back then they spread their toxic vitriol via snail mail – the only difference being to our digital age that it therefore occurred at a more languid pace. The greats of the silver screen have always had their fan mail from the adoring multitudes, but the post was also a vehicle to communicate the bile of the haters. In ‘The Electric Hotel’, by Australian-American writer Dominic Smith, the fictional Marilyn Monroe of the era he set his tome in, Sabine Montrose, is, in part, forced to retire from making the earliest of movies by the strong criticism she received for her role in the book’s eponymous film. What also defeated her was the result of the stranglehold various trusts (read monopolies) had over various industries, despite the best efforts of Presidents Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson to curtail the damage they were doing. The villain of the piece here was Thomas Alva Edison. He controlled the early film industry with an iron fist. He was in no mood for compromise if an upstart indie tried to take a slither of his turf.

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As a read ‘The Electric Hotel’ was full of interest but had the potential to be so much better. It deals with a fascinating time as the movie business starts to show signs of what it would become – ie today’s behemoth – in the eyes of the public. If a reader is interested in this era there is much to relish. As we know, at the moment archivists all over the world are struggling to restore the windows on a bygone world before reels of disintegrating footage in canisters, stored for a century or more, turn to mush. If the publication had of stuck to those exciting times, this would have been a more successful tale. When it leaves, as war approaches, it continues on and loses its sheen.

Claude Ballard, the central protagonist, paid his dues in Europe, working for the Lumiere Brothers at the birth of modern cinema. Later, in New York State, teaming up with producer Hal Bender, Australia stuntman Chip and the redoubtable Sabine, they set about making an early Gothic horror epic, seemingly unaware of the legal implications of trying to compete with Edison and his cronies. Claude is completely infatuated with the ageing but intensely mercurial Montrose. Earlier he had filmed her in the altogether taking a bath, as well as his own sister’s untimely death. Both shorts certainly caused the Edwardian Age to sit up and take notice of the new medium. One got the men folk very hot and bothered indeed.

As for what was, at the time, a forerunner to a full length feature, Edison scarpered the completed product well and truly, sending the careers of the filmmakers and the star into debt and personal nosedives from which they all struggled to recover. But the book opens and closes decades later with a more modern day film student seeking out the now elderly Ballard. He’s living in a seedy NYC hotel with his ancient completed film stored under his bed. It had only managed one public showing back in the day of the silent screen. The student resolves to make right the earlier travesty and present a restored copy to a modern audience.

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There are pleasures to be had with Smith’s rendering of his fictional account, but as some reviewers have also stated, they come in fits and starts. It’s impact is distilled as it becomes yet another war story for much of its length. Its descriptions, though, of early film making, before health and safety concerns prevented caution being thrown to the wind, are enthralling. Stuntmen defied death even if disguised as women, dirigibles aflame fell from the skies and women with womanly desires had yet to be excised by the Hays Code. A beauty such as Sabine could cause a public meltdown the nature of which is hard to imagine in our flesh saturated world.

The author’s website = http://www.dominicsmith.net/

Good Girl, Bad Girl – Michael Robotham

It’s been hard yakka with some of the books I’ve chosen to read this calendar year. Dense, in some cases pompous prose – it’s been a struggle to find positives with some of them and only my stubbornness kept me going to their end. And that seemed to take forever as I never relished returning to plough on.

The new Michael Robotham was next on my list. He’s a favourite from recent times (‘The Secrets She Keeps’, ‘The Other Wife’) after I had persevered with favourites from times past. Would he let me down too with ‘Good Girl. Bad Girl’? Not on your Nelly. He grabs you in and holds you. There’s no frippery with his wordsmithery. He’d never be in line for the Booker. But, he tells a terrific yarn, in a no-nonsense style and there’s always twists and turns, as well as few red herrings thrown in for good measure.

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Composing this, a fortnight after I turned the last page, for the life of me I can’t remember whodunnit – who murdered the young aspiring figure skater. I do remember it was a convoluted, but thoroughly enjoyable, process getting there – so it matters little. This didn’t quite reach the classiness of the two aforementioned titles, but there was immense pleasure in returning to it – so in contrast to many that went before. I was through it in very few sittings – or in my case, usually, lyings down. This turned out to be quite the salve for this reader who was starting to get just a touch jaded.

In her review for the ‘NY Journal of Books’, Charlotte Mendel describes Robotham’s tome as ‘…an impeccable thriller that encompasses murder, incest, drugs, abuse, sex – you name it, the book has it.’Good Girl, Bad Girl’ will uproot your preconceptions about the meaning of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and scatter them to the winds.’

That might be over-egging it somewhat. Sure the novel features all those human frailties, but they don’t dominate. It’s more about the relationship between forensic psychologist Cyrus Haven (and we’re promised that future books will feature him some more, as has one past publication) and troubled teen Evie Cormac. He comes across her whilst investigating the slaying of the young sportswoman.

Cyrus isn’t quite, yet, the compelling character the ‘The Other Wife’s’ Joe O’Loughlin, the clinical psychologist who has featured in a whole swag of his previous oeuvre, is. He’s obviously down pat – Cyrus perhaps needs a little polishing up. Ms Cormac, who can be both very good and very odious, has a special talent. She is able to ascertain whether one is fibbing or telling the truth – a portable human lie detector. It’d be a great skill for a poker player to have, wouldn’t it? Nonetheless, it hasn’t made her pathway to adulthood any the easier, but a bond or sorts develops between her and the psychologist, so much so that he convinces some very liberal judge to make her his ward. Silly move Cyrus. It’s inevitable that she becomes entangled in the investigation of the cruel cutting off of a talented young person’s life. Inevitably Haven soon has a range of suspects lined up, including some dodgy members of the figure skater’s own nearest and supposedly dearest. All very intriguing and compelling.

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Now here’s the rub. Such is his excellence I’ve been tempted into Robotham’s back catalogue. As if there isn’t enough to read with new releases alone. It’s something that I promised myself, for common sense sake, that I’d never do, but MR has me well and truly in awe. At least I know I am certain of a great ride. I’ve gone back to his beginnings as a published author. There’s ten more. Oh dear!

The crime author’s website – http://www.michaelrobotham.com/ =

The Carer – Deborah Moggach

There was a time when I consumed all UK writer Deborah Moggach could produce – lapped her up back last century, I did. But, for some reason I stopped – stopped before her mega-hits ‘Tulip Fever’ and ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’. Then, when I saw her latest severely discounted at K-Mart recently I snapped it up, forking out just a few bucks for. I’d been burnt before going back to favoured authors from past decades, but with the price of ‘The Carer’ it didn’t really matter if it was rubbish. I was also hoping that it would provide some lighter fare after the few heavier tomes that I’d been reading of late; ones that proved, ultimately, somewhat disappointing.

And yes, the novel certainly did that. As a bonus, it also wasn’t half bad. In fact I relished getting back to it and had it read in a few sittings. She hadn’t lost the touch that so appealed to me way back when.

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The narrative is interestingly structured, but at its core are two tetchy siblings, Phoebe and Robert. They’re approaching sixty, living lives not totally to their satisfaction. Their widowed father is now demanding more of their attention – something they give, but with some reluctance. At 85 Dad’s starting to cease being capable of looking after himself, so they employ a live-in carer, Mandy. She quickly makes herself indispensable, becoming his companion and giving the old fellow a modicum of happiness. Initially the brother and sister are thankful; it eases the pressure. When they discover, though, that James has revisited his will, suspicions start to arise – and we start to think we know where this is going. After all, we hear all the time of oldies being duped out of the wealth, by unscrupulous minders, that would otherwise have gone to family.

Moggach has other ideas though. We’re introduced to the first of several surprises as we start to become privy to some back stories later in the tale. Apart from one, they are hardly shocking, just unexpected. With the exception the author perhaps over-eggs it all a tad; it being the only quibble I have with ‘The Carer’.

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In all it’s a lovely, lovely read as the author quietly illuminates problems associated with ageing sons and daughters coping with one or more parents living in challenging circumstances. She doesn’t shy away from the nitty-gritty involved with this, but delivers with warmth and humour. Ms Moggach has won me back.

The author’s website = https://www.deborahmoggach.com/

Douglas’ Big Books

Douglas Kennedy – ‘The Moment’, ‘The Great Wide Open’

Before Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins there was Douglas Kennedy, the original maestro of of ‘family noir’. For the past two decades Kennedy has been entertaining readers with barrelling novels in which a parent, sibling or spouse is often the devil in disguise.’ (Christian House ‘The Guardian’)

As I scribe this the first steps are being taken to impeach Trump. Towards the end of Kennedy’s ‘The Great Wide Open’ our heroine, Alice Burns, by now building a glittering career in NYC publishing, encounters the 1980’s version of the Great Buffoon. ‘I’m a writer too,’ Trump told Peter, then shifted his gaze toward me, looking me up and down, rating me on his Babe Meter (which I took to be a compliment). ‘In fact I’m writing a book that’s gonna make a ton of money – because everyone’s gonna want to read how I’ve made a ton of money. You should offer me a contract on the spot.’ At the end of the conversation that follows he boasts ‘I’m gonna be president one day.’ Let’s just see how long he lasts in that position now. We can only hope.

The Great Wide Open’ is a big canvas, big enough for Trump even. Approaching some 600 pages it sure took some reading. Big doesn’t make for better, but it doesn’t necessarily make for bad either.

Before I tackled this opus, as a prelude I made my way through the author’s 2011 effort, ‘The Moment’. It had been sitting on my shelves for a while. In truth this was better written, albeit a less ambitious product. Instead of family noir here we have a writer receiving a blast from the past in the form of a package arriving at his remote Maine hideaway. This takes Thomas Nesbitt back to his days in Cold War Berlin where, as a journalist, he was attempting to get a handle on life over on the other side of the Wall. Aiding him in this is his mysterious translator Petra, a refugee from the East with a shocking past, trying to rebuild her life in the West. But is she all she seems as Thomas quickly becomes smitten? Soon he’s headlong into the world of the Stasi on one side and his own spooks on the other. Kennedy handles the convoluted events that follow with aplomb, although he’s no Le Carré.

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Was DK attempting to write ‘…nothing less than a fictional overview of our times; a statement of what it means to be American in the postwar world’? Alice’s brother, Peter, after his first taste of literary success, offers these pretentious words – they are as bombastic as most of the language in this, well, I guess, sloppy novel from Kennedy. ‘The Great Wide Open’ is a far cry from the tomes that first bought him notice earlier in his career; books I thoroughly enjoyed.

There’s no doubt that this could have been so much better and as it was, I had no problem ploughing through it. I always wanted to see what came next. It remains a readable yarn. But it’s almost wrecked with his breathless, ‘Days of Our Lives’, overheated prose. He’s certainly no TC Boyle in his command of language – he works too hard to impress with his linguistic wordsmithery. The story can speak for itself with a less frenetic, fraught approach. It’s as if he’s trying to win gold at the linguistic Olympics.

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Ms Burns takes us, initially, to the coast of Connecticut and her college days, highlighted by homophobia and the disappearance of one of her bosom buddies. That’s followed by some time in Dublin, dodging IRA bombs, not entirely successfully. Meanwhile, her father and two brothers have become involved in the business in Chile, on either side of Augusto Pinochet’s regime, after the coup. Alice, fleeing the trauma of Ireland, spends some time in a backwater teaching. Of course she is fabulous at that – so empowering of her students. Then she falls into publishing in the ‘Greed is Good’ era. Inevitably she’s a godsend with that too. In between there’s several lovers and estrangements with family members, each of whom seem to have a love/hate relationship with the other. There’s always much, much angst. ‘Days of Our Lives’ indeed.

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Hopefully the Great American Novel is now out of Douglas’ system and he is in a place where he can go back to a smaller scale, recapturing the tone of earlier successes such as ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’, ‘The Job’ and ‘The Big Picture’, Far, far worthier places to commence for a reader than either of these titles.

More about Douglas Kennedy = https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_Kennedy_(writer)

Linda G – When She’s Good…

Linda Grant – ‘Upstairs at the Party’, ‘A Stranger City’

We Had It So Good’ was so good. It was my introduction to the writing of Linda Grant. It was a portrait of the lives of UK baby-boomers I read at the turn of the decade. The novel convinced me that I’d always be reading her through the following years. The next book she authored that I picked up, ‘Still There’, was, well, not so good. It was a struggle. I made it through, expecting to be rewarded in the end. I wasn’t. So, I was put off.

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When I spotted, a few years later, ‘Upstairs at the Party’ in a remainder bin for a couple of bucks, I thought I’d give her another shot. It sat on my ‘to read’ shelf for a few more years after purchase. Then there came the glowing review for her latest, ‘A Stranger City’. It seemed my cup of tea, but before I shelled out thirty plus dollars, remembering I had been burnt before, so to speak, I decided to tackle ‘Upstairs at the Party’, just to make sure. And you can probably guess the outcome of this little tale. It was excellent, so off I went to my favourite bookshop, duly bought the new one and settled in. It made a promising start. It seemed it had an interesting array of characters with the action, initially, zeroing in on those with a link to an unidentified body fished out of the Thames. How could nobody in the whole metropolis of London not miss this young woman who threw herself, it is suspected, off a bridge? The copper investigating the fatal incident had no leads and is troubled by that; a documentary film maker, who just happened to be producing a series on missing persons, included her story. Then there’s the nurse who was in the vicinity; she going on to disappear, as well, for a short time. She featured in the documentary as well, bringing her a modicum of fame. Yep, it seemed all set up for an engrossing read.

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But then the author does a right turn into the world of immigrants to her city. Then followed by an imaging of London in decay, just a short time down the track post-Brexit. It seems as though Boris hasn’t been too successful in extracting the UK from Europe. It’s not a future I’d want to be involved in. Finally we reunite with the original cast, but by then it was too late for me. It’s all tied together, but even so, again I really struggled to complete the novel. Reviewer Jake Arnott, writing in the Guardian, describes this homage to an ever-evolving city, as being ‘…fractured and uncertain…’ as the huge metropolis it portrays, although his is a favourable report. Too fractured and uncertain for me, I’m afraid.

On the other hand, ‘Upstairs at the Party’ was the real page-turner. I relished it and raced through to the conclusion. It, claims Ms Grant, is partly autobiographical – and proves that she is an author certainly worth reading, with this or ‘We Had It So Good’ obvious starting points. Both books observes our generation looking back. In this case its back to a twenty-first birthday party where, upstairs, away from the action, a terrible event occurred for one of the guests. This morphed into a happening that changed lives. I was rapt in this more, to my mind, cogent work as secrets of the past are unravelled to allow us to see how the fortunes of a golden, gifted group of people play out.

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But the quandary now is this. When the next Linda Grant comes out, will I chance her again?

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The author’s website = https://www.lindagrant.co.uk/ =

Preservation – Jack Serong

My impressive and lovely daughter-in-law manages the company that runs supplies to the Furneaux group of islands in Bass Strait from its base at Bridport on Tassie’s north-east coastline. The hardy and handy crew that ride the flat-bottomed boats to Lady Barron on Flinders Island, as well as a smattering of other locations in these capricious waters, know well that in the past many ships passing through did not make it to their destinations. The area is a shipwreck graveyard. One of the earliest of these was the ‘Sydney Cove’ out of Calcutta.

It’s objective was the eponymous colonial port and outpost, less than ten years old, with a population of only a few thousand souls. Most of those were there against their wills. Many of its inhabitants suffered from a great thirst. The purpose of this ship’s voyage was the business of slaking it. Their carrier had been renamed, back on the Hooghly, as a selling point, but unfortunately the accompanying merchant never had the opportunity to find out if this act was to his financial benefit. After the long voyage south into the Roaring Forties, from India, it was lost just north of Cape Portland on the little isle later to be named Preservation. This was at a time (1797) when the passage and open seas between Van Diemen’s Land and New Holland had yet to be fully mapped. For the survivors of the wreck the only chance of long lasting survival was to make contact with Sydney. A small party would have to find their way north, first by long boat and then by Shank’s pony, for 700 clicks. Their trek to seek assistance for their fellow seafarers back on Preservation Island is one monumental feat for those formative years of European occupation, but is still shrouded in mystery. There is so much we do not know. Why, for instance, did only three of the original party actually make it, found by fishermen crawling along a beach on the outskirts of civilisation as they knew it? Serong deftly adds fictional flesh to the bones that have eked down to us.

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The only remotely accurate historical account of their privations comes from the merchant, 27 year old entrepreneur William Clark. The other survivors to make it to Port Jackson were two seamen, one white and the other an Indian. Serong gives them identities. One is a chancer who has stolen an identity to evolve into Mr Figge. The other is a youthful Bengali servant to Clark, Srinivas.

Governor Hunter, under pressure from both London and the Rum Corps, needs to investigate the veracity of Clark’s tale before he sends off a rescue party to the south. He appoints Lieutenant Joshua Grayling to unravel the stories of the two men and the boy. He discovers enough inconsistencies to drive a truck through – if they had them in the olden days!

Jack Serong’s two previous tomes – ‘The Rules of Backyard Cricket’ and ‘On the Java Ridge’ – had both been winners in my book. The former lawyer does not let his fans down here.

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Through Grayling’s interrogations we get to know the interviewees, that is, if they are to be believed. This is especially the case with the two adults, but once the Lieutenant twigs that the servant can speak English, matters become a tad clearer. We also discover much about the officer himself, his ailing wife, who becomes more and more central to the story, as well as the very early days of our oldest white settlement. The original Australians also figure prominently. Pemulwuy is just outside the settlement’s boundaries, waging his rearguard action against the invaders, terrorising the new arrivals. But many of his people are drawn to the new arrivals. These Aboriginals are yet to be clothed and made ‘respectable’, but are ultimately ruined by the foreigners and their prudish religion. The trekkers, battling their way from Eastern Gippsland up to almost their goal, also had the first landholders to contend with. Largely the Gurnai Kurnai and Eora were benign, often proffering help that was sometimes accepted, sometimes not.

How far Serong’s story may be at variance to the actualities of the event we simply do not know. It is historically correct, though, that a sensation was caused by the trio’s arrival in the colony. This focused the minds of the movers and shakers of the time to send Flinders and his mate Bass off to map around the Furneaux Islands and to discover the Strait. It was then opened up to our first viable industry – for better or worse. Sealers and whaling ships were soon operating in those waters.

I await Serong’s next publication with much expectation.

More on the author here = https://www.textpublishing.com.au/authors/jockserong

Man Proposes, God Disposes

Erebus’ – Michael Palin, ‘Painting in the Shadows’ – Katherine Kovacic

It wasn’t Edwin Landseer’s painting ‘Man Proposes, God Disposes’, described by the author of ‘Erebus’ as ‘gruesome’, which aimed to tug at the heartstrings, that got me. The artist’s take on the iconic ship’s ill-fated final voyage shows the remnants of its crew’s final stand against death – a flag and assorted debris being torn apart by polar bears. This portrayal did the job for C19th England still coming to terms with the loss of Franklin’s expedition. But for me the more moving images in the tome came from an art form still in its infancy. They showed the top brass of the two vessels that tried to force their way from ocean to ocean via Canada’s North West Passage, ‘Erebus’ and ‘The Terror’. The daguerreotypes of Sir John, James Fitzjames, Francis Crozier and the other brave/foolhardy souls were so poignant to this viewer. They are actual; not confected by an artist aiming to please. At one stage in the book Palin examines each of these early photographs and tells the reader what it demonstrates about each of the doomed sitters.

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Of course the writer of ‘Erebus’ is best known for being a member of ‘Monty Python’. Some may even describe those other crews’ story, spending their final months trapped in the ice before seeking a way out, as Pythonesque in nature, if it all wasn’t so tragic. In the far Northern American wastes they were befuddled, failing to take the advice of the few native inhabitants they encountered, resulting in a nation in mourning. A determined woman, Franklin’s wife Jane, moved heaven and earth at first to find the men, then later to discover the whereabouts of their remains. She became a constant thorn in the government’s backside as they attempted to move on from the disaster.

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In all this there are, of course, links to my own island; this one not in the hard ice of the far north, but a stepping stone to that vast frozen mass further south. The same two stalwart boats used, under a different command, Hobart as a base for explorations to Antarctica. In those tough, small, confined wind-powered transports a feat was achieved, unimaginable to contemporary minds – so a later exploratory excursion in the Northern Hemisphere, with the ‘Erebus’ to the fore, was to be almost certain of success, wasn’t it? The other synchronicity is that greeting the ship’s earlier commander, James Clark Ross, received when he arrived in the Derwent, both going to and coming from his attempt to reach the South Magnetic Pole, was from none other than the governor of Van Diemen’s Land. Waiting for him were Franklin and his wife Jane. So the book contains impressions of my city from that time, as well as Palin’s own take on a burb that has come alive, thanks to the MONA effect. He was here to research this very readable tale of a boat built in the shadow of the Napoleonic War; a vessel that took its time to find its enduring place in history. It’s a history that doesn’t end till its rediscovery a mere five years ago.

After ‘Erebus’, I then turned to the next book from my pile of ‘to reads’, Katherine Kovacic’s ‘Painting in the Shadows’. Blow me down that a few chapters in I realised that the painting at this whodunnit’s core was none other than ‘Man Proposes, God Disposes’. What are the odds? You wouldn’t read about it.

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Kovacic’s first foray into the field of crime fiction, with an art slant, came with ‘The Portrait of Molly Dean’, an examination of an historical murder on the fringes of the local 1930’s art scene. It received favourable reviews, as did this her sophomore effort. Having a penchant for going across to the big island to check out art galleries I thought ‘Painting in the Shadows’ could be something I’d take to.

The Landseer work has arrived in Melbourne with a bit of a rep for bringing bad luck. That takes hold as soon as the masterpiece is about to be hung, quickly followed by a death in the gallery, a loosely disguised NGV. Our heroine, Alex Clayton, with her sidekick/semi-love interest John Porter, think there may be more to a story that the local plod have put down to accidental poisoning. So off they go to do some amateur sleuthing, as you do. What could one then throw into the mix to add an extra bit of spice? What else than a suspected Whiteley forgery. It’s hardly an original thought, but our dynamic duo think they’re on to possibly quite the scandal.

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Really, I did struggle with this, although it is meant to be a light frothy page-turner. The snappy repartee between the two main protagonists just grated for me and although the although she knows her art, the writer’s desire to demonstrate that at every chance detracted from the flow, as did her constant opinions on every work name-dropped. I persevered till the end and as it approached, my interest perked, but it will not live long in my memory. I know there are others who disagree. Peter Craven, one of our nation’s best reviewers, describes ‘Painting in the Shadows’ as being akin to the works of Michael Innes, Peter Temple and Shane Maloney – so there you go. So, if those authors appeal then judge for yourself.

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I do like the randomness of an unexpected coincidence – the one painting featuring in two disparate yarns back to back. Crikey.

Michael Palin’s website = https://www.themichaelpalin.com/

Katherine Kovacic’s website = https://www.katherinekovacic.com/