Toto Among the Murderers by Sally J Morgan – 2020

Yorkshire in the 1970s, a group of young people have graduated from art college. Most are starting to settle down into further education or jobs. But one of them, Jude Totton – Toto to a select group of friends – is still aimless: “Does the edge between life and death glitter for you, Toto?” And aimless is dangerous when the news is full of missing girls – for this is the time of Fred and Rose West, who pick up young women in their car and then torture and murder them.

Toto and some of her friends have just moved into a cheap flat in Leeds, their neighbours are cheeky kids, sex workers, and those who keep to themselves. The story is told from the points of view of Toto and Nel. Toto helps at an alternative school. Nel is training to be a teacher and hating it, she is only doing it to help her passive aggressive boyfriend Simon, who has stayed behind in Sheffield to do an MA in print making. Toto’s crowd are all experimental – with sex, with drugs, with relationships.

The alternative school where Toto hangs out is run by a combination of anarchists and dropouts, Toto is attracted to both: “I like the idea of True North being a wandering thing, trying to find itself. I like the idea of it being a magnet that everything points to, but which can’t find a place to settle.” Toto finds herself drawn to danger, she feels invulnerable yet is also afraid, “I’m frightened of everything, which makes me frightened of nothing.”

“… did Jude Totton ever turn up anywhere when she was supposed to? Ever since I’ve known her, she’s been in the wrong place, on the wrong day, with the wrong stuff.” Toto’s friends are used to her unreliability, yet they love her and stay loyal while she constantly flirts with danger. But they, and the reader, follow her story with dread – after all we all know that “The world runs on the random acts of cruel men”. And Toto is addicted to hitchhiking: “My preferred game is much more dangerous. It’s played with men in small cars who hide girls under leaves on the top of moors and deep in the woods.”

Toto among the murderers is full of the feel of the era: boys dressed like pirates flouting the sumptuary laws, light bulbs wrapped in coloured cellophane, “… posters of Indian gods and Cuban revolutionaries” on flat walls,  Your so vain on the record player, or for the slightly more elevated, “The mellow notes of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’” and perfumed candles on the windowsill. Toto is taken in by Callie and Hugo, one of the college lecturers. They have an open marriage, and Toto becomes a weapon between them. “Life is full of rules, but most people forget to tell me what they are. How am I supposed to know what I want?”

The tension in the book is relentless, “Fear is the only constant I know”, and there are some brilliant devices – such as Nel projecting her anxiety onto a murmuration of birds. Usually described in terms of beauty and elegance: “It wheels as though fearful, each bird is lost and clinging to the one beside it. An anxious sound like Chinese whispers – we’re lost, who knows the way? No one. No one knows the way.” Yet the characters are self-aware – Nel: “How the sweet Jesus did I end up picking a man like Dad? A weak man, a cruel, spineless man like my dad”. Toto: “Will I always be living in shit rooms in the shit parts of shit cities?”

The characterisations are wonderful, Nel bravely battling to freedom and honesty: “It has never occurred to me that I might be the one with talent or that Simon might be mediocre.” And Toto being so reckless, yet the reader understands why she is loved. And no less than when she is with the sex worker, Janice, who admires Toto’s shabby flat – “I’ve never had a room on me own”. You realise that despite herself, Toto is naturally kind. And you see it again when she falls in with two borstal boys, how she is easy to be with, easy to like. And Toto is fragile despite her toughness, hanging on to items that might bring her luck. As she says, it’s just that “I’ve been blown off course and have no idea where I am.”

Toto among the murderers captures that liminal time, between the freedom of youth and the security of an adult plan, the gradual awareness that the joy of waking up on the floor at a party and walking home barefoot is now “cold and hard”. When you look around while waiting for a lift on the road side, and you see your fellow hikers as “lost souls waiting for the boatman at the side of the Styx” – “If time stopped now, I would be forever frozen as a reckless ne’er-do-well, a grubby, hungry lost girl, listening for the ticking of an unseen crocodile.”

I just loved this novel, it talks of the terrors of the world, especially for young women, but also the friendship and unexpected love there is to be found in others. But having said that it is far from sentimental, the dread remains, even when there is the hope of a haven, it could be in “Something that might get me fired from jobs or beaten up outside nightclubs”. Toto among the murderers captures the self-destruction of youth, but also its conformity, the old tropes that play out under the guise of freedom and rebellion – there are many murderers around young women like Toto and Nel. Read a copy and see what you think.

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Tell Me Lies by J.P. Pomare – 2020

Margot Scott is a psychologist dealing daily with troubled people, she is meticulous in her professional life, has records going back to the beginning of her practice. She is respected and on the lecture circuit. She is comfortable in her marriage to Gabe, and they have two healthy children, July and Evan. Then an old university colleague refers a new patient to her, Cormac, and her near-perfect life starts to go seriously off course.

Cormac has been referred for writing essays for his fellow students, for a fee. His actions don’t make sense, he wasn’t making that much money and he has jeopardised the continuation of what was proving to be a stellar stint at university. Margot is also treating Joe, who might have PTSD from his job mediating a social media site for objectionable material, and Xanthe, totally lacking in self-esteem, with wild mood swings, a liar, in thrall to an abusive partner, her clothes concealing where she cuts herself.

All cases worry Margot and she starts to feel uneasy at work, but on the home front all she is concerned about is July’s new boyfriend – she is spending a lot of time with him when she should be studying – and her previous boyfriend broke her heart not long ago. Evan seems to have settled down since they had to ban him from gaming for a while, after he had been caught cyber-bullying. Gabe is a rock as usual, dependable even if a bit boring, an accountant who would rather diet than go running with her each morning to keep trim.

But then the unease of her professional life explodes into her private life. And while trying to keep things together, she discovers Evan is dealing with an awful online situation involving a character called Raze, “Please Mum, don’t make him angry”. Is she just paranoid when she, and some of her patients, feel they are being stalked? She starts trying to figure out whether any of her patients are a risk to her and her family, trying to balance professional ethics with getting the police to take a close look at those she suspects.

Psychologists always have trouble understanding themselves”, Margot knows she is not rock solid, she has not been completely honest with Gabe about an incident at the start of her career, but it was just “a rookie’s mistake”. She wasn’t completely honest with her father, misleading him about her university grades, but that was just her trying to live up to his expectations. She might not be perfect, but all this terror can’t be aimed at her … can it? “My career is a house of cards waiting for a gentle breeze to tip is over.”

Tell me lies is a superb psychological thriller, the reader guesses, second-guesses, third-guesses, but is still totally unprepared – there was one reveal that literally made me gasp! What links Margot, her family, her patients? And what does a man being pushed in front of a train have to do with any of it? Whose trial is unfolding in the background? The plotting is excellent, the characters worrying, and the book downright thrilling. The reader is given clues, but they are as deceptive as the characters. “Wrong person”, “Wrong person.” There is a loudly terrifying denouement, and a quiet equally terrifying ending. Sheesh what a book! As Margot’s Mont Blanc pen says: “Introspection is always retrospection”. Tell me lies is a stunning and disturbing quick read, so grab a copy!  

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City of Vengeance by D.V. Bishop – 2021

It is Florence, 1536. Cesare Aldo is an officer of the Otto, a criminal court with its own investigators. Aldo has secrets, and Florence runs on the trading of secrets. Aldo ends up investigating the murder of a moneylender Samuele Levi, who he had recently protected as he travelled from Bologna back to Florence. Aldo only trusts one other Otto investigator, young Corporal Strocchi. Strocchi is investigating the horrendous death of the latest courtesan to show themselves off at Sunday Mass, but he discovers this courtesan is a young man, and that not many care about the death of a homosexual.

One thing both victims have in common is leaving incriminating books behind. In Levi’s case it is his ledger, written in Hebrew, which at this time is a language only used for liturgy and intra-Jewish commerce, making it hard for Aldo to find out why it has been stolen. And the young courtesan, Corsini, left behind a diary in which he described many of his high-profile clients, complete with drawings – and when Aldo hears that a despicable Otto officer, Cerchi, has Corsini’s diary, he joins the many Florentines who are nervous of their future.

As both investigations proceed, it becomes apparent that there is more than just greed and fear behind the crimes – there is the threat of insurrection. A plot threatening the Duke of Florence, Alessandro. And Aldo is given a deadline – he must solve the case in four days, or the case will be taken from the Otto and handed over to the military. If the Duke is killed, a power vacuum will result. And one of the many willing to fill the vacuum is Cosimo I de’Medici, son of Aldo’s former boss, Giovanni and his widow, Maria, a staunch supporter of her son’s cause.

City of Vengeance is full of secret alliances and untrustworthy characters. Many Florentines are of no importance, most of them women; mothers and widows with “all the responsibilities and none of the power”, or young women mostly dependent on their fathers or future husbands. Then there are the men who don’t conform and who must love in secret and live under constant threat. And those in the Jewish community, with their own laws, tolerated due to their facility with money, but when murder is involved the law of Florence takes precedence.

And the law of Florence is not as just as one might think, employing torture and bribery, and dealing in secrets. Florentine society is a hierarchy, from its highest echelons down to its dreaded prison, Le Stinche. It is a mercenary, pragmatic society and the streets of Florence are awash in butchers’ blood, mud, and shit. Yet Aldo “loved Florence, though that love had often got unrequited thanks to the city’s laws, and sometimes its people.” And when human blood starts running in the streets, he wants to do the right thing, for the victims not for the rulers: “Did it matter who led Florence? One ruler was little different from the next”.

There are some complex characters in City of Vengeance: Aldo, committed, horrified to realise that people are dying because they were helping him with his enquiries, constantly being beaten up and staggering on through pain and exhaustion; Rebecca, Levi’s daughter, unsure of her future after the death of her father and conflicted over whether to obey his dying wish; Sean Orvieto, a Jewish doctor and man of conscience, who Aldo feels drawn to; and there is the lovely Corporal Strocchi, still quite new to Florence, and still astounded at the goings on: “what was wrong with people in this city?”

The writing is atmospheric, conjuring up the chaos, stench, and darkness of Florence. The plotting is solid and engaging. There is a smattering of Italian through the text, some of which I found unnecessary and a bit coy given the subject matter: palle, cazzo, buggerone. The novel is a satisfying mystery, but also a great set-up for future Cesare Aldo adventures. One thing I am sure of now I have read City of Vengeance, is that regardless of gender, orientation, age, status, or religion, I am glad I didn’t live in Florence in 1536!  

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Soldiers by Tom Remiger – 2020

A group of New Zealand soldiers during the Second World War, we follow them from England to their deployment in Crete – in boredom, in terror, in transit, in confusion. Before leaving England, one of lower-rank, Cousins, is killed during a training exercise. Was it an accident, a suicide, or murder? A middle-ranked soldier, Breen, becomes determined to discover the answer – but has a crime been committed, or is Breen just trying to make sense of events in a world where “We take decent ordinary fellows and we train them to kill other decent ordinary fellows”? Breen pursues the case while drifting into a relationship with higher-ranked Sinclair.

Soldiers is a beautiful, disturbing, and visceral read. The long periods of inaction, with the soldiers longing for action but also not wanting anything to happen. The presence of Anzacs who served in the First World War, experienced but not welcome, “the Anzacs had grown old and fussy”. The reputation of the New Zealanders not being great from the earlier conflict: “They were not kind”, “Your fathers were not gentle.” And the situation Breen finds himself in; discovering that Cousins had written a letter before he died “The bastard topped himself … Now, who made him do that? And what the hell am I going to do about it?”, and when he finds himself attracted to Sinclair, “I didn’t even know it could be a thing … Not really. Buggered if I know why people joke about it”.

All the characters are similar in their trauma but unique in themselves, Tiger: “self-belief, luck, and an eye for the main chance”, Sinclair: a coward or just human believing “It’s no one’s duty to die”? Clark: a gambler, in debt to one of his men: “We’re a classless society” … “Sure we are”. Most of them are situated in a religion, but even the Catholic Father Emmet is a man in a war, is he protecting the seal of confession, or expressing his own opinion, when not helping Breen with his investigations? For Breen finds many motives for murder: sex, money, threats to prestige. He thinks he knows the culprit at one point, and leaves the suspect to the Germans rather than helping him, believing “… he had restored some sort of justice in the world”, but then he realises who the killer really is, as he believes he has witnessed him trying to kill someone else.

How reliable are Breen’s suspicions? He is drifting, “I don’t know that it’ll ever be over”. He is bone weary, he is forgetting things, “it was a long time since Breen had seen what trees were like at home”, he is feeling distanced from his fellows, “… they lay smoking in the dark, laughing at jokes that Breen could not understand”. And he becomes like another soldier he had earlier talked to, finding killing a man, “didn’t feel any different from shooting a rabbit or watching a man fall down a hill”. No-one supports his theory of murder, and the disagreement gets in the way of his relationship with Sinclair. His mates still support Breen, they just ignore his pursuit of Cousin’s case, advising  “You’re struggling, but you want things to fit into a pattern so that the world is in your control again and isn’t a place where people just die for no reason”.

All the soldiers are in a surreal environment. In England birds were active at night due to the light from a burning London. They remember Burnham as “Queues and unfamiliar bugle calls”. The reader is reminded occasionally that most of the boys are very young, what Sinclair later remembers of Breen is the “1939 appeal in his smile”. Breen and Sinclair both see mirages in a waterfall. The wearier Breen becomes, the more he “felt like a lost dog willing to obey any commanding voice”: “It would be so easy to sit in one place and wait. To hear unworried orders felt like listening to the heavy radio at home.”

What happened to Cousins drifts and wavers, when his brother writes to Breen, is he just wanting to hang on to the connection to a dead brother? Or is it more evidence? And we see crimes being committed and being left as “They didn’t have time to sort it out”. Breen is perplexed, “You’re saying we can’t have justice because justice is not a military necessity”. And what is justice during a war? Men who are not heroes are named heroes; it happens so often that it makes accepting undeserved medals acceptable. And those that get home take their secrets with them, “The soldiers came home and each of them wandered away from the others, looking for an emptier horizon and – some of them – with things to be ashamed of”.

They had lives before, they hope for lives after, “… what happened in this strange time didn’t really count”. But of course, things are never left behind. We read of Sinclair’s wife, eventually burdened with all his secrets, thinking of the women who must now be expecting their sons to be taken away when the next war breaks out. The women who know “We cannot simply do what we will, and so we are left to do what we can”. I coincidently yet appropriately read Soldiers over Anzac weekend and I absolutely loved it. Read it and see what you think.  

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Spellbound by Catherine Robertson – 2021

A return to Gabriel’s Bay, and this time it is not a dog or a moose who welcomes and farewells us, but a cat, Brian. The local politicking around getting the tourist attraction Littleville off the ground is still the centre of concern, along with how to replace the Love Bus, which Mac Reid uses to ferry the elderly to Hampton once a week. But Spellbound is also about male insecurity, aggression, and vulnerability to suggestion, “The sensitive male ego had a lot to answer for”. But luckily Gabriel’s Bay has a formidable band of sisters, and some good blokes who support them, to tackle the growing problem.

Most of the characters in Spellbound are well known to those following the series: Sidney is still with Kerry, and she and Sophie (Jonty and Meredith Barton’s daughter) are now both heavily pregnant. Dr Ash is still besotted with Emma (Jacko and Mac’s daughter) and constantly worrying she will move on to a more exciting life. Barrett is living with salt-of-the-earth Vic on a farm, and he is struggling with how to be himself. And there is the irrepressible Mac, with her range of medical-prophylactic-advertising tote bags.  

When Ash becomes concerned about one of his patients, he discreetly asks for Patricia’s help, as she works with a women’s charity focused on domestic abuse. Patricia is shocked when Reuben, the child she and Bernard fostered for a while, is expelled from his primary school for showing up with a hunting knife. And Sidney is concerned about the behaviour of her eldest son, Aidan – is it related to his growing up, or has it something to do with his temporary martial arts instructor, Dale?

The book explores the dangers of online and offline recruitment of young boys into the spurious ideologies of the ‘disenfranchised and disrespected white male’, and the dangers of the remnants of the white patriarchy, those males who control and expect total obedience from their wives. The reaction to finding out about domestic abuse is varied, those on the outside asking, “Why didn’t she leave?”, those on the inside worrying why they didn’t see what was happening.

The arc of the novel is provided by the politics, the ongoing battle between Bernard and his nemesis on the Hampton Council, Elaine. Questions push the plot along, like who has made the anonymous donation that will solve Littleville’s problems? How will the new Chinese investor fit into the picture? And is recluse Magnus a secret white supremacist or a potential asset to the community? And as always, the children are respectfully portrayed, Reuben being entranced by The Hobbit, and Aidan stepping up when Sidney goes into labour.

Spellbound is funny and moving, and at times quite frightening – when Mac, Patricia and pregnant Sidney launch an intervention, things get tense when a rifle appears. There are poignant moments, such as when Bernard wants to reach out to comfort Patricia but finds himself incapable. And surreal ones, such as when Barrett, struggling with how to be gay in a predominantly straight environment, hesitates in a borrowed car, plucking up the courage to go out clubbing, and finds himself listening to Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns.

Spellbound is a treat to read, one that makes you laugh and makes you think. It can be read as a standalone, but if you haven’t read the previous two books in the series, Gabriel’s Bay and What you wish for, you should.

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Scare Me to Death by CJ Carver – 2021

Well, overactive, synesthetic Detective Constable Lucy Davies and shonky memory “attracted danger like blood attracted sharks” Dan Forrester, are back. And they are in a ripper of a thriller, dealing with bombs on planes, public hysteria, and shocking family secrets.

The story picks up not long after their last adventure, Know me now, with Lucy still suffering the effects of being kidnapped, but she now has DI Faris MacDonald, ‘Mac’, for support. Dan is still with Jenny, and with Poppy the dog, daughter Aimee, and Lucy is now godmother to their baby boy, Mischa.

Lucy declines when a friend of her Mum’s asks her to help her son Ricky, who has been arrested for murder. But then the friend offers information about Lucy’s long-scarpered father in return. Lucy still can’t get over her father running off with his yoga instructor many years ago, and then, after a few e-mails, completely ending all contact with his daughter. The chance to find out more about him is irresistible.

The police call Dan in for an interview when it appears the dead woman Kaitlyn, who Ricky is accused of murdering, knew Dan. But with his loss of “great chunks of his memory” Dan doesn’t remember her. But then a nightmare reveals Dan had saved Kaitlyn’s life in a catastrophic air crash 16 years previously, and the life of her younger brother, Josh. Josh is now permanently in care due to injuries sustained during the crash.

Lucy and Dan soon realise Kaitlyn was on the trail of finding out the truth behind the crash, which had killed her parents and permanently damaged her brother. And that she had entrapped Ricky. But what had she found out, and how is Ricky, an accountant, caught up in it? Ricky’s client list gives some of the answers, as at least one is on the wrong side of the law, that one being Teflon Tom – an old school friend of Lucy and Ricky’s.

Lucy and Dan’s independent investigations lead to Morocco and a conspiracy with the potential for international carnage. Although a high-up Moroccan politician is involved, there appears to be a mysterious British mastermind behind it all, “ruthless as a crocodile and as cunning as a snake”.

Meanwhile Lucy is getting more and more unsure what to believe of what she is finding out about her father – is he a spy, a criminal, an undercover cop, an anti-racism campaigner, or just a jerk who took off and left his wife and daughter? And it doesn’t help that her mother is being particularly unforthcoming. Lucy doesn’t know which, if either, of her parents to believe. She ends up quite at a loss, “She wondered when she’d laugh again. It felt like an alien concept”. She also ends up quite sloshed at one point, and thankful that Mac and Dan have her back.  

Dan continues getting into trouble at home and abroad, worrying about Lucy while he does. When an airline flight attendant he knows comes down with symptoms which are initially thought to be caused by aerotoxicity, a poisoning caused by breathing contaminated aircraft air, another strand of the story emerges – the rapid spread of fear amongst the public, and those willing to encourage that spread to make a buck, or a million.

The story rips along, despite Lucy and Dan continually banging into brick walls, as people are too scared to talk for fear of the consequences – it is no coincidence that Kaitlyn ended up dead. When you do find out what is going on, and it is all nicely linked, poverty and a disastrous upbringing are given as the reason behind appalling atrocities, and the lack of loyalty to long-time partners. But this is adroitly countered by Dan refusing to put a boy he has only just met in danger, and Lucy determined to find justice for a woman she has never met. And it is encouraging that some crimes are even too despicable for criminals to tolerate.

Scare me to death is full of great characters, some of whom are the same character changing their names over time. The coincidences we are used to from the series are here again, this time explained by “six degrees of separation” and the Lord working in “mysterious ways”, they add texture to the plot. And Lucy is interestingly conflicted between being a cop and regaining her lost time as a daughter – there is a finely depicted scene where her parents finally meet again.  

The novel is full of mysteries and thrills, and there is even a hostage swap. Lucy, Dan, and their relationship are all holding up over time, those following the Dan Forrester series will be satisfied with the story arc, and those new to the series can read it as a standalone. And there is a hint about future installments – excellent!

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Southern Cross Crime by Craig Sisterson – 2020

Craig Sisterson, founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, journalist, reviewer, administrator of the Crime Watch blog, organiser of book events and festivals  in Aotearoa and elsewhere, tireless supporter and promoter of works of #YeahNoir – has given us a three-for-one in Southern Cross Crime. It is a handy well-informed reference book, a book to dip in and out of to cheer yourself up if you are feeling a bit bored or uninspired, and best of all, it is a luscious read from cover to cover.

Southern Cross Crime is gloriously egalitarian, describing works of lesser known, and sometimes single title, authors with as much care and gusto as those of well-established authors and literary greats. It describes cozy reads, hard boiled reads, novels with serious social commentary, straight forward whodunits, alongside raunchy reads and even horror – the only commonality being a criminal streak. The book is arranged thematically, looking at urban reads of the antipodes (Mean streets – big city crime), rural and outback reads (In the wop-wops), international settings but antipodean authors (Home and away), historical reads (Back in time), titles for young adults and juveniles (Start ‘em young) and there is a section on movies and TV programmes with themes of antipodean crime.

The descriptions of the works are set in their historical context (e.g. “While others help set the dynamite, it was undoubtedly JANE HARPER who lit the fuse …”) and in their international context (e.g. “While there are nods to Chandler and Hammett …”). Despite the huge number of entries, they manage to be exquisitely and sensitively written: “Switching between past and present, and Winstone’s fantasies and reality, Moir delivers a disturbing novel that is both subtle and hard-hitting, full of angst and breathtaking beauty” – from the description of one of my favourite novels The legend of Winstone Blackhat by Tanya Moir.

The reader also gets notes on the backgrounds and motivations of the authors, and there are in-depth interviews with a few of them at the end of the book. If you are in any doubt about the health, range or quality of antipodean crime writing, this book will sort you out – the wealth of material is added to at the end of each section with lists of further titles to explore. Southern Cross Crime is well indexed (making it just as useful as a reference book as if it had been arranged alphabetically), and includes a list of winners of antipodean crime novel awards.

I was trying to find descriptions of some of my favourite books, only to realise that they had been released since the publication of Southern Cross Crime – perhaps we can look forward to a second edition sometime in the future? At the time of writing this blog, Southern Cross Crime had been shortlisted for the H.R.F. Keating Award, to be announced at the International Crime Fiction Convention, CrimeFest, in May 2021. Kia ora!, Mr Sisterson!  

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Dance Prone by David Coventry – 2020

Con Welles was a punk rocker in the 1980s, touring the U.S. in a van and bludging food to stay alive. Most of his friends from that time, later became professionals: lecturers, lawyers, artists … But Con had been left in a hiatus, never knowing who had violated him, never knowing why his friend Tone Seburg shot himself the same night – his life defined by “what occurred there in Burstyn in ’85”.

Dance Prone ranges in time, from periods in the 1980’s through to 2019, and drifts geographically, from the U.S. to Northern Africa, Croatia, Spain, New Zealand… It is written in a poetic, hypnotic cadence, like a never-ending song lyric. The young characters talk in that slightly wanky way of well-read youth, which slides into a form of short-hand communication as they age. Years pass between Con’s meeting with one or other of his friends, years between the sharing of shards of information. As you become immersed in the lives of the characters, you start to see images from the past coming into focus.

The novel is about the unreliability of memory, the fact that history and explanations are all invented narrative: The oldest form of violence.” Con watches videos of events he has no recollection of attending. His on/off/on girlfriend, Sonya, lies about their past, but does it really matter? In one awful moment of revelation, Con realises he had unwittingly burdened another woman, Miriam, with his angst at a time she was dealing with her own horrific experiences.

Coventry’s wonderful debut novel, The Invisible Mile, had the same mesmeric technique of using one event, in that case the Tour de France, to explore the confused experiences of one man, and his attempts to make sense of his experiences. In The Invisible Mile, the stones of Carnac eerily and ambiguously emerge from the mist. In Dance Prone Conrad comes upon a “strange array of columns …, seven lined across the centre of the field. Thirty feet high and waiting on something”. Coventry is a master at making the reader see significance, make their own narratives.

I think how Angel’d said once how it takes up the same amount of memory recording nothing as it does an orchestra”, the vagaries of time, the pointlessness of art. There is a nihilistic thread through Dance Prone, “I thought every instant was a version of the end” – but then it is told from the point of view of post-traumatic confusion. Con and his friends consider the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, the money spent on plans for restoration “as Afghans starved, as the poor suffered in drought and crop failure”. But the punk generation was about creation – Con is in the mountains near Marrakesh, witnessing the completion of an enormous artwork conceived by one of the many peripheral characters, Paloma: on the cliff face, enormous painted reconstructions of the blasted alcoves, “Blackened Buddhas caught in time”.

“‘The teenage versions of us used to be hardcore. Now we’re something else,’ Angel said”, punk rockers trying to make a difference: “I was just kicking my guitar around on the floor, watching it bang and clatter, how the strings were always hunting out harmony and how harmony happens to change its rules at the highest volumes. Feedback and flight: the great gifts of the twentieth century.” The reader can hear the feedback, smell the van, feel the cold of unheated travel, the fug of dingy accommodation, and fear those with “something compelling them to explore the output of violence and stupidity”. And amid the travelling, the band break-ups and the reunions, Con is always trying to find answers.

There are other tragedies besides Con’s in Dance Prone, major events and developments that the reader puts together. All the characters are keeping secrets, all carrying burdens for each other. All feeling, as Miriam does, that “There’s no such thing as random, and there’s no determined events, she’d told me, just a kind of nervousness for spectacles we can’t control or account for. There are those who know what happened in Burstyn in ’85”, and who the actors were, and they are damaged by knowing. The novel is meticulous, all mysteries are solved, all things explained. But the reader is still left with the uncertainty of history and sadness of damaged lives:I could no longer hear the interior monologues of others, just the ever-shifting shape of my own silence.”

Dance Prone is just superb – read it and see if you agree.

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Deadhead by Glenn Wood – 2020

Spencer is a teenage genius, he makes a bit on the side to help his solo Mum pay the bills, by procuring things for school mates, or by providing them with answers to upcoming exams. But one job goes awfully wrong – a job for a student who has started up the Burdale Yakuza. Fearing retaliation, Spencer enlists the help of his friend, Regan, and they disinter a body so Regan can remotely control it to act as Spencer’s bodyguard.

The body happens to be that of Constable Garret Hunter, killed while on a lone stakeout aiming to catch the notorious Undertaker, an evil crime lord who uses a local bikie gang as muscle. When Spencer decides to use Garret to rob the Stamport Savings Bank, comparing himself to “Robin Hood, robbing from the rich – the bank – to give to the poor – his mum”, Garret has to make a hasty exit and he gets electrocuted, and things take a turn for the weirder!

Meanwhile Constable Cadence Green has been trying to work out what happened to her ex-partner, Garret Hunter – she doesn’t trust the official version of events regarding his death. And Carl, the head of the Burdale Yakuza discovers he hasn’t done due diligence to see if there were any other Yakuza chapters already in the area – there is. The heads of the two major crime organisations get into a turf war, both thinking an army of re-animated corpses would benefit their cause.

The ensuing mayhem, with kidnapping, torture, murder, and explosions, entail various parties forming alliances – with teenagers on both sides. Amid all of this, Regan and Cadence form a friendship and Regan starts to think she might have a future after all. Cadence and Garret re-establish as much of a friendship as is possible with one party rotting away. And Spencer must use all his considerable intelligence to hold things, and bodies, together.

Deadhead is text interspersed with comic strip illustrations, and the narrative is in the comic Kersplatt! style, with lots of people being hurt, dying, and being heroic. And there is lots of gruesome corpse goo. It is also very funny, and it has a theme of loyalty and responsibility. The characters are engaging: Spenser who is brilliant but also just a kid who misses his dad and worries about his mum; Regan with no use parents who has found a second home with Spenser and his mum; Cadence the cop who is staunch and brave, and who still has a soft spot for Garret, and Garret who is starting to get lots of soft spots and who goes through lots of personality changes during his post-death experiences.

Deadhead is a YA novel, but I think adults will really enjoy it too!

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Lullaby Beach by Stella Duffy – 2021

Lucy is a “fourth-generation child of Westmere” weighed down by a burden of secrets. Beth, Lucy’s mother, and Lucy’s Aunt Sara are both living with sorrows of the past. All three have always found solace and comfort in Kitty, the sisters’ great aunt. But when Lucy goes to see Kitty in her cabin at the end of the bay, to ask for help, she finds her body. Kitty has committed suicide.

Beth and Sara are sad and angry, angry that Kitty has left them with no farewell or explanation. But Lucy has even more secrets; she has taken a note left by Kitty on which are four dates. Through Lullaby Beach, the reader finds out the significance of the dates, and the three women finally open up to each other so they too can piece together the abuse endured by all of the women, including Kitty: “All this crap has been going on for years. Long before us.” And the perpetrators of the crimes have all been from one Westmere family, the Nelsons.

Lullaby Beach is the cabin that Kitty has lived in since her return from London in the 1950s. It was an extension of the family run B&B in the small seaside town. And it is now coveted by Nelson Construction, as their foreshore tourism development requires land for an eco-friendly carpark. The Nelsons stand for white male privilege, they assume ownership, of business, of land, of people.

Danny Nelson, who is now in his 80s like Kitty, was an abuser, an horrific combination of violent abuse, childlike contrition, and business-like pragmatism. His grand-nephew Mark takes after him. Danny was always distraught that the only time his mother intervened in her husband’s violence was to protect the family dog, not her son. He too protects a random dog, but there’s no-one to protect Kitty. Sara worked for Nelson Construction, prior to going to university in Newcastle – that’s where she met Mark. 

Beth is jealous of Sara, jealous of how Lucy confides in her rather than her Mum. She thinks Lucy is just going through a stage of teenage surliness, until she learns what she has been dealing with. Through the book, Beth and Lucy are associated with fire, while Sara loves swimming in the cold sea. The sisters clash over what to do about the cabin now that Kitty has gone. Until they discover Kitty’s story, and the constant pain and ongoing harassment to which she has been subjected. The stories of male violence and cruelty persist, “She said to love him anyway, love him out of his moods when words wouldn’t work”.

Kitty’s funeral is sad, Sara’s eulogy very moving – Lucy’s little sister Etta, Beth and their father, having to support her. Afterwards, Lucy takes selfies of herself as a corpse. Kitty’s suicide has been exact, her nursing background ensuring she got the doses just right. Both Lucy and Beth lie about what they have taken from Kitty’s cabin, both wanting the power of knowing a secret.

And the secrets of women are what Lullaby Beach is about, the secrets of abuse, rape, violence, abortions, blackmail, still-births, depression … The continual stifling of women’s lives. Even Yulia, at one time Sara’s flamboyant lover, liked “to dress in neutral colours, quiet clothes, to get through the night in the bar as a server of drinks, not someone to be interested in, looked over, reached for”, and Kitty after returning from London, feels liberated when dressing in her mother’s clothes to hide her pregnancy, liberated from attention that might inexplicably turn to violence.

“I said no. I. Said. No.”, But who listens to women? Everyone is judgemental of a woman who decides to stand out, speak out. Even a random cabbie is critical of Kitty in London when she is returning from helping along one of Danny’s schemes. And when one of the sisters decides to make an historical rape allegation, she knows it will do nothing but protect Lucy, there will be no justice for her. But “The trolls were both worse and far more relentless than she had expected.”

Lullaby Beach is a sad read, there is an awful abortion scene, and later the sad consequences. But there is also the security of the sisters’ friendship, and their determination to honour Kitty’s life of sacrifice, after realising women so often forget that older women have had their own tragedies. After the crucible of events there is the relief of the two sisters swimming in the cold sea. I would definitely recommend this book!    

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