The Convict Stain by David McGill – 2021

The latest in the Dan Delaney series and Dan is nearing 70, he has lived through a lot and is disillusioned with politics, religion, life … He is in Sydney with his family to launch their Vukovich Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc onto the international market, but he is feeling more an observer than a participant. In the harbour, USS Buchanan waits for joint naval exercises, and for access to NZ waters, neither confirming nor denying it has nuclear capability. One priest has a diary, and another a revelation from a dying crime boss, both could destabilise Dan and his family. And preparations are being made for a secret meeting to determine the future of ANZUS.

Dan’s daughter Ali, who once considered a reclusive religious life but is now “manning the protest barricades”, has become involved with a deserter from the U.S. Navy named Brad, who is determined “the nuclear stockpiles had to be dismantled”. Ali thinks he is “Hollywood with a brain”, but he is a dope-head, not the best state for an eco-warrior. He also has a habit of getting kidnapped – but who is doing the kidnapping?

Dan’s second daughter, Maria, DS Pikowai, arrives like a whirlwind and never slows down. She is on a mission, preparing for the arrival of her charge – PM David Lange. She feels manipulated by the male chauvinist police force, and it doesn’t help her case that she is a magnet for trouble. Despite being suspicious of Brad, and recognising him for the misogynist jerk he is, she agrees to help Ali by finding out who might have snatched him, and as a result ends up not knowing who to trust amongst her temporary work colleagues in the Diplomatic Protection Squad – assembled to cover a secret meeting between Lange and Bob Hawke.

The Convict Stain is awash with characters, some of whom we know from previous Dan Delaney outings; once not so respectable Marty Webber is the new co-director of the Vukovich launch into Australia and beyond. He is now living in Sydney with Michelle, his flamboyant fiancée. And when an elderly gangster Ali is looking after, Frankie Frankuvich, asks to see Dan, Dan sees someone he didn’t think or hope he would ever see again. And there are new characters aplenty: the slobby journalist Portillo, who turns up in unexpected places. The aging Father Petrus, source of history for the Delaney family, associated with St Brigid’s Infirmary, where Brad keeps ending up. And Michelle, the fiancée who becomes central to the action.  

There are also the larger than life characters of the different countries: Australians with their racist banter, speaking like low vaudeville comedians, their gangsters strutting around in eye-hurting silk suits; American military guys storming around like ‘ugly Americans’; the French wine merchant, slickly romantic and devious; the Pommy journalist, messily gross and devious. They all feed into the board game of patch protection and jingoistic manoeuvring that Dan has wearied of: The U.S. “The nuclear superpower”, Australia “the supplier of the vital uranium”, the U.K. “We’re last century’s power”, and the U.K. considering Aotearoa – “… you are, well, just a little island far, far away.” And the historical characters – Dame Kiri Te Kanawa makes an appearance, as does transgender role model Carmen, who plays a role in the plot, and of course David Lange: “He talked like an angel but was a devil to deal with.”

The book is partly about the fascinating politics of the time. The jockeying for position, influence, alliances. So resonant now with the damage to the international image of the U.S. caused by the Trump years, and the consequential flexing of Chinese and Russian ambitions. It suggests the role that comparatively small nations can play if they have a clear supported policy and the guts to implement it – even if the leader is a bit unpredictable! The social times are well presented too, although maybe with a few too many film and book references. Fashions help set the scene, as does the emergence of new technology like CCTV, and the description of Ali and Brad’s flat is spot on.

But the story is also about family dynamics, strengths, and fragilities – Dan resisting finding out the truth about his family, resistant to change and to having to absorb new information. And, in parallel with the larger arena of national politics, he must adjust to new ideas, new freedoms, new realities – unless he wants to isolate and become estranged from those who care about him and who support him, who see him as the anchor of their expanding family.  

There are some great moments, such as the moving interchange between Dan’s wife, Jas, and Father Petrus, when Jas starts to see things from Dan’s point of view, rather than seeing him as “a witless study in puzzlement”; realising how unfair she has been and vowing to make amends. And the Dickensian will-reading scene, complete with idiosyncratic cat. And my favourite, when Jas and Maria go on the offensive, but are bedevilled by hysterical giggles due to the adrenalin running through their systems.

The Convict Stain is the sixth Dan Delaney novel, if you haven’t read them, give them a try. You will enjoy yourself while learning some great New Zealand political history.

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Victory Park by Rachel Kerr – 2020

Kara and her son, Jayden, live in Victory Park – a block of flats with a bit of a playground. Money is a constant concern, and she scrapes by, by providing childcare. She and her neighbours form a sort of community, they are all a bit wary of each other, but they do support one another, arranging help for those who need it. Recently Bridget has moved into Victory Park with her son, Rafe. Compared to the other tenants, Bridget is “Flush with cash”. Jayden and Rafe have become mates, and Kara finds Bridget intriguing, and she has luxuries like a car, and they start hanging out together.

Kara is proficient in life, she manages her son, and the other children in her care, she has a good relationship with her daughter, Alisha, and her mother, Robyn. Kara is content in her tiny flat, it is where she lived with her husband, Jimmy, until he died when Jayden was one. She still has his crash helmet and a fear of any type of two-wheeled vehicle, and when she hears a rescue helicopter, she thinks of “the latest in an endless series of emergencies”.

Kara knows she is struggling financially when compared to the people like Bridget and those she works for – the people who ask her over to their house for a chat, having no idea of the financial burden that is – the bus fare balanced against a loaf of bread. She enjoys spending time with Bridget, ignoring her insensitive comments, and her whinging about having to get by on an allowance that Kara can only dream of – Bridget’s husband, Martin, is under suspicion of running a Ponzi scheme, and his assets have been frozen. Kara is a bit amazed at Bridget’s slap dash approach to parenting; Kara must teach Rafe how to tie his shoelaces.

“Kara wanting Bridget to be fun. Not hard work”. Bridget however does start to annoy Kara, casually saying Kara should go and see her doctor for her persistent cough, when there’s no way Kara could afford it. When Kara takes Bridget to the foodbank, she behaves in her usual insensitive way. Bridget criticises Kara’s ‘choice’ of work, and when she loses the little work she has, Bridget talks as though all Kara needs to do is make better decisions. Bridget lets Kara down twice when she has promised to mind Jayden, and both times he gets into danger – “When she apologised, it was like she’d stood on someone’s foot by mistake – whoops!”      

Kara is someone that wealthy people think they can say anything to, do anything with. At one-point Bridget starts applying lipstick to Kara’s lips uninvited. Two people who have fallen victim to Martin’s scheme arrive at Kara’s flat, complaining that they have lost their lives, and must now live on a benefit, wanting Kara to do something about it. Martin’s brother expects Kara to help when Bridget won’t let Martin see Rafe, but Kara’s had it by then – “I’m sorry, but I’ve done my dash of it.”

Victory Park is a brilliant depiction of the gap between those at either end of the socio-economic divide. The gap that became obvious during the Covid-19 lockdown, with those worrying about their cancelled overseas holidays, and those worried about feeding themselves and their families. And it highlights how the gap is harder to span for the wealthy. Those with little must help each other out, and word gets around who needs help. Some of those with a lot feel it their right that others help them, and word gets around who to avoid.

Both Bridget and Kara end up in hospital, but via quite different circumstances that once again highlight the selfishness of privilege, and the sacrifices the non-privileged must make. Victory Park is vividly written – of Robyn “Some days she looked rock and roll, and on others like someone you would worry about if you saw her sitting on the side of the road”. It is well plotted and there are funny moments and scary moments, like Kara and the two boys having to hitch-hike and catching a ride with a male driver. Kara is a wonderful character, resilient, caring, vulnerable, crying in the face of a gesture of hoped for but unexpected kindness. Acutely aware that “Life was obscenely enormous, and then suddenly it was nothing”.

Victory Park ends on a both optimistic and sad note. With happiness a possibility for Kara, but only on her side of the unbreachable divide. Highly recommended.

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Nancy Business by R.W.R. McDonald – 2021

It’s 4 months on from the last The Nancys caper, and a year since Tippy Chan’s father died, when his car mysteriously veered off the road – Tippy’s “tattooed Santa on steroids” Uncle Pike, and his partner “unmanageable” Devon, are back in Riverstone from Sydney. Tippy is now 12, and the pair will keep Tippy company during her school holidays, while her mother, Helen, works all hours at the Riverstone Medical Centre. Tippy is looking forward to hanging out with the crazy caring duo; most of her friends have left Riverstone, and the one who remains, Todd, is still recuperating from a brain injury sustained during the last outing of The Nancys.

Tippy knows both Pike and Devon’s businesses are doing well over the ditch, and they are still full of banter, but something is wrong – especially with Tippy’s ‘Sissy’: “Devon didn’t seem to be his usual sparkly self”. Surprisingly, Pike and Devon have bought the “murder house” – a crime scene from their previous case – to renovate as a ‘pied-à-Riverstone’, and Tippy is given the job of Devon’s P.A. for the job. The trio settle into a decrepit downtown Airbnb, and although she is chuffed to be made a PA, Tippy wishes there was a case for The Nancys to investigate: “Nancys’ business is nobody’s business”, it would distract her from thinking about her Dad, and Devon from whatever is worrying him. And then a large section of the Riverstone CBD explodes.

The trio arrives at the scene of the massive explosion to find Helen tending to the injured, and Devon joins her to help. Tippy is distraught, as well as knowing there are injuries, and probably deaths, Riverstone’s founding tree is gone, “the beautiful old macrocarpa, alive since 1854” – “My town was ruined”. In the aftermath, Tippy realises The Nancys have a job to do – the Riverstone Police have the case almost immediately done and dusted – but The Nancys “don’t listen to what we’re told to believe. Like Nancy Drew, we investigate and we find out the truth ourselves”.

The mystery and investigation in Nancy business are great, The Nancys making slow progress using CCTV footage, old photo collections, interviews, observations, and lots of writing on the walls of “The Nancys room” in the under-renovation house. There are lots of suspects, and motives, and clues, but they are working under pressure – there has been a note emailed to the local police station threatening another explosion in 6 days’ time, and the number of days keeps reducing at an alarming rate. “I needed this case: besides stopping a bombing it was an escape from my blown up life” – also rising at an alarming rate is Tippy’s anxiety levels: she feels “Surrounded by something invisible, like a cushion of air; a kind of darkness you could feel if it wasn’t just out of reach”, “Was anywhere safe?”, “What if it happens again?”

And this is what is so good about Nancy business, despite being funny and with larger-than-life-characters, many of those characters are under stress. Devon has a form of PTSD. Unbeknownst to Tippy, Helen is barely holding things together. Tippy is dealing with the explosion, losing her friends, her father’s death, and her mother being a workaholic. She is finding that people under stress fall apart, and, as she is in many respects still a child, she blames herself when they do. Nancy business shows that whatever your style, all joy can get buried under memories, worries, and fears. Serious issues are handled well, for example suicide: “You get help, you always ask for help, no matter how hard it is.”

Tippy is taught lessons about the tension between people’s privacy and trying to protect others. And when someone breaks the rules to give her information about her father’s death, she starts to grasp the complexities of right and wrong: “I guess sometimes doing right feels really wrong”. Nancy business is a compulsive read, but despite the snappy pace, The Nancys’ progress on the case is glacial as the days tick by, and then things go ballistic, with a hair-raising car chase – Tippy in a truck with a less that compos mentis driver.

Nancy business is written in the first person, from Tippy’s point of view, and through the book she works towards adolescence. By the end of the book she has become a young woman. She realises what her mother has been dealing with, and that she herself is not the centre of the universe. And she starts planning the next case for The Nancys – which is good news for all of us.

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Quiet in Her Bones by Nalini Singh – 2021

Home to the successful and wealthy, the Cul-de-Sac sits shrouded in the Waitākere Ranges, near Auckland. It is home to Ishaan Rai, whose wife, Nina, disappeared 10 years ago – along with $250,000. After a serious car accident, Ishaan’s son, Aarav, returns to the home to recuperate, despite his loathing his controlling father. Then the police arrive to tell Ishaan and Aarav that the remains of Aarav’s mother, Nina, have been found. She has been lying in her dark green Jaguar, hidden by the dense bush not far from their home, for those ten years. Nina hadn’t been driving and the money is not in the car. Aarav is determined to find out who killed his mother, and in doing so he finds this gated community is home to tragedy, abuse, blackmail, and murder.

The proximity of the crime leads Aarav to look at his neighbours, then the hired contractors who frequent the Cul-de-Sac, and then further afield via unsecured social networking sites. “People tell me all kinds of things because I’m polite and empathic.” And Aarav is an excellent researcher – he is a multi-millionaire celebrity author; his one thriller having become a phenomenon that has been turned into a block-buster movie. He is under pressure to produce a second novel, so splits his time between writing and investigating his mother’s murder. But both enterprises are somewhat compromised by the severity of the car crash that sent him home. He badly smashed his foot – meaning he must hobble around in a moon boot, and he seriously injured his brain – meaning he has gaps in his memory, crippling migraines, and a less than firm grip on reality.

Quiet in her bones is written in the first person, with Aarav as the narrator, and he is an enigma. He is full of self-loathing, yet he acts kindly and considerately. Is he the sociopath he declares himself to be, or is that just a persona he adopts as a famous thriller writer? – “Writers are professional liars”. He is the quintessential unreliable narrator, as much to himself as to the reader. The book is a journey of discovery and the reader travels along with Aarav and his shattered mind. All he remembers of the night his mother disappeared is seeing his parents fighting, hearing his mother scream, and waiting up for her with a leg that “hurt like a bitch”. As Aarav tries to piece things together, we learn about his persons of interest, and there is no shortage of suspects who might have wanted to harm Nina, or to take the money.

With Aarav’s increasingly frequent blackouts, his lack of memories of major events, his slipped chronologies, and his sleepwalking, he starts to suspect himself as much anyone else in the neighbourhood. The two people he loved most, his mother and his last serious girlfriend, Paige, both left him. And he starts to wonder if he was the victim, or the cause of their going. But the reader often sees Aarav as a good person. Not least when he is with his half-sister, Pari, daughter of his father’s second wife, Shanti. Shanti was ‘bride-shopped’ in rural India as Nina had been, and she is much more the obedient wife that Ishaan had been hoping for. Aarav finds out that Nina was as unfaithful as his father had been, and his memories of her perfume are always mixed with the smell of alcohol.

Quiet in her bones is cram packed with vivid, interesting characters, some of whom are dead – Nina is a real presence, despite our only meeting her in ghostly memories. In the Cul-de-Sac are those who observe but are generally ignored, those who gossip, those who are keeping long-held secrets. And there is a mix of cultures, some of which value family honour over justice: “Rich Indians don’t report domestic violence, detective”, “Alice never tell. Shame. Shame”, “If you killed your mother,” he continued, “then we deal with it inside the home.” Then there are the multiple medical specialists Aarav consults. He has given up a reliance on alcohol and is living on an unhealthy diet of Coca Cola and sweets. He confuses his medications, and when he is shown proof of conversations and correspondence, he has no memory of them. He totally forgets people. And he gets others to tell him whether his writing is coherent, he can’t tell anymore.

Quiet in her bones is a slow burn, the tension comes from knowing Aarav’s condition is deteriorating and that he must find the truth before he is totally incapable of doing so. And a sense of dread comes from the looming Waitākere Ranges that surround the story, usually drenched in rain. They are menacing, with parts closed off due to kauri dieback disease, a disease which “brings slow death”. There are kauri that guard the Cul-de-Sac, and “Should humanity stop tomorrow, the dark green would begin its takeover the very next day.” There are plenty of clues in the narrative, but even when the reader gets them, they aren’t sure who is implicated. Despite the physical, mental, and environmental difficulties, Aarav won’t give up: “Someone had murdered my mother, ended the angry brilliance of Nina Rai, and I wasn’t about to let them live in peace.”

A great psychological thriller, highly recommended.

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The Beautiful Dead by Kim Hunt – 2020

Cal Nyx came to live with her Aunt Zin in rural New South Wales, after an horrendous incident at her home in Aotearoa. She is now an adult, a park ranger living on the property of a farmer friend, and spending most of her time out in the bush. It is when she is carrying out a moth count that she finds the body – it is very decomposed, but as Cal muses, it was once “Someone who lived and breathed, who probably belonged to others.”

Detective Inspector Liz Scobie is given the case when the death is ruled a murder, not an accident. She has a small team of two two-person teams, and plenty of suspects, but no obvious motive. On the suspect list is a young part-time mechanic who looks after his mother who is living with MS, a man who runs diggers and trucks and who has a criminal record, and a young rich son of a local legend, who has a financial interest in a local nightclub where the victim provided the sound system.

The victim, Phillip, was a suspect in a previous murder, that of his partner, Stefan. Stefan’s body was found at his stylish home, where expensive artworks adorn the walls. All three of the suspects were known to associate in some way with the victims. And it transpires that Stefan also has a sister who lives out of the area, but who was at one time suspected of trying to extort money from her and Stefan’s mother. Was the motive for the murders “Money. Sex. Hate. All possible … Fear’s a pretty strong motivator”?

Meanwhile Cal discovers she knew the person whose body she discovered. Phillip (Pip) was the brother of a friend of hers, Di. She is also dealing with the imminent death of a close friend, who is in a hospice. So, she takes some leave, intending to spend time with her ailing friend and to attend Pip’s memorial service. But really, she wants to help Di by doing some poking around to see if she can work out who killed Pip, and why. With two parallel streams of investigation, it isn’t long before Cal realises that her being in most of the places of obvious enquiry, means she is being added to the police persons of interest list. And then Cal becomes a different type of person of interest for DI Scobie, and that leads to the police teams starting to wonder about the leadership capability of their ‘skip’.

What I really liked about The Beautiful Dead was the character of Cal. She is part of a community apart from that where she works, which is not a community, just a group of people who “looked out for each other because they needed one another for survival”. Cal’s community are those she feels safe with, free to express wants that are “not governed by rules or etiquette.” Cal has her uniforms altered to fit: “Trousers, men’s fit … The wide-waist and narrow-hip cut fit her perfectly”, she likes driving fast, pushing cars to their limit, she was “brought up by wolves”, she’s “No lady, mate”, and she frequents a dungeon.

But Cal is also vulnerable, and she is guilt-ridden when she loses her friend in the hospice, and then another woman who was very close to her, in the space of two weeks, feeling she let both down. She is an expert in the local trees, plants, and animals. This means the sense of place is well captured, as Cal is always mentally taking in her surroundings, and birds flying over her or in the bush beside her. You realise the vastness and dangers of the bush, and another skill of Cal’s is getting into danger, leading to some pretty tense scenes.

The Beautiful Dead is a good murder mystery – plenty of suspects, plenty of clues, plenty of possible motives, plenty of danger. Including the danger that stems from community prejudices which require some to keep secrets, secrets about ‘money, sex, hate, fear’, all motives for murder. I enjoyed this intriguing read.

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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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