I received an early review copy of “Murder in the Mail” courtesy of the curator Felicity Banks, and you can hear her talk about this project in detail and interactive fiction generally on the latest episode of my podcast Lost the Plot. You can also sign up to “Murder in the Mail” yourself by checking out the Kickstarter campaign, which closes on 14 April 2018.
“Murder in the Mail: A Bloody Birthday” by Felicity Banks is an interactive fiction series of letters, postcards, artwork, photographs and objects that are posted to you over the course of 8 weeks. You are Hachi, a university student whose cousin Naomi was murdered at her own birthday party. There were six people aside from Naomi who attended the party: you, Naomi’s mother and four art student friends from university. They all agree to send you letters and their artworks about what happened that night, and it’s up to you to interpret the clues and figure out who is the murderer.
This is a really fun, engaging way to experience a murder mystery. As a reviewer, I received nearly all the parcels in one hit and I was racing through them to find out more information and read more clues. However, I think stretching them out over 8 weeks would be even better way to experience the anticipation and intrigue of what is coming next. The other benefit to stretching it out is the opportunity to discuss your theories on the messageboard with other readers between installments.
The story itself was really enjoyable. I love a puzzle, and I really liked the twists and turns and how each character’s motives and idiosyncrasies emerged over time. There are plenty of red herrings and plenty of interesting social issues jammed into this story, and it’s quite incredible how invested I became in the characters over each installment of the story. The artworks are a great touch to bring life to the story and to give the characters and extra dimension of reality. This is a great example of how a number of authors and artists can collaborate together to make something really interesting.
As I mentioned above, it’s currently only available via Kickstarter but it is an all-or-nothing project, so if it doesn’t its funding goal, you won’t get an opportunity to experience it. If you love murder mysteries and want to support local Canberra authors and artists, I really encourage you to check it out and find out what happened to Naomi.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher, Leaf by Leaf Press, which is a cooperative of writers from the UK in an area called the West Midlands where I lived for 6 months as an 18 year old. I was pretty excited to read this one and retrace some familiar places.
“A Perfect Alibi” by R. J. Turner is a mystery/thriller novel that starts out in a cemetery. A young woman called Jane returns to her hometown for her estranged father’s funeral. When the time comes to lower his coffin into the ground, a naked woman’s body is discovered in the grave. Detective Inspector Dundee and Detective Sergeant Eccles are assigned the case, and while they are investigating Jane discovers that her father had been hiding even more from her than just his feelings. However, he had the perfect alibi, right? He was already dead.
This is a modern take on the mystery/thriller genre. I really enjoyed the diverse range of characters, including the lesbian police officer, people whose linguistic background is critical to the plot and the characters in wheelchairs who contributed significantly to solving the crime. Turner did an excellent job as well depicting the difficulty balancing work with family and casts Dundee’s moral weaknesses in stark relief against the better judgment of his female colleagues. He also manages to do with while maintaining the likability and relatability of Dundee which was an impressive feat.
Without giving too much away, I think the part about this story that I struggled with the most was Pete’s. While I enjoyed Jane, Dundee, Eccles, Agnieska and most of the other characters, I found Pete a bit difficult to relate to and his arc a bit hard to engage with. I see how his story was necessary to move along the entire plot, but I enjoyed the parts with Jane, Dundee, Eccles and Agnieska far more.
This was a fast-paced read with a surprising amount of depth, especially regarding the characters. I would be interested to see if Dundee gets up to more shenanigans in future books.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist, and unfortunately due to some technological issues, I actually thought I wasn’t going to be able to read it at all. Luckily, when I went to collect another book from NetGalley, I saw that it was available again and I pounced on it. This book was actually a nominee in the Goodreads Choice Awards 2017 for best historical fiction so I was even more excited to read it.
“Beneath a Scarlet Sky” by Mark Sullivan is a historical fiction novel which is heavily inspired by true events experienced by a real person in Milan, Italy during World War II. Pino Lella, a happy-go-lucky 17 year old boy, is sent to live in the Alps after his hometown of Milan is bombed by the Allies. Staying in a Catholic boys’ school, he is enlisted by the priest to assist Jewish people escaping Italy via an underground railroad by guiding them through the treacherous winter mountains. However, despite the heroism of his early involvement, when Pino comes of age his parents insist for his safety that he enlists with the German forces. Disgusted by having to swap sides, Pino jumps at the chance to work for Hitler’s “left hand” and spy for the Allies. This new role is fraught with danger and Pino finds himself risking many important relationships, including his blossoming love with the beautiful Anna.
As the saying goes, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”, and this is, without a doubt a good story. I felt haunted by this book for a good week after I read it. I found myself going back to it to reread certain passages trying to find answers and going over and over the events in my mind. Sullivan makes it abundantly clear at the beginning of this book that this book is not intended to be a biography, and that much of the story has been heavily fictionalised, speculated upon and perhaps even embellished. I don’t even care. It’s a fast-paced, exhilarating read and I got much more out of this book set in Italy during the war than I did out of “My Brilliant Friend” set only a short time afterwards.
Probably the biggest criticism some may have of this book is that the writing, while perfectly serviceable, is not especially literary in tone. Some may find it a bit simplistic but I personally found the tone perfectly in keeping with Pino’s youth and naivete. Even though he is involved in very serious and adult issues, ultimately Pino is still a very young man and I think that the writing style actually suits the narrative.
This is an emotionally charged, exciting and intriguing book and if even half of it is true it’s an absolutely incredible story. A solid story that still makes my heart wrench thinking about it.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“Soft on the Devil” by Robert Lampros is a Christian mystery story about a young man called Ian. Ian lives a simple life – he lives by himself in an apartment, he works in a local cafe and he goes to church regularly. However, Ian’s life is turned upside down when his neighbour Cindy goes missing and turns up at his door a week later asking for help. When her body is found the next night, Ian decides to do his own investigating which ultimately brings him face to face with demons past and present.
I was a little uncertain about reviewing this book, but I thought I’d try to have an open mind and give it a go. Lampros is a confident writer who creates a likeable everyman character in Ian. As the story progresses, you learn more about Ian’s difficult past and celebrate with him as he achieves small wins in his work and budding relationship.
This is a quick and easy read. I think I only had two issues with the story. First, despite being a crime novel, it was left largely unresolved at the end. Secondly, despite the Christian themes and the otherwise matter-of-fact tone of the book, ghosts and visions were used a couple of times as plot devices.
All in all, a surprisingly enjoyable and insightful story in a genre I wouldn’t ordinarily read.
I bought a copy of this book ages ago in the Penguin Australian Classics edition which of course have gorgeous tinted edges and are in beautiful hardcover. This one is particularly whimsical. I’ve always meant to read this book because it is such a well-known Australian story, but I never managed to get around to it until I was invited to an event at the National Library of Australia celebrating 50 years since its publication. Finally, I decided to give this book a go.
“Picnic at Hanging Rock” by Joan Lindsay is a novel that’s part historical, part mystery and part Gothic. The story is about a fictional boarding school for girls called Appleyard College in the Mount Macedon region of central Victoria. On Valentines Day in the year 1900, a group of girls go on a picnic to the famous Hanging Rock formation. After a lazy afternoon, four of the girls decide to go for a walk just before it is time to go home. However, when only one of the girls returns in hysterics and it is then discovered that one of the teachers is also missing, a search for the four missing women begins. The incident and the ensuing mystery has a ripple effect on the school, the town and ultimately the reader.
This story is definitely one that has ingrained itself in the Australian psyche and without a doubt has become a cultural phenomenon over the last 50 years. Lindsay has a real gift for capturing the unique beauty of the Australian bush and for maintaining and uncomfortable but irresistible sense of tension throughout the book. It has been 50 years and people are still talking about what happened to those girls. There is a “secret” final chapter that was axed from the book and I truly, truly advise that you avoid it. It adds absolutely nothing to the story.
In my write up of the National Library event, I talk a bit about arguably the biggest flaw in this book which is the complete absence of any kind of Aboriginal recognition. This book was written in the 1960s, 5 years after Aboriginal people were given the right to vote and in the same year as the 1967 Referendum. However, similarly to “The Nargun and the Stars“, it alludes to an ancient historical connectedness with the land without directly acknowledging the Taungurung, Wurundjeri and Dja Dja Wurrrung people who lived in the region for tens of thousands of years before being dispossessed of their land. Perhaps at odds with the subject-matter of a story so concerned with femininity, Hanging Rock was in fact originally a sacred site for male initiation.
Ultimately though, this is a fascinating book that covers a wide range of themes including female sexuality, schooling, class, time and the harsh Australian landscape. It is an engrossing read that 50 years on shines a light on the Missing White Woman Syndrome and plays on the public’s sordid fascination with unsolved crimes.
This book and I didn’t get off to a great start. It’s just recently been made into a film, and I loved “Rebecca” so much I thought I simply had to get a copy. First of all, I have a beautiful set of Daphne du Maurier novels – but it doesn’t include this one. So I tried to pick up a copy from some secondhand bookstores, but I couldn’t find one anywhere. Finally, on my lunch break, I found a copy in Dymocks in Canberra City that didn’t have photos from the new film adaptation over it. However, when I got back to the office I realised that the cover had damage to the bottom! My colleague very kindly went back to swap it for me, but they didn’t have any more copies in store. Bummer! So I guess I’m stuck with this one, but I did get a couple of goodies including an ARC and a notebook to make up for it.
“My Cousin Rachel” by Daphne du Maurier is a historical novel set in Cornwell, UK during the Victorian era. The story is narrated by Philip Ashley, a young man orphaned as a toddler who was raised by his cousin Ambrose. Philip grows up to be just like his cousin, and loves their bachelor lifestyle on Ambrose’s idyllic country estate. However when Ambrose’s health begins to suffer in the English winters, he leaves Philip for months every year to visit warmer climates. It is on his third such trip that he meets Philip’s distant cousin Rachel. Philip is increasingly disturbed by the letters from Ambrose about his swift marriage to Rachel and his rapidly declining health. He decides to visit Italy himself to check on Ambrose and find out about this mysterious cousin Rachel.
This is a compelling novel that is best read in the winter. Du Maurier is queen of setting an ominous tone, morally ambiguous characters and creating women dwarfed only by their reputations. Philip is a complex character who is both oblivious and obstinate, and he makes for an interesting narrator. I don’t want to give too much away, but while I didn’t enjoy this as much as I did “Rebecca”, this is still an engaging read. Du Maurier maintains tension throughout the entire book, but I felt like the ending was just a bit too predictable.
Not quite “Rebecca”, but not bad. I’m very interested to see what they made of the movie.
I was in the mood for something fast-paced, and I had this book sitting on my shelf after I picked it up for an easy $2 from the Canberra Lifeline Bookfair. This book has gotten a lot of attention recently after being made into a film, and has been touted as the next “Gone Girl“. Would it match up to all the hype?
“The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins is a thriller novel set just outside London, UK. Rachel, a thirty-something woman with a drinking problem, catches the same train to the city, morning and evening. While the rest of her life seems like it’s falling apart, she looks forward to that brief moment twice a day where she can watch a particular blissful couple she’s named Jess and Jason and daydream about their perfect lives. Until one day, Rachel sees something. Something that shatters her fantasy and pulls her back into a world she’s been desperately trying, and failing, to escape with alcohol.
This book starts out strong and kind of fizzles from there. I think there’s no other way about it. The premise of the fleeting glimpse from a train window is a compelling one, and the beginning seems really promising. However, it ends up being like one of those old time cartoons where the scene starts off beautifully illustrated and the further the character walks, the more unfinished the scene becomes until they end up just standing by themselves on a blank page looking admonishingly at the animator.
The characters end up being quite two dimensional (I think only one woman character out of four has a job). The men are kind of indistinguishable, and the amount that the women’s lives seem to revolve around the men is super boring. Opportunities for interesting relationships and characters are lost (I’m looking at you, red-headed cockney train guy). The “twist” is easy to guess. Only one character has any kind of interesting backstory. Even the conversations end up being really repetitive because there’s never really any new information.
I could understand how “Gone Girl” was so popular – it was enthralling and it was an excellent example of the unreliable narrator. This book instead leaned heavily on the concept of unreliable memory and as a result the revelations just felt a lot more unlikely (or uninteresting).
A quick read but by no means an excellent read, this book is exactly OK.
Melina Marchetta has been the trailblazer of Australian teen fiction since the early 1990s, so I was really excited when she came to speak at Muse in Canberra not too long ago. A quietly thoughtful and articulate speaker, afterwards she kindly stayed back to sign copies of her latest novel.
“Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil” is a modern mystery thriller set in France and the UK. Chief Inspector Bish Ortley has been temporarily relieved of his police duties after an incident with a colleague when he gets a disturbing call from an old friend. A bus has been blown up in France and his daughter, who is away on camp, was on it. Pulling himself together enough to drive over the Chunnel, Bish finds out that his daughter was not the only person of interest on that bus. Another teen, Violette LeBrac, is the daughter of the infamous Noor LeBrac who is serving a life sentence for her involvement in a bombing in London many years earlier. When Violette disappears taking another teen with her, Bish finds himself leading the hunt to find her. Along the way, he finds himself forced to face his demons, past and present.
This is an interesting, compelling and relevant story with many, many layers. Marchetta is second to none when it comes to exploring the teenage psyche and she definitely has not lost her touch with the advent of the internet and social media. After writing about the Italian immigrant experience in Australia, Marchetta does a convincing job tackling the Middle Eastern experience in Europe. Her exploration of race is multifaceted and informed, and Bish’s own complex identity is a valuable conduit between two very polarised experiences. Although there were times where I felt the characters were perhaps a little too virtuous, the rest of the story more than made up for it and I found myself staying awake way too late to finish this one.
A cracking read that couldn’t be timed better. Reading this book is like having your finger on the pulse of Europe.
I received an advanced reading copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. I don’t read many mysteries but I’m always eager to try new things and with autumn just beginning here, a novel set in a British manor was just the thing to cosy up to on a weekend.
“In Farleigh Field” by Rhys Bowen is a novel about an upper class British family during the 1940s. Lord Westerham, his wife Lady Westerham and three of their daughters have had to relinquish part of their stately home Farleigh Place to local soldiers. Their third daughter Pamela is working a secret government job at Bletchly Park and nobody has heard from their second daughter Margot, who was designing clothes in France, for a long time. When a young London boy Alfie who is billeted at the gamekeeper’s house stumbles across a grisly discovery, he and Lady Phoebe, Westerham’s youngest, rush to tell the authorities. The mysterious body draws family friend and the son of the local Vicar Ben Cresswell back to Farleigh on a top secret mission. Ben grew up rubbing shoulders with the likes of the Westerhams, and although he finds an old flame rekindled, he discovers that maybe he doesn’t know the people in those circles as well as he thought he did.
This book is a great little romp perfect for a bit of weekend escapism. I’m loathe to say it because I’m sure the comparison has been made over and over, but if you enjoy period dramas like Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs, especially against the social equaliser background of the second world war, you’ll most certainly enjoy this. This story is another snapshot that adds to the mosaic of the British war experience and the remnants of the English gentry. Bowen has an easy, fluid style of writing that lets the story speak for itself. Her dialogue is particularly enjoyable, and her foray into M15, codebreaking and double agents is compelling reading. I particularly liked her treatment of women and romance in this story, and felt that she gave a real sense of the desire of young women of the times to gain useful knowledge and skills to do their part. I also liked how she handled the changing social attitudes towards sex and explored the diversity of sexual expression without judgment.
This is Bowen’s first standalone novel and it is a very enjoyable read that is clever enough to be engaging, but simple enough to relax into.
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author. The title had a whimsical fairy tale flavour about it, and I was interested to see what it was about.
“The Old Man and the Princess” by Sean-Paul Thomas is a thriller novella about an old hermit-like Irish man who kidnaps a young teenage girl called Sersha with plans to take her to Scotland. As the prisoner gains the trust of the kidnapper, he begins to tell her a fantastic tale about her destiny. As Sersha starts to wonder whether his story might be true, it becomes clear that they are being chased and the old man might actually be the least of her worries.
This is a quick, riveting tale that blurs the lines between truth and lies, between fable and fast-paced psychological thriller. Sersha is a feisty, filthy-mouthed teen whose street smarts more than make up for her troubled upbringing. The old man is an enigmatic character with unclear motivations and moral alignment. I enjoyed the Irish brogue but I was quite taken aback by the violence in this book.
A speedy read ideal for someone who loves thrillers.