The Gathering Murders by Keith Moray

‘All you needed was a little help, wasn’t it?

Welcome to The Gathering, the annual literary festival held on West Uist, a tiny island in the Scottish Hebrides. It’s a grand event which causes the population of the island to double, thus creating a few headaches for the small local police force. The influx of people means that there’s parking to be managed, and sometimes people over indulge in the drink. But Inspector Torquil McKinnon and his team have made their plans, and hope that all will go smoothly. After all, Torquil himself has his own part to play: he’s a piper, entered in one of the competitions at The Gathering.

Alas, to quote another famous literary Scotsman, Robert Burns: ‘the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley’. And so it proves here. Ranald Buchanan, the local poet is found dead. It’s been suggested that he tripped and fell. While Torquil McKinnon investigates, another body is found. Another writer. Unquestionably murdered. Now it’s personal: the second body belongs to someone to whom Torquil is very close.

The island is in lockdown: no-one can leave while Torquil and his team try to find the killer. Is anyone else at risk?

I really enjoyed this novel, trying to work out who killed whom and why. Mr Moray has introduced a fine cast of characters: there’s more than one suspect. There’s also plenty of interference from Torquil McKinnon’s superior officer as well as a red herring or two.

And the killer? You’ll need to read the novel to find out for yourself. I didn’t work it out until the end: very cleverly done, Mr Moray! An interesting and entertaining cozy murder mystery that held by attention from beginning to end. I understand that this is the first in a series.

Note: My thanks to Sapere Books for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Gallery of the Dead by Chris Carter

‘Darkness, it seemed, had come to Los Angeles in more ways than one.’

Detectives Robert Hunter and Carlos Garcia of the LAPD Ultra Violent Crimes Unit are called to a crime scene. It’s one of the most shocking crime scenes they have ever seen. To try to make sense of what they have seen, Robert Hunter does some online searching, looking for patterns. While his search doesn’t seem to yield any immediate results, the FBI are quick to get in touch. This murder has some of the hallmarks of a suspected serial killer. The FBI and the LAPD UVC join forces to try to track this serial killer down. While they can recognise some of the pattern, they need to make sense of it all if they are to stop this killer.

The killer is sending a message, but how should it be interpreted?

Naturally, there are territorial and interpersonal issues when the staff of two different agencies need to work together. This adds to the tension and complicates the flow of information. But there’s a few more twists in this story before an unsettling ending. No spoilers here!

Warning: this is not a novel for the squeamish.

This is the ninth book in the Detective Robert Hunter series, and as time permits I’ll look for the other eight. Although a few elements of the story didn’t entirely work for me I’m intrigued by the character and want to read more.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Agency by James Phelan

‘Walker had no idea what he was getting into.’

It’s 2005, and after 10 years in the Air Force special ops, Jed Walker has joined the CIA. This is his way of continuing to make a difference, by avoiding a desk job. Walker and the others who’ve passed their training to join the CIA are out having a celebratory drink when Walker is approached to undertake his first mission. Somehow, he thought it would take longer.

Walker is sent on his mission by Harold Richter, a CIA field operations legend. Walker is given an alias, and instructions to meet someone in New Orleans. He has no idea what the mission is.

From the beginning, things don’t work out as expected. But Jed Walker hooks up with Steph Mensch, a British agent who seems to know what is happening, and that it involves a super yacht full of Russians. But what is it that the Russians are trying to buy, and who is selling it to them? And so begins a high stakes, action-paced adventure as Walker and Mensch try to prevent the purchase and to work out just what is happening. Trust me: it’s complicated. The Russians aren’t the only bad guys on the scene and they are certainly not the only ones who would like Jed Walker to fail. Then Steph is kidnapped, and Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans. How can Jed Walker possibly succeed?

‘You couldn’t make this stuff up.’

This is my first Jed Walker novel, but I’ll be reading more. For me this is near perfect escapist fiction: a fast-paced story, heroes who are almost superhuman, villains who are truly evil and an array of complicating factors. And I read it so fast that certain aspects I might otherwise quibble over are forgotten in my race to find out how it ends.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Rubies of the Viper by Martha Marks

‘Who are you? What are you doing here?’

This novel opens on the Ides of May in 53 AD, with the murder of Gaius Terentius Varro in Rome. He was the master of one of Rome’s great fortunes, and his estate is inherited by his nineteen-year-old half-sister, Theodosia Varro. Theodosia moves from Rome to the family ancestral villa, the Villa Varroniana on the coast north of Rome. Here, in the library her father had built some eighteen years earlier, she encounters Alexander, the Greek slave who is the steward.

Theodosia is now a very wealthy woman. A very wealthy unmarried woman. She is aware that while she has inherited the estate, she will need to prove that she can manage it. Theodosia is acutely aware that her brother’s murder has not been solved: is she also at risk?

‘I’ve got to find out who did kill Gaius, if only to protect myself.’

In the first of a planned trilogy, Ms Marks introduces several memorable (fictional) characters as well as involving a number of historical figures. The intrigue of imperial Rome, the class consciousness of the patricians and the role of slaves are all part of the setting. Theodosia learns some things quickly but is naïve and impetuous. These attributes will prove dangerous.

This novel contains aspects of both mystery and romance, as well as plenty of action. While Theodosia is an interesting character, I was torn between admiration and despair by some of her actions. Of the other characters, I found Alexander the most intriguing.

While some aspects of the story worked better for me than others, I kept reading keen to see how this instalment would end. And yes, we do learn who killed Gaius Terentius Varro (which will probably not come as a surprise to most readers) but there are plenty of other twists and turns in the tale including a high stakes competition before Nero towards the end.

Did I enjoy the novel? Mostly. I certainly enjoyed it enough to start reading the sequel. I’m really keen to find out how it will all end.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

This I Would Kill For by Anne Buist

‘He wants to take my kids off me.’

Forensic psychiatrist Dr Natalie King has been hired to do an evaluation. This psychiatric evaluation is required for a custody dispute in a case before the children’s court. While this is not Natalie King’s usual area of work, she’s happy to do what should be a routine consultation now that she’s pregnant.

But there’s nothing routine about this case. Jenna Radford and Malik Essa each see the other as being the problem. Malik says that Jenna is crazy and compulsive. And when Jenna accuses Malik of abusing their eight-year old daughter Chelsea, the magistrate hearing the case asks Natalie to investigate further.

This is a difficult investigation for Natalie. She desperately wants to protect Chelsea. On a personal level, the paternity of Natalie’s child has yet to be established and being pregnant has raised several issues. Natalie did not know her own father and she wants to find out more about him. While being pregnant is an added factor as Natalie as tries to effectively manage her Bipolar Affective Disorder. Personal and professional issues are both causing Natalie stress.

While Natalie is quick to establish that Jenna will lie whenever necessary to suit her purposes, it’s necessary to prove (or disprove) her claims in order to protect Chelsea. In the meantime, someone has abused Chelsea: is it Malik? If it isn’t Malik, who is it?

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse provides part of the backdrop to this novel, and everyone is acutely conscious of this. Jenna’s lies, Malik’s anger and Natalie’s preoccupations will all have a part to play in this complex story. Different psychiatric opinions will also cause Natalie concern.

Natalie King is a complex, likeable, flawed hero who continues to struggle with her own demons. I like Anne Buist’s portrayal of a strong woman with mental illness, trying hard to function effectively in what can be a hostile world. This is the third book in the Natalie King Forensic Psychiatrist series and while I’ve yet to read ‘Medea’s Curse’ (the first novel) I think that this series is best read in order. I’ve picked up quite a bit of Natalie King’s backstory from ‘Dangerous to Know’ (the second book), and the backstory is important in this series.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Before I Let You Go by Kelly Rimmer

‘It’s remarkable how one person’s presence can disrupt every little thing that is ordinarily secure.’

When Lexie and Annie were young, living with their parents, life was good. But after their father died, their mother’s inability to cope meant that Lexie grew up quickly. She took care of Annie, looked after laundry and meals, got them both to school. Lexie and Annie were close.

But twelve months later, their mother remarried. His name was Robert. Life changed again, as Robert tried to control Lexie and Annie as well as their mother. Lexie had a dream, and when she turned sixteen she left home to pursue it. Annie had to stay behind.

Now adults, Lexie and Annie have taken very different paths. Lexie is a physician, engaged to a surgeon. Annie is an addict who will lie and steal to support her habit. Annie had caused Lexie grief in the past, but Lexie feels responsible for her younger sister. Even though they’ve not had contact for some time, Lexie has kept the same ‘phone number so that Annie can call her.

Early one morning, Lexie’s ‘phone rings. It’s Annie. She’s unwell, she’s high, and she’s pregnant. Annie wants Lexie’s help because: ‘If she fails a narcotics test, it’s quite likely that she’ll be charged with chemically endangering a child—and that’s a felony in Alabama.’

As Annie tries to beat her addiction for the sake of her baby, Lexie needs to learn to ask for help as well. Can Annie beat her addiction? Will the baby survive? Lexie finds it hard to share the responsibility she feels for Annie with her fiancé, Sam.

The story alternates between Annie and Lexie. Annie’s diary provides much of her story, while Lexie is in the present focussing on supporting Annie and trying to get the best possible outcome for the baby. It’s complex.

Once I started this novel, I found it difficult to put down. Ms Rimmer’s depiction of Annie’s addiction held my attention, while Lexie’s struggle to try to manage everything earned my sympathy. This is a finely developed story, mostly in shades of grey, as two women struggle to do what they believe is best. Both women need to revisit the past, and this is rarely easy. Sometimes the best solutions are not obvious. Sometimes there are no best solutions.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Hachette Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

‘Choosing to live is an act of defiance, a form of heroism .’

The Nazi regime forced prisoners to work with them in the running of their concentration camps. While other prisoners saw these people as collaborators, the prisoners forced to do this work had no choice. To refuse meant death. Different groups had different duties: the Sonderkommando worked in the gas chambers, transferring bodies to the crematoria, and then disposing of the ashes. Others worked in in the Politische Abteilung (the political department), responsible for camp administration. This department included Jewish women with typing skills who worked as secretaries, keeping records of prisoners and deaths as well as the men responsible for tattooing prisoners with their five digit identification numbers.

Lale Solokov was one of these men.

‘My name is Ludwig Eisenberg, but people call me Lale .’

Lale Eisenberg (as he was known then) was 24 years old in 1942. A Slovakian Jew, Lale surrendered himself believing that this would keep his parents and siblings safe. After being transported to Auschwitz by cattle car, Lale almost died of typhus shortly after his arrival. He was selected to assist the Tatowierer (and then became the Tatowierer), and this saved his life.

Lale met his future wife, Gita Fuhrmannova, on the platform at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her tattoo had faded, and Lale was required to redo it. He fell in love.

In ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’, Heather Morris has written a novel based on her interviews with Lale. Lale and Gita settled in Australia after the war. After Gita’s death in 2003, Lale met Heather Morris and in a series of interviews shared his story.

It’s a harrowing story, and I can’t imagine anyone who read it not being moved by it. Lale and Gita survived when so many others did not. Lale was able to use the comparative safety of working for the Politische Abteilung to barter with two labourers who were building the crematoria: valuables (from the warehouse of confiscated possessions) for food and drugs. By doing this, he was able to ensure the survival of others (including Gita).

‘He too has chosen to stay alive for as long as he can, by performing an act of defilement on people of his own faith .’

It is heartbreaking to read this book, to be conscious of the choices required of Lale and others in order to survive. I cannot distinguish the balance between fact and fiction in this novel, but then I don’t need to in order to recognise the horror of these events. Love blooms in unexpected places and Lale’s strength of character shines through. Ms Morris originally intended Lale’s story as a screenplay. For me, personally, it is easier to read than to watch. While reading I can maintain a little emotional distance from events, I can be an observer rather than a participant.

This is a story worth reading: Lale Solokov was an extraordinary man.

‘There was no parting of memory and history for this beautiful old man — they waltzed perfectly in step.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge by Kali Napier

‘People were different in different places.’

In 1932, Australia is in the grip of the Great Depression. Ernie and Lily Hass and their daughter Girlie have lost almost everything. They pack their remaining belongings onto a cart behind their horse Brownie and abandon their failing wheat farm in Perenjori for the West Australian coast at Dongarra. Ernie has a plan for a new start: a summer guest house by the coast. The Hasses quickly find that it isn’t easy to make a new start: Ernie’s plans upset some of the locals, while Lily cannot easily make friends with the ‘better class’ of women. And Girlie finds it hard to make friends in a place where every child has known every other child in the district from birth.

But it isn’t just the Hasses desire to fit into the local community which causes grief: each member of the family has secrets. Just as the Hasses seem to be making some headway, Lily’s shell-shocked brother Tommy appears. Ernie wants Tommy to move on, but Lily feels a sense of responsibility towards him even though his presence threatens to expose some carefully kept secrets.

‘Secrets weren’t fun to collect when they would hurt others.’

I found a lot to like about this finely crafted novel. The story unfolds through the different perspectives of the four main characters: Lily, Girlie, Tommy and Ernie. This enables the reader to see some of the same events from very different viewpoints which adds to the depth of the story as well as showing how easy it can be to misrepresent (and misinterpret). The detail of life in the Great Depression echoed the experiences my grandparents shared of the same period. In a small town everyone knows your business, and people are judged by the company they keep or where they are perceived to fit in. And the Hass family are not the only people carrying secrets.

‘There were too many secrets.’

Gradually, as Ms Napier reveals (some of) those secrets, the nature of 1930s small town society becomes even clearer: elements of generosity and kindness together with snobbery, racism and hypocrisy. All reinforced by the (largely unspoken but clearly understood) rules of ‘proper’ behaviour. Some of the secrets may seem comparatively trivial in the 21st century, but they were not during the first half of the 20th century. Ms Napier allows the tension to build as the reader tries to work out what truths are being concealed, from whom and why.

This is Ms Napier’s debut novel, and I highly recommend it as a fine example of Australian historical fiction.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Perfect Girlfriend by Karen Hamilton

‘I really, really hate being ignored.’

Juliette is obsessed by Nate. She’s trained as a flight attendant, just so she can work on the same airline. Juliette knows that she and Nate are meant to be together for ever. And the fact that Nate broke off their relationship six months ago just means that Juliette has to work that little bit harder to show him how much happier he will be with her. After all, Juliette knows that she is perfect for Nate, and she has a plan to get him back. Whatever it takes.

‘You can’t change a mistake. Ever.’

We accompany Juliette on her obsessive journey, and as her perspective is the only one we get, it became quite claustrophobic for me. I wanted to shake Juliette, tell her to move on, to stop ruining her life (and others). I disliked Juliette, I couldn’t believe that she was getting away with so much. Then, as we learn more about Juliette’s past, aspects of her motivation, the reasoning behind her behaviour became clearer.

‘And with knowledge comes power.’

This is one of those books that is easy (and quick) to read but hard to leave behind. It’s funny in places, sad in others and there’s plenty of tension as Juliette puts her plan into action.

I finished this novel with my own obsession: thinking about what Juliette might do next, wondering where her obsession might end. I felt trapped in Juliette’s perspective. While I could recognise why (and how) she developed her obsession, I wanted her to let it go. For me, Juliette is utterly unlikeable and yet I still felt some sympathy. It’s a rollercoaster ride with more than a few twists and turns.

This is Ms Hamilton’s debut novel, and I certainly hope that she writes more.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Hachette Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith