Widow’s Island by L.A. Larkin

A new beginning …

After Patrick Miller died, his wife Stephanie and teenaged daughter Amy were devastated. Everywhere they turned, memories of Patrick overwhelmed them. Stephanie, a climate scientist, found a new position and she and Amy moved to remote Whisper Island, Washington State. Stephanie had a friend on the island: her best friend Jen lived there with her husband Mark and baby Zach. Amy was not happy about the move, but Stephanie hoped things would settle and that Amy would make friends at her new school.

But things start to go wrong. Stephanie’s work as a climate-change scientist attracts social media attention. Stephanie becomes the target of an active trolling attack: her work is attacked as is her personal life and then Amy is bullied at school. Stephanie’s house and car are vandalised. Who is behind these attacks, and why? There are only two policemen on Whisper Island, and their limited assistance is further constrained after a murder on the island.

The murder has certain characteristics of a particular serial killer, and the FBI become involved.

There is a lot happening in this novel. Sustained social media attacks by a troll farm on both Stephanie and Amy leading to pressure on Stephanie to withdraw from a Senate Committee hearing. But that does not bring an end to the attacks. The sustained trolling brings out the worst in some and now Stephanie has drawn a killer’s attention.

I could not put the novel down as it built towards its gripping climax.

If you like sustained suspense in a story with multiple twists, then I can recommend this.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Toxic by Lindy Cameron and Fin J Ross

‘Because no-one stopped him.’

Most people murdered in Australia are killed by someone they know: a partner, a child, a friend. Many of the murderers claim to love those they have killed. Why, then, do they kill?

In their introduction, Ms Cameron and Ms Ross identify toxic personality traits which, broadly speaking, are about control and entitlement. There’s discussion of toxic masculinity (most murders are committed by men) but recognition that women (with toxic personality traits) also kill.

Over thirteen chapters, a series of murders are discussed. Each of these murders, except one, was committed by a family member. The exception was ‘a murder among friends’.

I confess. I am a true crime aficionado, so I recognised quite a few of the cases. Even so, I shuddered as I read about the cold-blooded killing of partners and children, and the steps taken (in some cases) to hide the crime. In other cases, the murder was public.

The female murderers in this book wanted something: usually money or freedom. Some of the male murderers killed because of a toxic sense of entitlement: that someone who had chosen to leave them did not deserve to live, or that they would ‘get back at them’ by killing a child (or children). And sometimes we can only speculate about ‘why’ because the murderer maintains that they are innocent.

Toxic masculinity is certainly an important factor in many family murders: physical strength and a sense of entitlement can be dangerous weapons. Especially when family violence is ignored or hidden, and then escalates.

Two things will stay with me from reading this book. Firstly, the inspiration provided to many by Arman Abrahimzadeh:

‘So traumatised by his mother’s brutal murder and a lifetime of family abuse from his father, Arman, now 33, has made it his life’s work to fight against domestic violence.’

And the second? The tragedy of four-year-old Darcey Freeman being thrown from the West Gate Bridge by her father. I have no words.

I finished this book with more questions than answers.

‘Regardless of the motive or the identity of the victim or offender, or whether the crime is ultimately deemed murder or manslaughter, there is always one word for it: homicide.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Night Blue by Angela O’Keeffe

‘I was not yet colour, and time was not settled in me.’

Imagine. Imagine the voice of a painting and listen to what it has to say. In this imaginative, short debut novel, Ms O’Keeffe gives voice to ‘Blue Poles’: the painting so controversially bought by Gough Whitlam in 1973 before the National Gallery of Australia, in which it is housed, was built. I remember the purchase and at the time I wondered about it. Now, when I visit the National Gallery of Australia, I am intrigued by it.

‘The name is not important. It is the feeling that a thing engenders, not its name.’

How does Ms O’Keeffe bring the painting to life? There are three parts to this novel. Parts One and Three are the voice of the painting, Part Two is the voice of Alyssa, an assistant restorer, who is undertaking a PhD on Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler (the women in Jackson Pollock’s life). The voice of the painting takes us back through its creation, through settings and process and back to Jackson Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner, and then its travels. Alyssa’s voice gives an Australian perspective of the purchase itself and the painting’s journey as well as a look at the life and times of Jackson Pollock.

An inner (logical) voice tells me that it should not work, but it does. Ms O’Keeffe goes behind what is known and imagines life where many of us see a static object. It made me think both about the significance of Blue Poles, and the story it (or any other painting) could tell if we could hear its voice.

This is a clever and engaging novel. I enjoyed it, and I am still thinking about the voices (for surely there is more than one) within and behind this (and other) paintings.

‘The story is a moth; its destiny is light.’

Another novel recommended by Lisa over at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog:

Night Blue, by Angela O’Keeffe | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

Thank you, Lisa!

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Tulip Tree by Suzanne McCourt

‘Perhaps we only ever have one true chance at anything and the rest, if offered, is always second best.’

Henryk and Adam (Adi) Radecki are brothers. Their relationship is complex and competitive and is set against the tumultuous background of Poland’s relationship with Russia and the impact of World War II. Their story unfolds over thirty years: starting in the 1920s and ending in Australia’s Snowy Mountains in 1954.

Henryk, unhappily married, becomes a rich and successful industrialist. Adi, a devoted veterinarian, marries, is widowed, and then remarries. His second wife, Elzbieta, reminds many of his first wife Kasia. Elzbieta (Ela) and her son, Stefan, are at the centre of this story full of tragedy and family secrets. Each of the main characters will have cause to reflect on choices made and their consequences. Adi, shaped by time spent in Kazakhstan and the death of Kasia, can be difficult. Henryk is competitive, and this has far-reaching consequences.

We follow the characters through heartbreak, loss and tragedy, experiencing both aspects of World War II and the communist rule of Poland with them. It is an emotional ride, full of frailty and triumph. I was drawn into the novel by Adi, held there by Kasia and Ela, and reminded of Poland’s turbulent history. Ms McCourt imbues her characters with life, rendering them human against a backdrop of change and suffering.

I enjoyed this novel and am still thinking about some of the characters and their choices.

‘He closed his eyes and saw his tulip tree in that Tajik village all those years ago, its gaunt reaching arms.’

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Failures of Command: The death of Private Robert Poate by Hugh Poate

‘It was 9.45 pm on 29 August 2012 at Patrol Base Wahab in the Dorafshan region of Afghanistan.’

On 29 August 2012, Private Robert Poate, Lance Corporal Rick Milosevic, and Sapper James Martin were killed during an insider (‘green on blue’) attack in Afghanistan. Their killer, a supposed ally, was a Taliban sleeper within the ranks of the Afghan National Army. An internal investigation report was provided to each of the three grieving families. Not only was the report heavily redacted, but it also excluded critical information. Hugh Poate, grieving the loss of his son Robbie, set out to find the facts. His journey took over five years, and this book is the result.

‘Just as the present has been shaped by the past, the future will be shaped by the present.’

What can I say about this book, about Hugh Poate’s quest for answers, about the labyrinth of obfuscation he and the other families had to negotiate to try to find answers? This is not just an account of the tragic loss of life during war, it is an account of how failures of command contributed to these three deaths.

Robbie Poate was 23 years old when he was killed. Hugh Poate describes the tragedy, the processes that followed and then Robbie’s funeral here in Canberra. Heartbreaking.

‘The funeral was a beautiful and fitting military send-off for Robbie, a son, brother, soldier and everybody’s friend. He died as a soldier and was buried as a soldier. He was just 23 years old.’

I kept reading. By the time of these three deaths, Australia had been engaged in war within Afghanistan for 12 years. On 13 August 2012, a ‘FRAGO’ (fragmentary order) was issued. A FRAGO, as Hugh Poate explains, is what the military uses to issue timely changes of existing orders to subordinate and supporting commanders, while also providing notification to higher and adjacent commands. Its essential purpose is to inform units that one or more elements of the relevant base order have changed.

‘FRAGO 13 was issued specifically to mandate additional measures to be introduced immediately across all ISAF forces in Afghanistan to upgrade force protection measures to mitigate insider attacks, which were escalating at that time.’

FRAGO 13 was issued 16 days before the attack in which Robbie Poate, Rick Milosevic and James Martin were killed. Why wasn’t this order acted on? And why weren’t the ANA soldiers being monitored more closely?

I kept reading, shifting between anger and despair as I read about how the three families were treated, especially at the coroner’s hearing, and after. I finished the book filled with sadness for the mismanagement that rendered our soldiers so vulnerable and for the bureaucratic processes, the bungling and coverups which have characterised much of the ADF’s dealings with the families since.

‘The non-commissioned soldiers who are most likely to face enemy action, and the general public, are entitled to expect commissioned officers to be highly competent.’

Indeed.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

We Were Not Men by Campbell Mattinson

Imagine the heartbreak, the pain, the dislocation. Nine-year-old twins, Jon and Eden Hardacre are orphaned in a terrible car accident in which they are both injured. Jon tells us their story as they grow up with their step-grandma Bobbie, who is still grieving her own loss – the death of their grandfather. The boys compete with each other at swimming, fall in love with the same girl, and negotiate the shoals of life. The newly configured family moves between Bobbie’s farm at Flowerdale and the boy’s suburban home in Newport, Victoria. It is a challenging read, especially at the beginning because we are confined to Jon’s unfiltered nine-year-old view of what happens. Jon’s view gradually expands, and he (and we) appreciate that life is more complex, that relationships are not always straightforward.

I was drawn into this story, imagining a nine-year-old view of such a tragedy, and admiring the resilience of Jon, Eden, and Bobbie as they found a way ahead, through various challenges. If we live, we learn. Nothing stays the same. Life goes on.

Mr Mattinson brings his characters to life, especially Jon and Bobbie, and this is a story that will stay with me for a long time.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Husband Poisoner by Tanya Bretherton

‘Her recipe for murder was simple.’ … ‘Your Bonox, dear.’

In this book, Ms Bretherton writes about several different women, who used rat poison to end the lives of husbands and other inconvenient family members. They used thallium (a colourless, odourless, tasteless poison used to kill rats) in drinks such as Bonox.

Ms Bretherton writes of the social changes after World War II, how some of the freedom women experienced during the war came to an end when employment opportunities changed as men returned to try to take up their pre-war lives. Yvonne Fletcher killed two husbands, Caroline Grills killed her stepmother, a family friend, her brother, and his wife. Each of these deaths was initially attributed to natural causes, despite the suffering endured by many of the victims.

Nearly every household in Sydney (and elsewhere) would have had some type of rat poison on hand, and I wondered just how many ‘natural deaths’ were really the result of poisoning. In this book, Ms Bretherton writes about the cases of Yvonne Fletcher and Caroline Grills, and mentions other cases but I wonder how many more escaped detection?

Between March 1952 and April 1953, ten deaths and forty-six hospital admissions were attributed to thallium. Fortunately, the Poisons Act was amended in 1953, regulating the sale of thallium.

Using thallium may have been comparatively easy for the murderer, but it inflicted agony on their victims. The details are harrowing and heartbreaking. They include severe pain and blindness. One poor victim was accused of malingering, was determined to be insane and committed to the Callan Park Hospital for the Insane.

Ms Bretherton includes various recipes of the period in this book: the perfect vehicle for delivering the poison and a reminder that poisoning is usually a domestic crime. Shudder.

If you are interested in true crime, then you may find this book interesting. And unsettling.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Still by Matt Nable

‘They killed him because he saw.’

Darwin, Summer, 1963. It is hot and humid when Senior Constable Ned Potter finds a body dragged from shallow marshland. From the state of the man’s body, Ned is certain that he has met a violent death. But Ned meets resistance in trying to find answers. And this body is only the first of several.

This is a story of corruption and violence, of abuse, oppression and racism. Isolation and location have roles, as do alcohol and the weather. Like almost every male in the story, Ned Potter drinks too much. This strains his relationship with his wife Bonnie and helps undermine his credibility with his superiors. The other central character is Charlotte Clarke. Charlotte is a young married woman, bored with her role as a housewife and unhappy in her marriage. She wants more from life. A chance encounter with an injured man changes Charlotte’s life.

The body count increases. People claim not to have seen anything; Ned is strongly encouraged to back off. Who can he trust? It seems as though everyone in a position of authority is corrupt.  Ned persists despite threats. He is sure that the deaths are linked.

There is plenty of tension in this story. Ned risks everything to find the truth while Charlotte is also treading a dangerous path. Why have these three people been murdered? What are the links between them, and why is Ned’s boss so eager to look the other way? Corruption and coverup: there are some in Darwin who will go to any lengths to protect themselves.

A highly recommended mystery thriller.

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

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The Breaking by Irma Gold

‘I guess we’re all running, in a way…’

Hannah Bird lost her job as a receptionist and fled to Thailand. She figures that her money will last longer there. In the lobby of the hostel where she is staying, she meets Deven, another Australian, working as a teacher. Deven has a passion for saving elephants and convinces Hannah to join her on an official project to save enslaved elephants. Deven and Hannah work as part of a team feeding and cleaning up after the rescued elephants. It is hot, hard work in the tropical humidity. Privileged westerners, well-intentioned but with a limited understanding of the world they have chosen to visit, imposing their values on others. The official project does not go far enough for them and Deven and Hannah, full of youthful idealism, embark on their own unofficial rescue mission with disastrous consequences.

Two idealistic young women, trying to find their own place in a world full of inequality, establishing their own relationship. Two young women, trying to do what they think is ‘right’ without being fully aware of the possible consequences of their actions.

I am still thinking about some of the issues Ms Gold raises in this novel: the role of elephants in Thailand, their use (and exploitation), and the role of tourists who often want to see the elephants perform. Tourism is important to the local economy, as is the other work that elephants are involved in. Tourists may decry the exploitation of elephants, but they are often reinforcing it.

I finished this novel, wondering what the future might hold for Thai elephants and how customary practice and economic factors impact on their lives. I finished the novel wondering, as well, about the hypocrisy of westerners who take their own use of resources (including animals) for granted but would impose a different standard on others. Sigh. And I wondered where Hannah and Deven might be in ten years’ time, and what their views would be then.

A thought-provoking debut novel. Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Adelaide by Kerryn Goldsworthy

‘The story of Adelaide is ornamented with ambiguities and ironies small and large …’

I have never lived in Adelaide and while I have not been there for over twenty years, I felt right at home when I visited. Why? The centre of Adelaide, where I have spent nearly all my time, reminded me of Launceston where I spent most of my childhood. It is the buildings, and the parks. And, while I know a little of Adelaide’s history, I do not really have any sense of the city beyond the public spaces. This book took me into Adelaide: I learned about frog cakes and was reminded of Don Dunstan’s pink shorts.  I learned about the rotunda, and the chapter entitles ‘The Bucket of Peaches’ took me back to family orchards in Tasmania, and the fruit trees that adorned the backyards of my childhood. The similarities engaged me; the differences expanded my knowledge.

I kept reading. I remember some of the events referred to and learned more about the context in which they occurred. I kept reading and resolved to visit Adelaide again to explore the city and its surroundings properly.

Ms Goldsworthy has written a unique guide to Adelaide: a view of the city through an eclectic selection of objects. As I write this, I can hear Paul Kelly singing ‘Adelaide’.

‘You have to go away and have adventures in order to come home enriched; quite apart from anything else, what knows she of Adelaide who only Adelaide knows?’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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