What Came Before by Anna George

‘My name is David James Forrester. I’m a solicitor. Tonight, at 6.10, I killed my wife. This is my statement.’

What Came Before Anna GeorgeThis is the dramatic opening of What Came Before, the brilliant psychological thriller debut by Melbourne writer Anna George. The rest of the novel reveals how the murder came to happen.

We see Forrester’s wife, Elle, before her death. She’s working in the film industry, having left a career in law. With one successful film behind her, she is busy directing another. This latest is about “limerance”, the early stages of romantic love.

Elle encounters Forrester, a high-powered lawyer she remembers from her legal days. She is immediately attracted. By what? His looks, the interest in art they share. Certainly not his sociability, as he proves indifferent to her friends. As they begin their relationship, she experiences an almost delusional infatuation – the “limerance” of her film’s title – which leads her to ignore warning signs that the relationship isn’t healthy.

Unknown to Elle, Forrester’s marriage has disintegrated, leaving him angry at his ex and missing his young step-daughter. He’s also a frustrated artist, a control freak and a very unhappy man.

Throughout the narrative, point of view switches from Forrester, as he dictates his “witness statement” and consults a retired QC for legal counsel, to Elle, as she lies in death – or the imagined transition that follows death. This dual narration, swapping tenses between past and present, makes for compelling reading as we are led inexorably to the inciting incident, Elle’s death.

One question often asked about women in abusive relationships is, “Why did they stay?” What Came Before answers this question. “Limerance” makes us idolise our partners, letting us see only what we want to see; tells us to forgive their failings, to look only at their good qualities; blinds us to the escalating “cycle of violence”. The longer we stay, the more we believe they are essentially “good”, that their character defects are a result of damage done in childhood, that we are connected to them in some essential way, the more dangerous the relationship becomes.

Anna George has drawn on her own experience* of “emotional abuse” to create the relationship between Forrester and Elle, and her experience shows. For me, though not for all reviewers, she manages to make Elle sympathetic, despite her irrational choices. George also conveys what it’s like to be the man who resorts to violence, his self-justifications, his belief that he was provoked. If I had one criticism of the characterisation of What Came Before, it’s of the moment when Forrester makes a transition from “emotional abuser” to “physical abuser”. For me, the transition appeared too abrupt. Thinking about his behaviour in terms of “narcissistic rage”, however, I can make more sense of it. Far from being egoistic, Narcissists lack the internal resilience that would allow a healthier psyche to take criticism, perceived rejection or opposition. In this light, George gets the psychology for Forrester right; the result is believable and frightening.

The publishers have described this novel as “literary”, and in the vein of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. What Came Before is clever, like Flynn’s novel, but the cleverness isn’t at the expense of its emotional truth. The characters come across as real, their motivations consistent, their delusions understandable. Does this make it “literary”? It’s a well-written psychological thriller which deserves to become a best-seller.

Anna George has been added to my already impressive list of “must read” Australian female crime and suspense authors. I can’t wait for her next book.

* Anna George mentioned this in an interview with Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling blog, here.

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This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly supplied to me by the publishers via Netgalley. What Came Before has already been reviewed for the AWW challenge by:

Author: Anna George
Title: What Came Before
Published:25/06/2014
ISBN-13:9780670077731
ISBN-10:0670077739
Publisher:Penguin Aus
Imprint:Viking

Introducing Lizzy Chandler – a new name, a new blog and a new story

When I was about seven I defaced the inside back cover of a picture book by writing my first story. I don’t remember much about it, except that it featured the Nativity. Instead of getting me into trouble, my act of vandalism gave me unexpected celebrity with my (usually distant) father. He said it should be printed out and sent in to the Catholic Weekly. Receiving that praise was the start of my lifelong ambition to be published in fiction.

Last year a good writer friend, Cathleen Ross, did a spontaneous psychic reading for me. She said my “guides” had just one message: I needed a good kick up the backside as I should have been submitting my work to publishers. As I’d once had a reading by an Indian psychic in Agra near the Taj Mahal, I was dubious. That psychic hadn’t picked me as a writer. Nevertheless, I listened to Cathleen. She suggested I approach Kate Cuthbert of Escape Publishing (the Australian digital arm of Harlequin) with one of my romance novels, a story that had been a finalist in the Clendon Award some years ago. After seeing the first three chapters, Kate requested the whole manuscript. A couple of weeks ago, she sent me an offer of publication.

This is it. My lifetime ambition is about to be realised, after years of rejections and near misses, and all the self-doubt and frustrations any aspiring author will know only too well.

While I’ve shared this news already to family, close friends and the Australian Women Writers team, I wanted to organise a few things before I went public with my news. The first thing I needed to do was to settle on a pen-name. (Anyone who has pronounced my surname, Lhuede, as “lewd” will understand why this isn’t a great name for romance.)

So I’ll be publishing under the name Lizzy Chandler.

Chandler is a family name that I’ve been able to trace back to the late eighteenth-century in Gloucestershire, UK. My great-, great-, great-, great-, great-grandmother was Sarah Chandler, on my mother’s side. Elizabeth is also a family name that goes back many generations, and my darling grandmother was always known as Lizzy, so I love my new name (and it’s much easier to spell).

If you’re a friend, family or writing acquaintance, if you participate in the Australian Women Writers challenge, and if you love a good story with romance and suspense, I hope you’ll like my Lizzy Chandler Facebook page, find me on Twitter @Lizzy_Chandler, and follow my new Lizzy Chandler blog. I’ll keep you posted when my book is out. It’ll  be available in digital format (ebook) all around the world.

In the meantime, I want to share this photo of the countryside that inspired my story, Her Man From Snowy River Country. It’s a cabin where we stay from time to time. I’ll keep the incredible tale of what happened when I was down there researching this story for another time.

Special thanks to my family and friends, the team and participants of the Australian Women Writers Challenge, and Kate at Escape Publishing. I’m thrilled that I’ll be a published author after all this time.

Photo by Rodney Weidland (used with permission)

Photo by Rodney Weidland (used with permission)

Satire or sensationalism? Caroline Overington’s No Place Like Home

No Place Like Home Cover ImageEver get the feeling that the book you’ve just finished reading and the one by the same title being lauded in reviews isn’t the same book?

That’s how I felt after finishing Caroline Overington’s latest, No Place Like Home.

Overington’s previous book, Sisters of Mercy (reviewed here), had me fuming, so I wasn’t surprised to find No Place Like Home equally provocative. What did surprise me, though, was how different from mine were other reviewers’ reactions to the novel. Where I’d felt angry, by contrast, the ending left more than one other reviewer feeling sad. Whereas I found the narrator shallow and deeply problematic ethically, another thought him “likeable and moderate in his thinking”. Where I saw the majority of the characters as caricatures, others found these figures believable. Where one reviewer regarded the novel to have been written with compassion, I saw, through the eyes of a deeply flawed narrator, a disgust and contempt for the flaws of other human beings.

Were we reading the same book?

No Place Like Home was published this month by Bantam Australia, an imprint of Random House. In her 30 second pitch for The Book Circle, Overington describes the book as “unashamedly a thriller”. Its premise is simple:

A young man walks into a shopping centre. He’s wearing a hoodie zipped up to his neck. He starts to run, security guards start to chase him, and he gets into a shop, where he’s locked in. The idea for the reader is: Who is he? How will he get out? And will the people stuck in the shop with him also get out alive?

The narrator is a former police chaplain who recounts the events of that day. No reason is given as to why this ex-priest elects to tell all – and to betray, as he does, the confidences of people whom he was paid to counsel after their ordeal. Seemingly to satisfy his own curiosity and exploit the sensationalism surrounding the day’s events, he exposes to public gaze the private foibles and flaws of those involved, their hypocrisies, narcissism and, at times, downright stupidity.

The young man at the centre of the “hostage crisis”, Ali Khan/Nudie, is an Australian citizen. As an immigrant and one-time refugee from Tanzania, he has been let down by his community, his rescuer, the Department of Immigration, his landlady, African community outreach workers, and now police hostage negotiators and bystanders. Few are exempt from the priest’s scathing criticism. There’s Marj, who took in Nudie only to reject him, an urban Greens-voting do-gooder; she was disappointed that “her refugee” wasn’t tall and black, someone “that she could parade around, showing how tolerant she was”, but instead was grey in skin colour, possibly Albino, an outcast from his own community. The priest opines:

I got the feeling that Marj got involved because she’s always got to be involved in something, and if it’s on the Left, it’s for her.”

There’s the bystander/victim held “hostage” by Nudie, the real estate agent from Melbourne, with his shallow, spendthrift wife, and attention-grabbing stripper girlfriend. There’s the African community worker who ran from Nudie, screaming about “evil”, instead of helping him. There’s the priest-narrator himself, lacking in self-awareness (“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. I tend not to give mine”), standing in judgement over others while ignorantly referring to refugee boat arrivals as “illegal” and “queue-jumping”.

When I asked via Twitter who else was reading No Place Like Home, one tweep answered, “I would rather eat my hands than read another of her novels. Overblown, sensationalist tripe.”

That got me thinking.

I like reading Overington’s books, even while I suspect her politics and mine are vastly different. I like that her work provokes and outrages me, that she brings up issues of morality, ethics and social justice in her writing, and that she takes vicious stabs at “political correctness”. I don’t find her writing realistic, heartwarming or even insightful, but does it have to be? Perhaps there’s a different way of reading it.

Is No Place Like Home satire? Is that how it should be read?

As an undergraduate, I read Candide, the poems of Alexander Pope, Gulliver’s Travels, Huckleberry Finn, The Trial and 1984; more recently, I was provoked by Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (reviewed here); all of these could be described as satire. It’s not my preferred genre and I can’t say I really have a handle on it, but I think Overington’s work might fit this category. Wikipedia says of the Roman poet Juvenal, one of the first proponents of satire: “In a tone and manner ranging from irony to apparent rage, Juvenal criticizes the actions and beliefs of many of his contemporaries, providing insight more into value systems and questions of morality and less into the realities of Roman life.” (source) Australian satirist David Foster has been described by Susan Lever in the following terms:

[H]is writing sets itself deliberately against the favourite beliefs of the educated readers who are most likely to read it. His work is opinionated, misanthropic… Foster is a novelist of ideas rather than character; readers cannot slip into sympathetic identification with his characters because they exist to express ideas rather than individual psychologies. (source)

It’s my view that Overington’s work can also be read in these terms and, as satire – a genre traditionally associated with male writers and deemed “unladylike” – it’s worth reading.

In British Women Writing Satirical Novels in the Romantic Period, Lisa M Wilson notes:

[R]eviewers of the period seem to have been as likely to praise or to condemn a satirical novel based on their opinion of the author’s politics as of the author’s gender.

I’d prefer not to do that.

No Place Like Home is compelling reading. The reader wants to know what happens next, and along the way Overington ranges over several of the most important questions facing Australia today. What kind of country do we want to be? What kind of generation do we want to be remembered as? A generation which has allowed dog-whistle politics to whip up feelings of invasion and xenophobia, instead of tolerance and compassion? People who fail to act to restrain greenhouse gas emissions, only to have our government’s policy of “stop the boats” overwhelmed by a tidal flood of global human migration when sea levels begin to flood low-lying countries? It’s exciting to see such issues being addressed in popular fiction.

One of the bonuses of reading and reviewing for the Australian Women Writers Challenge* has been discovering the diversity of political opinions among our talented contemporary women writers. I’m grateful for authors who can tackle big questions from all sides of politics – even if I don’t like the values they or their characters appear to espouse. Anger, the dominant emotion I see being conveyed and evoked by Overington’s writing, can be a powerful tool for change. Harnessed in a compelling narrative in simple-to-read language, it may reach a wide audience of people who don’t normally read. (“Not everyone knows what an inquest is,” says Overington’s priest-narrator, before going on to explain.) My hope is that this book will inspire its readers to think about the values they hold and why, not simply reinforce their prejudices. My fear is that some readers may not be able to distinguish between Overington and her ignorant narrator. Rather than criticise Overington’s work for its simplifications and the shallowness of its characters, however, I’d prefer to see it in terms of its strengths. No Place Like Home is thought-provoking and challenging, and a page-turning read.

* If you’re interested in finding out more about the Australian Women Writers Challenge, please read this recent article published by if:book Australia.

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This review counts towards my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge (AWW) and the Aussie Author Challenge

Author: Caroline Overington
Title: No Place Like Home
ISBN: 9781742758015
Published: 01/10/2013
Imprint: Bantam Australia
Review copy (ebook) kindly supplied by Random House Australia via Netgalley.

Lucy Clark’s A Baby for the Flying Doctor: Boundary-breaking Australian medical romance

A Baby for the Flying Doctor (Medical Romance)I have to say straight up: I’m not the target audience for this book. I borrowed it from a friend to read for the 2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge,* thinking it would be a quick read and might help me reach my target of 50 books by the end of the year. Life got in the way, and I only ended up finishing it after New Year.

It’s not the first Harlequin Mills & Boon (HM&B) Australian medical romance I’ve read. Years ago, I enjoyed reading some books by Marion Lennox set in Tasmania. While this book isn’t up to Lennox’s standard, it does have an interesting aspect to recommend it for readers of the genre and those interested in boundary-breaking romance novels. (Note: the following contains spoilers.)

The story – like all good HM&Bs – centres around the hero and heroine, two doctors who specialise in Emergency Medicine. They meet on a transcontinental train on the way to a conference where one, the English hero, Gil, will be the keynote speaker. The heroine, Euphemia, is a doctor with the Royal Flying Doctor Service who has escaped to live life in the Outback after devoting her childhood and young adulthood to helping care for a brother with Down’s Syndrome. As a teenager, Euphemia – or Phemie, as she’s known – had genetic testing and discovered herself to be a carrier of the “translocation trisomy 21 chromosome… [the] defective chromosome usually related to children being born with Down’s” (p 61).

What makes this story stand out from other HM&B romances I’ve read is the conflict which threatens to prevent Gil and Phemie getting together happily. It’s not just the fact he is a career doctor from the other side of the world, although that is an issue. More importantly, it’s that Phemie doesn’t want to risk having children. She fears subjecting a child to the kind of life she led: growing up in the shadow of a sibling with Down’s. Having a heroine who doesn’t want to fall pregnant is a risk for Clark, because, without careful handling, Phemie could seem unsympathetic. By making Phemie protective of her unborn (healthy) child, Clark attempts to retain the romance reader’s sympathy for her, despite the fact that there’s something narcissistic – although very human and understandable – in this kind of fear. But Clark also goes one step further (and earns my admiration): she has Phemie admit, much and all as she loves her brother, she’s not sure she’s up to the sacrifices required of a parent of someone with Down’s.

Clark manages to resolve Phemie’s conflict in a believable (and yes, happy) way. How? By hedging her bets: arranging for an adoption and having Phemie fall pregnant – with the hinted possibility of genetic testing in utero. Phemie and Gil will become parents, possibly of a biologically healthy child – or possibly only of an adopted child. It’s a happy ending, yes, but one that touches on what years ago was a taboo subject for HM&B novels: the possibility of termination.

Despite this interesting issue, this book didn’t grab me. Why? The written expression lets it down. Cliches abound. Some of the cliches are foregrounded in a way that suggests this author knows better. For example, Phemie thinks of Australia as a “wide brown land” not once, but twice. It nearly had me dropping the book. The second time, however, she pulls herself up with a thought (paraphrasing), “Not brown exactly, more like ochre.” Okay, so real people do think of the landscape in the generic terms of a Dorothea Mackeller poem, but I demand more from my fictional characters if I’m to spend time with them. The world Marion Lennox created with one of her stories, set in a coastal village in Tasmania and somehow involving penguins, is still vivid in my imagination, many years later. Good romance writing is out there. Clark’s flacid language, I’d assume, is symptomatic of the time HM&B authors are given to write their books: some are asked to write three or four a year. Not enough time to craft and hone the language but, even so, some of Clark’s clangers are unforgivable; and they do nothing to elevate the genre’s reputation of being the domain of hack writers.

Who will enjoy A Baby For the Flying Doctor? HM&B regular readers and students of romance interested in topics that push the genre’s boundaries.

This review counts towards my Australian Women Writers 2013 challenge.

* “Lucy Clark” is the pen-name for a husband and wife team.

Blog blunders or the perils of hosting two blogs

http://auswomenwriters.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/my-hundred-lovers2.jpg?w=600Today on the Australian Women Writers I published a wonderful review by poet Debra Zott of Susan Johnson’s My Hundred Lovers.  Deb was keen to know when the post would be up and I told her 10 o’clock.

10am came and went. Nothing. Deb emailed, wondering where the post was. I jumped onto WordPress – and tinkered with the schedule, adding 10 minutes.

Still no post on the AWW site. Hmm.

Then I discovered my time settings have been out by an hour. That was easy enough to fix. But why had the schedule ‘reverted’ to the earlier set time?

Deb emailed again – what was with the blank post with her review in the title that I’d linked to my Facebook page? Blank post??

That’s when I realised the schedule I’d tinkered with was of a back up of her review which I’d put on my personal blog – a post I’d since wiped, forgetting about the title. (You’d think I’d have noticed a blank page when I fiddled with the schedule, but I do have a one-track mind.) The tinkered-with schedule had broadcast the blank post automatically via Facebook and Twitter, as well as to this blog’s followers.

Whoops! Almost as bad as when I wrote “bog” in a title, instead of “blog”. Very professional.

So sorry about sending out the blank post. Now you’re here, why don’t you jump across to the AWW blog and read Deb’s review. But before you go, do you have any blog blunders you’d like to share?

Australian Women Writers Challenge makes the HuffPo

What a day to be out of town!

Some time ago on Twitter, I saw that @HuffPostBooks was trying to get more followers to reach 55,555. I tweeted a reply from my @auswomenwriters account saying I’d follow – if they’d consider posting more pieces on books by Australian women.

The next thing I knew, I had a Twitter invitation from the HuffPo Books blog editor to write something for their blog about Australian women writers. I immediately deflected attention to both Sophie Cunningham and Kirsten Tranter, saying either of them might be interested. When neither of those authors responded to the tweet, I took a deep breath. Maybe I could write something?

After consulting the AWW team of book bloggers and exchanging emails with the editor over the angle I should take, I chose the obvious one: the news that the inaugural Stella Prize would be awarded next April. I decided to link the news with a survey of books published this year which have been reviewed for the AWW challenge, since these books – in theory – should be eligible for the prize. They cover a wide variety of genres that don’t normally get reviewed in literary pages, and include titles which, because of either their setting or subject matter, wouldn’t be eligible for the Miles Franklin. I wrote the piece and sent it off.

Then yesterday morning I received word that my piece had been posted. I took a look, and the first thing I noticed was a formatting error. (Most book titles were italicised; some weren’t.) Isn’t that always the way? I had to remind myself that I’d asked another book blogger to look over a draft copy of the article and she didn’t notice. How important are italics anyway?

I tweeted the link to everyone I could think of and posted it on Facebook, then felt a wave of nerves as I waited for the response. Is what I’ve written crap? It’s just a survey. There’s no substance. Bla, bla, bla. The committee of critics in my head started chattering.

Maybe fortuitously, I was up in Katoomba, getting ready to go bush walking with guests from the UK. We piled in the car and travelled the 18 km dirt road out to the ancient Grose Valley escarpment at Mount Hay. A sea haze had drifted in from the coast over the Cumberland Plains, obscuring the sun and sharpening the definition of the hills in a way I’d never seen at this time of year. Many tiny wildflowers were in bloom, as well as Flannel Flowers, my bush favourites. For a few hours, I forgot about books and writing.

When I got back to town last night and a proper internet connection, however, the first thing I did was to run through email, Twitter and Facebook. There were dozens of comments in response to the HuffPo piece – too many to reply to personally – and lots of notifications that people had retweeted the link. It didn’t really matter what I’d written. The important thing was that Huffington Post Books blog had given a great big shout to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and The Stella Prize, as well as to dozens of books published this year by a host of talented Australian women.

This morning, I received an email query from the HuffPo Books blog editor about a possible correction to my piece – is Bitter Greens Kate Forsyth’s first novel written for an adult audience, or were her earlier books, The Witches of Eilaenan and Ride of Rhiannon series, also for adults? I’d read the Witches series years ago, and thought it was for Young Adults, but I checked with Kate. They are for adults, she told me; but she wasn’t worried – she was just happy to be included in the piece. (The error has been corrected, though.)

I emailed the editor back with a clarification – and cheekily asked if I might be able to write a follow-up post on The Stella Prize longlist or even the occasional author interview or review. The answer came back in the form of information about logging in as a contributor and the message, “Looking forward to reading future posts!”

That’s it! I’m now a HuffPo book blogger.

You can read yesterday’s Huffington Post piece – “Want a book by an Aussie woman in Australia? Try looking for a kangaroo on the spine” – here.

This is where we were yesterday.

AWW’s new list of reviews

I haven’t had much time to read or write reviews this week. I’ve been busy creating a database of reviews for the Australian Women Writers Reading and Reviewing Challenge. This is to complement the new look AWW blog.

I’d have preferred to host the database and blog on the same site, but WordPress – for security reasons, they say – won’t allow me to use the necessary code.

What does the code do? Technically, when participants enter their review links in the Google form, it goes to a spreadsheet; the code enables the database to automatically read items from the sheet and upload these as entries – a kind of “reading list” – with links not only to the reviewers’ websites, but also to the World Catalog which shows library holdings around the world.

If that sounds like too much information, let me just say the new database will make it a whole lot better easier to find reviews than the Mr Linky boxes which the challenge started with this time last year. Special thanks is owed to digital librarian Jason Clark for writing the code.

You can take a look at the new database here. What do you think?

The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement by Virginia Lloyd

The only reason I didn’t given this memoir five stars in GoodReads was because I wanted more.

The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement is both a love story and a memoir of loss. There are no surprises: it’s all laid out in the title. The author Virginia Lloyd falls in love and discovers too soon that the illness which her beloved is being treated for is terminal. The memoir alternates between “after” – young widowhood – and “before” – courtship and newly wed. The pivotal moment is the death of John, Virginia’s husband, way too soon at the age of 47.

But death isn’t the book’s theme. The book sings of love and grief, with a persistent chorus to cherish what one has while it lasts, to make the most of each day.

I started this book on Sunday morning and wished I hadn’t as I had to go out and wanted to keep on reading. On Monday morning I read it – weeping – on the bus on my way to my sister’s birthday lunch in the city. I had to force myself to shut the book before I wanted so as to leave time to recover and greet my sister without tears. I finished it last night and wanted to email Virginia at once to tell her how much I loved her story, how it had moved me. But how can you send an email like that to someone who has lost – and written about so beautifully – the love of their life?

Besides, I felt angry. I wanted more of John. I wanted to get to know him better before the book’s pages closed. I wanted to hear him laugh, listen to the music he enjoyed, see the photos of his travels, get to know more of what made this Irish man so special to his wife, his family and many friends.

That’s the brilliance of Lloyd’s book. She doesn’t just depict her grief, she creates it in the reader – she carries the reader into her heart, sharing with us her grief at not having had enough time with someone special, to live and love, to celebrate and explore, before it’s all over and you’re left with only memories.

Reviewed as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012.

Disclaimer: I read and reviewed this before Virginia agreed to represent me as my literary agent.

Finding Jasper by Lynne Leonhardt

A couple of weeks ago, small Western Australia publisher Margaret River Press sent me a review copy of their first fiction offering, Finding Jasper. It’s by debut novelist Lynne Leonhardt, was successfully submitted for a doctorate in creative writing, and earned Leonhardt the Dean’s Prize.

According to the cover blurb:

It is 1956, and twelve-year old Ginny has arrived at the family farm, ‘Grasswood’, in the southwest Western Australia.  She has been left in the care of her lively, idiosyncratic aunt, Attie, while her mother, an English war bride, returns home for a holiday.  Ginny is the youngest of three generations of very different women, whose lives are profoundly affected by the absence of Jasper: son, brother, husband, father.  A fixed point in all their lives is the landscape, layered with beauty and fear, challenge and consolation, isolation and freedom.

The novel is beautifully written.

I read it almost in one sitting and promptly rang up my mum to see if she wanted to borrow it. Then I emailed an elderly poet and memoirist in WA to ask her if she would like to review it for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. As I hit “send”, I thought of another friend I think would enjoy it, a writer of historical fiction. It’s that kind of book: it deserves to find readers and I’m happy to recommend it and pass it around.

Yet, as I was reading Finding Jasper, several other texts kept clamouring for attention at the back of my mind. Sometimes these texts echoed the content, sometimes they were in counterpoint, until it seemed I wasn’t just reading one book, but several. Each sang together in a rich, complex, intricate piece – a fugue, if you will.

The musical metaphor is apt, as music is central to Finding Jasper.

The main character, Virginia – or “Gin”, plays the piano initially and wants to be a professional musician. During the Second World War, Virginia’s mother worked in the British army as a Morse Code specialist; Leonhardt makes the point of telling the reader that the opening bars for Beethoven’s 5th – the famous, “da-da-da-daah” – is the Morse signal for “V”, and came to stand for “Victory”. In the lead up to the novel’s most emotionally charged moments, Virginia plays a sombre Bach prelude as an act of defiance toward her neglectful, card-playing mother. The aftermath is devastating.

Music haunts Finding Jasper, by turns sad, angry, evocative, challenging and hip.

Of the various texts that echoed as I read Finding Jasper, three are recent releases by Australian women. The first is Emily Maguire’s Fishing For Tigers: it, too, more tangentially, deals with the impact of war on the lives of Australians (reviewed here). The second is Liz Byrski’s novel, In the Company of Strangers – another book I was happy to pass on to my mum. Like Finding Jasper, it’s set in WA’s south-west, and touches on the lives of English immigrants after the Second World War. The third is Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens (review forthcoming). All four novels depict women who don’t conform to gender-typical roles, some of whom behave “badly”.

I want to see more women like this, I’ve decided. Flawed women. Women whose poor choices and less-than-desirable mothering is explained by their personalities and their histories, histories of trauma, abuse and dislocation. These kind of women feel real to me.

Already the characters of Finding Jasper are haunting my memory.

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Thanks to Margaret River Press for the review copy. It counts as book 9/12 for the Aussie Authors Challenge and is part of my ongoing contribution to the Australian Women Writers challenge.

Finding Jasper
ISBN-13: 978-0-9872180-5-6
Published: 2012

Leah Giarratano, Black Ice

Black Ice (A Detective Jill Jackson Mystery #3)Black Ice by Leah Giarratano

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Leah Giarratano’s Black Ice is a crime novel that portrays a clash between the glitz-and-glamour of the Eastern suburbs and the underworld of Sydney’s west. It follows the exploits of undercover detective Jill Jackson (“Krystal”), her super-model-good-looking party-girl sister Cassie and single mother Seren, a woman with a heart of gold who got mixed up with the wrong people and ended up doing a jail sentence while her ten-year-old son Marco was farmed out to DoCs. Together and apart these women face the threats posed by hot-shot lawyer Christian, thug drug-dealer Nader and their hangers-on.

Sounds unlikely? It is. But Giarratano is an experienced forensic psychologist whose work has given her an entree into the seedy side of Sydney’s life, so at one level we have to trust that her characters and plot scenario are authentically portrayed. Yet there was little here I recognised here about the city I grew up in. Much of the language, characterisation, plot and setting came across to me as if they could easily translate into a Hollywood movie.

Maybe to critique Giarratano’s book for its lack of distinctive “Australianness” is unfair. Yet I couldn’t help thinking that when the author did go for local colour – like her description of the underground food court off Dixon Street – it brought the narrative to life.

There were flashes, too, of edgy, lyrical writing: “Right now, just eleven o’clock in the morning, thrumming beneath the city was Saturday night, waiting to be released. It pulsed and throbbed, biding time, emitting sub-threshold vibrations that caused apprentices to focus for once, to hurry to finish their morning shifts. Fifteen-year-old schoolgirls drilled each other on the elaborate fairytales they’d created for their parents, about who was sleeping at whose house, and what to do if the oldies actually checked. The beautiful people sipped coffees in cafes, waking slowly, apparently languidly, but Saturday night waited beneath them and the beat started an itch they knew would not be scratched until the dark came…” (p207)

While not exactly a page-turner, the novel didn’t drag. Part of my problem with it might be because Giarratano’s main character, the detective Jill Jackson, is a character regular readers will have met before. That crucial set-up, where a reader is introduced to a character and a bond of empathy is formed, was missing for me. I didn’t know enough about Jill and her background to really care what happened to her – until some of her backstory was revealed halfway through. Even then, though, her conflict with her sister and its denouement which could have been – should have bee, an emotionally moving scene – coincided with the plot climax in a way that both seemed unlikely and an odd choice by the writer. (Who has an epiphany – and *talks* about it! – at a crime scene?)

The one character I did feel empathy for from the start was single-mum Seren. But I found myself resisting this empathy because I felt the author’s manipulation: Seren’s character, the naive ex-con, didn’t ring true to me. The scenes of her pre-release from prison, however, were among the books most vivid, frightening and memorable. Here Giarratano’s background really gives us an insight into a world most of us – thankfully – will never have to know firsthand.

Giarratano chose to distance her main character from the thick of the fray before the climax, a choice which surprised and disappointed me. But maybe that was because, by then, I was expecting her story to adhere to the narrative conventions of Hollywood: I wanted the main character to have something more at stake, something I could get worried about. The ending, while satisfying, didn’t deliver that extra bang that such stories usually contrive to create, either. But why should it? There were some neat twists.

Despite the shortcomings and reservations expressed here, I enjoyed this book. Maybe it was always going to be a tough call, reading and reviewing a simple crime novel after having just finished Charlotte Wood’s brilliant – though flawed in its own way, too – novel of small-town Australian life and family, The Children.

Read as part of the Aussie Author 2011 challenge, this review first appeared in GoodReads.

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