Ghost Girls by Cath Ferla

Ghost Girls FerlaGhost Girls is the debut novel by Cath Ferla from Echo Publishing, the publisher that last year gave us Emma Viskic’s excellent Resurrection Bay. It’s primarily a mystery story, rather than suspense or thriller, though there are thriller elements in it.

The story centres around Sophie Sandilands, an English language teacher, resident in Sydney, who is of mixed Chinese-European heritage. Sophie has memories of her birth place, Hong Kong, and she has experience teaching English in China. With this background, she occupies a unique space in relation to her mostly Asian students and friends, many of whom work part-time in China Town, either in restaurants or in the sex trade.

Other relevant features of Sophie’s background are that her father was a private investigator and she herself has been involved in a missing persons case. These factors provide the motivation for Sophie to become more than a little involved in the death of one of her female students and the apparent disappearance of others. Along with her flatmate, Jin Tao, a local chef, she follows the trail of one missing girl, a trail that leads her into the dark alleys and seedy underworld of Sydney’s illegal strip clubs.

Ferla has a talent for evoking settings and, it seems, a passion for Asian food, and her portrayal of the sights, sounds and smells of this pocket of Sydney life is well realised. Often her descriptions are entwined with characterisation, such as her reference to Sophie and Jin Tao’s tea drinking:

Forget reading the tea leaves afterwards, Jin Tao could read her mood by her choice of brew: oolong was for the weight of the world. The dark amber hue and the burnt bitterness of the leaves worked as a catharsis, helping Sophie clear her mind and refocus her senses. (58)

Another skill is the deft way she refers to characters’ pasts, dramatising them with economy and giving us insight what shapes people’s choices in later life:

[His] childhood had been one of slinking away from things: first from his father’s hand and then from his mother’s sweet, fermenting alcoholic breath. At school he had hidden from the bullies with his head down and shoulders scrunched together. He’d walked along walls and slid around corners, spent lunchtimes in graffitied library carrels and free periods locked in toilet cubicles. (174)

Ferla touches on some sensitive cross-cultural areas, especially in relation to immigrant Chinese women’s participation in the local sex trade. Her treatment of this, at times very dark, subject matter isn’t voyeuristic or moralistic, but rather acknowledges the complexities attendant on these women’s choices.

One aspect of the narrative which, for me, threatened to fall down was Sophie’s motivation for taking the risks she took in her endeavour to solve the mystery of the girls’ disappearance. Information relating to her mother which strengthens and explains Sophie’s motivation came, for me, a little late. If I’d known it earlier, I would have been more understanding and sympathetic towards Sophie’s choices and actions, and I couldn’t see any strong narrative reason for the delay. This is also the reason, I’d hazard, that the novel didn’t quite work for me as either a thriller or a suspense, despite several thrilling moments: because I didn’t fully identify with Sophie and the reasons she was getting herself into such trouble – until rather late, I wasn’t as engaged emotionally as I might otherwise have been. On the plus side, this is also probably why I wasn’t put off by the violent sequences and could read them with relative detachment (something I don’t find easy to do with more suspenseful stories).

These reservations aside, I found Ghost Girls a very competent debut with an interesting mystery and a fascinating cultural setting; another excellent production from Echo Publishing.

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Author: Cath Ferla
Title: Ghost Girls
Publisher and date: Echo Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781760401177
Review copy kindly supplied to me by the publisher.

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This review forms part of my contribution to the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge and 2016 Aussie Author Challenge.

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

imageWhen a review copy of Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner landed in my post office box, I thought, “Great, some new Aussie crime fiction!” Publishers know that I’m dedicated to reviewing works by Australian women and it’s rare they send me anything else.

So when I discovered the book was set in the UK and the author is a former journalist of The Guardian, I was a little taken aback; but the publicist who sent the book had done her homework. Those of you who know I set up a “We Love Books by Nicci French” group on Facebook will know I’m a sucker for dark and moody books that centre around a flawed female protagonist. Missing, Presumed is one of these and it doesn’t disappoint.

The main point of view character in Missing, Presumed is DS Manon Bradshaw, a cop in her late thirties whose biological clock is making ticking noises, sometimes loud, sometimes buried beneath a mountain of work or drowned out by disastrous encounters while internet dating. She drinks too much, doesn’t take care of herself, is scared off by polite, kind, gentlemanly types. She has a good best friend, a seemingly ever-optimistic partner on the job, and a fraught history with her sister.

When she is called on to investigate the disappearance of a young Cambridge grad student, Edith Hind, the daughter of a GP and surgeon to the royal family, she senses the case will be big. For a small regional police force with a chequered history where it comes to missing persons cases, it’s a high risk, high opportunity endeavour: bungling it could mean career death; solving it could establish her career and guarantee promotion.

Manon proves herself up to the task, but only barely. Throughout an extended investigation that sometimes looks and feels like it’s going nowhere, she suffers the ups and downs of affairs of the heart, strained office politics and family estrangement, all the while growing fond of a neglected ten-year-old boy whose elder brother is killed in suspicious circumstances.

While Steiner’s characterisation of Manon is deft, Manon is only one of several point-of-view characters, all of whom are equally well rounded. There’s Miriam, the missing girl’s mother; and there’s Davy, the Detective Constable, who works with Manon. Each has a story to tell and a journey navigating through fraught human relations.

The novel is carefully crafted and beautifully written. I kept wanted to stop and savour some of Steiner’s images – not always what a reader wants from a crime novel; but even if, at times, the language drew attention to itself a little too much, I didn’t mind. As well as the finally honed language, there’s a sensibility in the book that attracts me. This is a book you read not just out of curiosity for “whodunnit?” of “what happens next?”. It’s also a book which portrays both the best and worst of what it means to be human.

When I finished it, I immediately looked up the local library catalogue to see whether it has Steiner’s first novel, Homecoming (it doesn’t). Given that I’ve dozens of books on my To Be Read pile, I’d say this means Steiner is an author to watch.

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Author: Susie Steiner
Title: Missing, Presumed
Publisher and date: HarperCollins, February 2016
ISBN: 978-0-00-812328-4

 

Fire Damage by Kate Medina – book review

fire damage kate medinaMore murder mystery than psychological suspense, Fire Damage by Kate Medina follows army psychologist, Jessie Flynn, as she seeks to uncover the truth behind the traumatic experiences of a four-year-old boy. Along the way, Medina exposes us to glimpses of the trauma suffered by several soldiers back from tours of duty in Afghanistan, showing the various destructive impacts of the war on them and their families.

Flynn is a complex, not always likeable heroine, still suffering from a traumatic experience from her childhood which has shaped her life and her relationships. Her tense encounters with Ben Callan, an army cop, never quite blossoms into romance, but there’s an affinity between them that adds an extra layer to the narrative.

For me, one of the highlights is Medina’s sensuous evocation of the cold, dark, English winter and bleak wintry landscapes.

With thanks to HarperCollins for an uncorrected proof copy for review.

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Author: Kate Medina
Title: Fire Damage
Publisher: HarperCollins
ISBN: 978 0 00 813228 6

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