Why reading and writing is the road to happiness...

This blog started years ago as a place to muse on the life projects keeping me entertained. It is no surprise then that it has morphed into a blog about my reading as that has been my lifelong project. Here I review lots of different types of books, with an added focus on Australian women writers. Hope you enjoy - feel free to contribute to the conversation!

Monday, 21 April 2014

Book Review - 'A Beautiful Place To Die' by Malla Nunn

I enjoyed 'Beams Falling' so much, by P.M Newton, that I picked up a copy of Malla Nunn's first novel in the Emmanuel Cooper series 'A Beautiful Place To Die' - I noticed that the two writers have been touring together lately and I remembered enjoying Nunn's spot on the crime edition of ABC's The Book Club last year. I really enjoyed this novel. Nunn was born in South Africa, the setting for this 1950s detective series, and her portrayal of the country is both visceral and intimate. I've not travelled to South Africa and it is a culture that I only know from the point of view of white friends who have migrated to Australia. Nunn's work is an education in race relations and cultural mores, wrapped around an engaging whodunnit. Her language is to the point, while addressing the "jigsaw of people" who make up the nation: "A black native woman ambled by with a baby tied to her back and a mixed-race 'coloured' boy pushed a toy car made of wire along the footpath. No English or Afrikaners. Emmanuel and Shabalala had slipped out of white Africa". I noted in Nunn's bio that she has a background in screen writing and it shows in this novel: the description of landscape is given priority and the dialogue, realistic.
Part of the success of 'A Beautiful Place to Die' is the time period of the setting, a time before CSI policing, mobile phones, and Google searches. The crime can be simpler, and can allow the suspects to simmer and develop as people, rather than being undone by a quick internet history search. I think this was true of 'Beams Falling' as well, set in the early 1990s. I imagine that writing modern whodunnits is becoming harder and harder: making a waiting period for DNA test results and staring over the shoulder of people looking at internet search histories suspenseful will be a heavy burden for crime writers.
Nunn's protagonist Emmanuel, a white detective with a mysterious past and residual trauma from the war, is a likeable hero; his sidekick here, Shabalala, a beautifully painted Zulu policeman, is stoic and wise but not overly cliched. Similarly, Zweigman, a Jewish doctor implicated in the crime, is a vivid character without giving in to stereotype. The intimidating Afrikaner sons of the murdered man in the novel are described in terms of meat and muscle throughout and are easily pictured: "A knot of three white men stood further up the river-bank and took turns drinking from a battered silver flask. They were big and meaty, the kind of men who would pull their own wagons across the veldt long after the oxen were dead". Humour, very gentle humour from Emmanuel, lightens the darker aspects of the plot and adds rather than detracts from the serious message about race relations in South Africa.
My only hesitation with 'A Beautiful Place to Die' - I thought it was fifty or so pages too long and could have been resolved at an earlier point - but otherwise, another fantastic crime novel from a talented Australian writer. I'll be reading more in the series.

*This review is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014


Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Book Review - 'Beams Falling' by P.M Newton

Book Cover:  Beams FallingI was already a big reader of female authors but taking part in the Australian Women Writers Challenge has led me to more Australian writers and consequently some cracking reads, as you can see by my recent reviews. The latest was P.M Newton and her crime novel ‘Beams Falling’. This is the second in a series featuring Sydney detective Nhu ‘Ned’ Kelly, who in this novel has been seconded into the Asian Crime squad in Cabramatta. P.M Newton’s first Nhu Kelly novel ‘The Old School’ was a success in 2010 but I was not aware of it; however Newton has been featured heavily in the media with ‘Beams Falling’ and I was interested in her detective background so I picked this new release up with high expectations. It delivered. Newton’s background gave the genre a good dose of authenticity and the plot, while it delved into drug trafficking and police corruption, never felt sensationalised or over the top.The character of Ned was nuanced but realistic, with enough psychological issues to be interesting but not a clich├ęd female detective basket case. I also appreciated the small inclusion of a romantic story line that was incidental to the plot, and painted Ned as human, without making “finding a man” the main mission for this unmarried protagonist. Newton cleverly gave the reader insights into Ned’s attitude to those around her: her absolute dislike for another female detective, her resentment towards a young victim of rape causing Ned to endure the questioning process, and Ned’s irritation at the coyness of a young female Vietnamese translator. I thought it was an accurate portrayal of the usually unjust little resentments we all have in our everyday lives towards those around us.
As well as drawing on her work to make the descriptions of the detective and police work realistic, Newton portrays Sydney and its contrasting suburbs engagingly: the differences between Greenwich and Cabramatta are set up continuously, and the steamy and muggy summer afternoons are described vividly – “So humid and still that the hum of voices from other backyards rippled along the edge of the bay...The darkness smelt of sausages and onions and cooling fat”. I mentioned on Twitter that it was pleasing to read a novel set in Sydney for a change, rather than the all pervasive Melbourne. In addition to recently watching the ABC’s Rake, set in the Sydney legal district, the familiar streets and landmarks have been an enjoyable focus. In this novel the secondary characters are nicely realised, and I felt the Hong Kong detective Joe, the creepy corrupt uniformed “Funnel-web”, and the undercover cop Murph were particularly convincing. The tie to the title ‘Beams Falling’ was revealed at the resolution of the novel and was a nice touch.
I’d recommend this to any reader who loves crime fiction as it really brings something fresh to the detective novel genre and Newton has a beautifully understated style.

*This review is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014