All That’s Dead by Stuart McBride



Each new addition to the Logan McRae series by Stuart McBride has become my “reward” book: that is, I set myself certain writing and research tasks and only once they’re finished do I permit myself to read the next installment in the life of Inspector Logan McRae and the motley band of loyal, hilarious, brave, foolhardy and often clever people who work with and, sometimes, against him. As a consequence, I relish the experience and then mourn when it’s over, knowing I have to wait at least a year until once more, I can be, albeit for a brief time, part of this madcap, dangerous world that is policing in Aberdeen, Scotland.

In this book, Logan, Steele, Rennie and co have to pit their wits against some Alt-Right Scottish nationalists who go on a spree, committing terrible atrocities against those they believe have betrayed Scottish independence and fostered more than cordial relations with the Brits. The results are bloody and terrifying and the criminals, though identified early, hard to pin down. As a result, the media make scapegoats of the police, representing the law as buffoons who are about as much use (as one great phrase in the book puts it) as a plasticine bicycle.

Against time and bad will, Logan and the team try to prevent another crime, another grisly death. But just when it seems they have all the answers, more questions surface which throw the entire investigation on its ear.

Filled with fabulous, quirky characters, crackling dialogue (that has you alternately splitting your sides laughing or appreciating the emotional depths of a seemingly simple phrase) and written at a pace that will keep you reading well into the night, this is another splendid addition to one of my all-time favourite crime series. Cannot wait for the next one. 

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Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

I must admit to having some trepidation reading this book as it had come with such heart-felt praise and gushing recommendations. My concern about reading it lay in not wanting to disappoint those who clearly loved the book so much by not feeling the same way. That was one reason. But I had an additional worry. I know Trent Dalton and have for years. Like he did, I work for the Courier Mail (we also share the same publisher) and have watched with admiration and pride as one of the most genuinely lovely people and incredible journalistic and writing talents I know, soared. When I discovered Trent was the author of this book everyone was talking about and then caught up with him at a dinner, I was so excited to read it, but equally nervous as well for the reasons I outline above.

Well, now I have and can I just say that all those heaping praise upon Trent and this book were beyond right in their assessment. But they were also wrong. You see, Boy Swallows Universe isn’t destined to become an Australian classic, it already is one. 

The story of young Eli Bell and his wilfully mute brother, August and their traumatic, violent, disruptive, loving, cruel, imaginative childhood and young adulthood is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Equal parts disturbing, magical, evocative, hope-filled, heart-wrenching and yet beautiful, it’s also utterly enthralling. 

Eli and Gus live with their mum and her boyfriend Lyle in a run-down neighbourhood in Brisbane. Their babysitter is a reformed murderer whose claim to fame, apart from being a killer, is that he managed to escape from the notorious Boggo Road jail. But Slim, as he’s called, is also a man who loves the boys and never, ever condescends to them, but imparts, with his street wisdom, lessons that Eli particularly takes to heart. Stoking the boys’ imaginations and hovering over them like a protective angel, not even Slim can prevent the tragedy and criminal changes that see the boys catapulted into situations that make the reader want to dial Social Services. But this is where Trent comes into his own. He manages to find beauty, humour and often an otherworldliness in the ugliest and saddest of situations. Not only that, but by having Eli and Gus forged in such hot fires and showing what helps them salvage something from these, he reveals the power of story (and the details) to provide an essential and nourishing counter-narrative to reality. 

Not only do you fall in love with Eli, Gus and their sun-filled mother along with other less reputable characters; experience anguish on their behalf and worry about the intentions of the men who orbit around them, but you champion their actions and want to reach into the page and protect their swollen hearts and growing, spectacular minds. 

I don’t want to say too much more except this book is a treasure that will continue to burrow into your heart and head long after the last page. It is realism at its rawest and most magical. It is quintessentially Australian while also managing to be universal. 

Boy may swallow universe, but with this story of resilience, love, hope, vengeance and faith – in humanity’s capacity for goodness, kindness and courage, in the face of terrible misfortune and cruelty – readers will greedily consume it and be left wanting more. 

Simply sensational.

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The Seagull, Vera Stanhope #8 by Ann Cleeves

This latest novel in the Vera Stanhope series, The Seagull, is a ripper. It opens with Vera being forced by her unsupportive boss to deliver and education lecture in a prison. While there, she encounters a former colleague, John Brace, who has been jailed for crimes and corruption. Ill now, Brace tells Vera about a cold case – claiming he didn’t kill the missing man but knows where the body is buried. He will only tell her if she does him a favour.

What unfolds is an investigation that takes the reader into Vera’s past as, along with the detective, we learn more about her father, Hector and the activities he was involved in before his death. Part of the “Gang of Four”, Hector, and three other men, including a mysterious “Prof” would wheel and deal in illegal fauna. The linking factor between people, past and even present, appears to be a former glamorous club called The Seagull. But, as Vera stumbles closer to the truth of what Brace was trying to reveal to her, she discovers the Gang of Four’s activities might also have involved murder.

Once again, Vera and her team, with all their strengths, weaknesses and glimpses into their personal lives are brought to the fore as the case moves along. Characters and setting are wonderfully drawn and the plot is paced nicely. I love the way Cleeves slowly unpeels a person and their history, before she then builds up layers that make them seem so real and very easy to invest in.

I am already looking forward to a new Vera Stanhope novel and frustrated I know I have to wait a while yet!

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The Moth Catcher, Vera Stanhope #7, by Ann Cleeves

 

Yes, I am still on my Ann Cleeves banquet, reading all the Shetland and Vera Stanhope novels in one sitting. Only, with The Moth Catcher I am, I’m very sad to say, nearing the end of my imaginative journey.

This novel also has a TV episode based on it but, fortunately, I couldn’t remember it very well and was able to lose myself in this tale of a small, privileged group of retired people living in a development near a manor house near the English village of Gilswick. Socialising weekly, knowing the ins and outs of their current lives (but not their pasts), the group refer to themselves as the ‘retired hedonists’. When not one but two dead bodies are found near their development, questions arise that require the skills and nosiness of Vera to answer.

As Vera and her team of Holly, Joe and Charlie search for clues as to the killer’s identity, Vera quickly realises that whoever it is that murdered the two men hasn’t finished with death yet. Time is of the essence.

Once more, this is a fabulously paced and plotted work that really focusses on characters and setting, bringing this tight, closed world and the people who inhabit it to life. Vera, as usual, is a breath of fresh air in her honesty, self-reflection and also awareness of her own and her team’s strengths and weaknesses.

Another wonderful addition to a great series. Only one to go L

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Harbour Street, Vera Stanhope #6 by Anne Cleeves

Harbour Street was yet another book in this series I love and which I thought, having seen and loved this episode of the TV series, I might ‘know’. No. I was wrong. Again. While there are, of course, similarities, in plot and characterisation, the book can take you places the TV series can only dream of going.

The story here centres around an elegant old lady who is mysteriously killed on a train. The clincher is that it’s Joe Ashworth’s eldest daughter who finds the body. Enter, or rather, lumber, our beloved Vera, stage left. Larger than life, kind and sharp, a woman who doesn’t suffer fools but loves to appear one so people constantly underestimate her (which some do to their detriment), Vera knows there’s more to this dead woman, Margaret, than meets the eye, pet. Learning that she lived in a B&B on Harbour Street, sharing responsibility with a young woman, Kate, who has two teenage children, Vera starts to unearth a rather complicated past for our Margaret.

As the novel progresses, more and more people enter the scene and become not just parts of Margaret’s colourful and chequered past, but suspects as well. Cautious around the police, it takes all Vera’s charm and cunning along with the dogged determination of the rest of the team, Joe, Holly and Charlie, to discover not only what people are hiding, but what they fear.

When another body turns up, and Vera guesses the killings aren’t over yet, tracking down the murderer becomes not only a matter of professional pride, but time – and it’s running out.

Cleeves has done it again with a wonderfully evocative, richly character-driven novel from which the people leap fully-formed. Vera is fleshed out even more and it’s so rewarding for those who read the series in order to not only understand and predict how Vera will act in a given situation, but be proven wrong as well. Likewise, Joe, Holly and Charlie are given more complex roles, and their back stories are slowly filled in too.

But it’s place that also takes a lead role here – Harbour Street, full of colour intensity, and locals with their parochial attitudes, reluctance to embrace newcomers, suspicion of the police, and ambivalent relationship with the past they both hide and can’t shed.

And, as I hoped, the plot does steer away from the TV one, so it’s like enjoying two amazing, beautifully structured stories filled with people you invest in and adore in the same setting. Cleeves has done it again – written a cracker of a book.

 

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