Digging up Dirt by Pamela Hart

Described as a cosy-mystery, I was really looking forward to getting into Pamela Hart’s latest book, Digging Up Dirt, a relatively new direction for this prolific and much-loved author as well. 

Poppy McGowan is a researcher for the education arm of the ABC, responsible for producing kids’ TV shows. She’s recently bought her dream home, an old settler’s cottage with more history than she bargained for. When bones are discovered beneath the floor mid-renovation and everything grinds to a halt while heritage investigate, Poppy finds herself incredibly frustrated. When one of the heritage experts is found murdered in her home, things take a turn for the worse. Suspected of the crime and then willingly roped into solving it, Poppy is a resourceful, determined woman who finds ways to make people talk. The reader meets her boyfriend, her family and the new man that wanders into her life,as well as a cast of well-drawn characters. 

This is a thoroughly enjoyable read, though I wouldn’t really call it “cosy” as in many regards, the novel pulls no punches, not only with a violent death and thus who-dunnit at the centre, but because it also tackles some hard-hitting themes such as domestic violence, feminism, racism, homophobia as well as Pentecostal religion. The book doesn’t steer away from critiquing the control these kinds of faiths can exert over their followers (and the kind of fiscal demands they make) as well as the hypocrisy that can lie at the heart of any institution which relies on power structures to function. I really enjoyed this aspect very much, and while it will push some people’s buttons, I’m all for that when reading.

Thoroughly enjoyed what I hope sincerely hope is indeed, as the subtitle promises, a first book in a new series. 

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Sweet Adversity by Sheryl Gwyther

Before I review this wonderful, heart-warming novel for Middle-School kids, Sweet Adversity, by Sheryl Gwyther, I need to declare that not only is Sheryl a very good friend of mine, but I have followed this novel’s progress from its inception a few years ago to its terrific conclusion and now reception. It has been such a labour of, not only love for Sheryl (though it is that), but passion as well. Determined to pay tribute to not just Shakespeare, but Australian history and the trials and tribulations of kids and families who fell prey to the vicissitudes of the Great War and the Depression, as well as those hardened souls who exploit hardship and suffering, Sheryl has managed to accomplish this with Sweet Adversity (pun intended there too)

The novel tells the tale of young, smart and feisty Addie McAllister who, when times become hard for her actor parents, they leave her at the Emu Swamp Children’s Home so she can be fed, educated and safe until their fortunes turn for the better. What they don’t know is that the Children’s Home is run by a greedy, soulless woman who sees in the children not so much orphans or young ones needing her care, but talents she can exploit to their full potential. Enter, Stage Left, the villainous Scrimshaw who, in league with the matron, sees in Adversity a chance to make the money they feel they deserve.

Through their avarice, a chain of events is set in motion which sees Adversity leaving Emu Swamp and encountering a series of characters who will work both for and against her. Able to inspire loyalty, Addie is also someone who gives it in spades and there’s no-one who receives it from her more than her pet Cockatiel, Macbeth, the Shakespeare-quoting bird with more character and gumption in his wing feathers than a Harbour-Bridge worker.

A relatively unknown period of Australian history provides a stark but fascinating backdrop as Addie roams the countryside and heads to Sydney, searching for what she thought she might never have again: family. But there are those with other ideas who will stop at nothing to prevent Addie achieving her heart’s desire, including threatening those she most cares about.

Evoking time and place, this is a terrific novel that once you start you’ll find hard to put down. It’s not only young people who will love this, but anyone who enjoys a tale well told, with a good dose of history, Shakespearean and other theatrics, populated with some wonderful, rich characters.

I don’t think it’s too much to say that with Sweet Adversity, Sheryl has “a hit, a very palpable hit.”

 

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Hades by Candice Fox

22245474I read this book, Hades, by Candice Fox, a while ago now and, frankly, forgot to review it (My. Bad). Not because I didn’t like it – on the contrary, I thought it was an absolute cracker of a read and found it hard to tear myself away from. No, the reason I delayed was because I wanted to think about what to say but I thought so hard, I really thought I’d written a review and was quite shocked to discover I hadn’t. I am making up for that now.

Hades is such an accomplished novel – well written, tightly plotted with fascinating characters that are fifty shades of grey and then some. It’s hard to credit it’s a debut novel, but it is. For fans of the TV series (and books) Dexter, there are parallels to be drawn, but the story of tough, beautiful and mysterious cop, Eden Archer and her wise-cracking, over-protective dangerous cop brother, Eric, and how Eden’s new partner Frank Bennett tries to understand the dynamic between the two and the dark secrets they’re clearly keeping, offers many surprises and depths.

A great deal of that depth comes from the back story of Eden and Eric and their father, who gives his name to the title of the book, Hades. As underworld as his name suggests, Hades is a bad man with a bad past. But, he also believes in a criminal code of conduct and the honour that accompanies it and it’s this belief that sets the course (along with a major trauma) for Eden and Eric’s life in the future. Again, I know much of this also happened to Dexter, but I loved reading about a similar (but not the same) set of circumstances, set in Sydney and with all the tension and gotcha moments for which a crime-lover could ask.

The murders that set this tale in motion and introduce us to the main characters are grisly, as are the other killings that pepper the book as liberally as the blood that often flows. It’s not for the faint of heart. But Fox has a way with words, she can describe a mood, a street, a sound a smell in such a way that puts you, the reader, there in the moment. Sometimes, in a very uncomfortable way that has you screaming to be released.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and couldn’t wait for the sequel.

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The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

17802724Once more, Liane Moriarty invents a premise for her novel that is quite irresistible. Imagine if, after many years of happy marriage and three children later, you happen upon a letter your husband wrote years ago that states it’s only to be opened on his death. What would you do? Respect the instruction on the front, or break faith and open it?

That is the quandary facing Cecilia Fitzpatrick, one of the most ordered and organised working mothers and wives in the neighbourhood. Respected by other parents at her daughters’ school, well-known and admired within the community, she faces a very real dilemma: what did her husband consider so important that he put it in writing but didn’t want the contents known until after he died?

While this secret is central to the novel, as is usual with Moriarty’s work, she revels in what makes ordinary people tick. What women and men reveal and conceal from each other and even themselves. Intersecting with Cecilia and her husband’s tale is that of Tess, recently moved to Sydney from Melbourne with her young son after her husband drops a bombshell on her.

Tess enrols her son at Cecilia’s children’s school and takes an instant dislike to this together Fitzpatrick woman who seems to have a finger in every pie and a degree of control over her life that Tess can now only dream about.

And then there’s sixty-odd year old Rachel, the woman most don’t know how to speak to and treat her like a china tea-cup or bad luck omen. Afraid if they mention the daughter she lost years ago she might break or if they spend too much time in her company some of the ill fortune (her husband died as well) might rub off, Rachel is both loved and pitied.

But Rachel doesn’t want pity, she wants revenge.

A compulsive read that yet again, kept me up until the wee hours as I had to know how the story was going to resolve itself. Able to make the characters rich, complex and above all real, Moriarty makes the ordinary and every day extraordinary. Wonderful stuff.

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Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

19486412I don’t know why I resisted reading this book even though I continued to hear good, no, great things about it. Interestingly, much of what I did hear was understated. Rather than claims of ‘it’s fabulous/wonderful/moving/erudite/beautifully written’ (and believe me, this novel is all those things and more), the phrase I heard the most was ‘just read it.’ I also noted that people whose judgment I value rated it their best book of last year.

Finally, early into 2015, I picked up Big Little Lies and the silly notion I’d developed that it was somehow a comic novel rapidly disappeared as I was drawn into the world Moriarty has created and the lives of its fully realized and complicated characters. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some genuinely laugh out loud moments as there would be in a novel centered around three women whose common ground is the school their children attend and the small beachside neighborhood they live in. Anyone with children in primary school forced to interact with other parents knows playground and parental/family politics can be a source of great amusement but also, as a Big Little Lies intricately and accurately maps, painful angst.

Told from multiple points of view, the novel follows part of a school year and three mums whose children are newly enrolled in kindergarten. There is pragmatic ‘I call a spade a spade’ Madeline with her love of bling, glitter and her fierce sense of loyalty and social justice. Then there is her close friend, the extremely beautiful, slightly ethereal and distracted Celeste, mother to rambunctious twin boys with a perfect husband, house and wealth to spare. Finally, there is single-mother, Jane and her beloved young son, new to the area and carrying a great secret.

The narrative unfolds retrospectively, the pivotal moment (*minor spoiler* – it is revealed in the blurb but don’t read on if you don’t want to know) in which time starts to wind back is a murder. Taking us back to the point at which the three women meet, we follow the first tentative steps of friendship as Madeline and Celeste, who are already good friends, take Jane under their wing. This fledgling threesome’s friendship’s bonds are immediately tested and tightened when Jane’s son is accused of something terrible at school (no, not the murder).

Thus the stage is set and what unfolds as the school year progresses and we start to race towards what we already know is going to happen is both the normality and impossibility of the daily life and grind of ordinary people. Moriarty plunges the reader into these women’s lives and the secrets, lies – big and small – and truths of their existence, and that of their children, partners and families, as well as those of the many other characters that pepper and influence their lives. Other voices are given a brief platform from which to speak, serving to draw the reader into the mystery underpinning the entire story: who was killed? Where and why and by whom?

Masterful, evocative and haunting, the novel captures so many of the complexities of relationships: the joy, despair, frustration and fury that can co-exist under one roof between partners, parents and children, as well as those we call friends or acquaintances. It reveals what lies beneath the surface, exposes the facades we powerfully erect and work hard to maintain and why we do this as well. It explores the ways in which and reasons behind certain behaviours, even when we know they’re wrong or wonder what we’re protecting by acting that way – usually, ourselves.

This is a wonderful, chewy novel (by chewy, I mean you find yourself considering so much of what happens and what is said, turning it over and over in your head, thinking scenarios through, in many ways, testing their veracity and asking yourself, would I (or anyone I know) have said/done that) that lingers for ages in the head and heart. It is so believable, the characters so three dimensional and real you want to either slap them, interrupt an argument and add your two bits worth or invite them to a party and get drunk with them.

Absolutely marvelous prose by a brilliant writer whose work I cannot wait to sink my teeth into again and mull over some more. Might be an early call, but could be my best read for 2015…

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