I’d Like to Know What You’ve Learned*


Regular readers of this blog will know I’m a big fan of Margot Kinberg and her blog, Confessions of a Mystery novelist. Here I share Margot’s wonderful recent post on raising children who read.

Originally posted on Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...:

ChildrenreadingRay Bradbury is said to have made this observation:

‘You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.’

If you think about it, that quote makes some sense. No matter how many truly fine books there are available, if people don’t read them, they have no impact.

I’m quite sure I don’t have to convince you of the value and the joy in reading. After all, I don’t think I’m the only one who has a staggering TBR list (and no, you don’t get to know how many books are on mine. So there. ;-) ). The real challenge is passing on that love of books to future generations.

And it’s not just teaching decoding skills either. It’s not even teaching skills like identifying characters, remembering information and the like, as important as they are. It’s thinking about the ideas in books…

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Val Down Under: Talking with the Queen of Tartan Noir

Media release from the Sisters in Crime Australia website

Skeleton RoadTartan Noir Queen Val McDermid will be in wild and wonderful conversation with Australian crime author, Angela Savage, about her latest psychological thriller, The Skeleton Road, at Melbourne’s Comedy Club, 6 for 6.30 pm Wednesday 24 September 2014.

In The Skeleton Road, McDermid, the creator of ITV’s Wire in the Blood, turns her hand to a cold case involving detective Karen Pirie who has the task of identifying decades-old bones discovered hidden at the top of a Victorian Gothic building in Edinburgh scheduled for renovation.

“I’m thrilled to be in conversation with the Scottish Queen of Crime when she visits promote her new standalone novel, The Skeleton Road,” Savage said.

“I’d be terrified if it weren’t for the fact I met Val briefly on a previous visit to Australia and know her to be a warm and witty person, and a strong supporter of Sisters in Crime and women crime writers.”

“As well as interrogating her about her new novel, The Skeleton Road, I’ll be asking Val about violence in crime fiction, being a granny pirate, and whether or not she agrees with our Prime Minister on the issue of Scottish Independence.”

Sisters in Crime Australia has joined forces with the Athenaeum Library to present Val Down Under.

McDermid is the author of 27 bestselling novels, which have been translated into more than 30 languages, and have sold over 11 million copies. She has won many awards internationally, including the CWA Gold Dagger for best crime novel of the year and the LA Times Book of the Year Award. She was inducted into the ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards Hall of Fame in 2009 and was the recipient of the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for 2010. In 2011 she received the Lambda Literary Foundation Pioneer Award. She has a son and a dog, and lives with her wife in the north of England.

This will be McDermid’s sixth event with Sisters in Crime.

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar, won the 2004 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. All three of her Jayne Keeney PI novels were shortlisted for Ned Kelly Awards, with The Dying Beach also shortlisted for a Davitt Award. She won the 2011 Scarlett Stiletto Award.

Comedy Club, 2nd Floor, 188 Collins Street, Melbourne (has lift). 10% discount for members from the Sun Bookshop bookstall.

$15/$10 (members of Sisters in Crime Australia, Writers Victoria & the Athenaeum Library/concession). Bookings http://www.trybooking.com/FAVG

Tickets may also be available at the door (check websites).

Booking info: Athenaeum Library ph. 03 9650 3100

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Review: Let Her Go

isbn9780733632228Dawn Barker’s novel Let Her Go is a psychological thriller about surrogacy and its consequences, set in contemporary Western Australia.

Surrogacy is a hot topic, given the recent case of the WA couple who paid a Thai surrogate to have their twins, only to take the healthy baby girl home and leave the boy, Gammy, born with Downs Syndrome, behind in Thailand – a scandal magnified when it was revealed the father had a criminal record for sex offenses involving minors.

But Barker’s novel consciously distances itself from commercial arrangements, exploring instead the risks and complications that can arise when surrogacy is altruistic and takes place within families.

Zoe and Nadia are stepsisters, raised together from a young age. Nadia, married to Eddie, is the mother of three children. Zoe and her husband Lachlan have been trying unsuccessfully to have a child. As the story opens, Zoe has just learned she will never be able to have a baby; her body has gone into early menopause as a result of medication taken for chronic illness.

Zoe quickly dismisses adoption on the grounds that she wants her ‘own child’, and because adopted children are damaged, ‘scarred by that loss’ of being given up by their mothers. Nadia shares Zoe’s misgivings about adoption, suggesting eligible children are ‘disturbed’.

The option of overseas commercial surrogacy is also mooted. But Zoe baulks at both the commercial nature of overseas surrogacy, and the idea of raising a child that was ‘Lachlan’s and someone else’s’:

Zoe had thought about it, but feared that she might never be able to love a child who reminded her of her failings every time she looked at it. (p. 37)

Again, Nadia’s attitudes reinforce Zoe’s. Nadia finds the idea of paying a stranger in a poor country both dodgy and distasteful.

‘I don’t trust anyone who’d want to make a profit from this. I want to give her a child because I’m family, and because she’d do it for me.’ (p. 54)

Although both husbands suggest it might be ‘easier’ to ‘use a stranger’, the women succeed in bringing the men around. Nadia acts as a traditional surrogate for Zoe and Lachlan and gives birth to baby Louise. A legal order is issued recognising Zoe and Lachlan as Louise’s parents, and everything seems fine.

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as the saying goes; and trouble is prefigured in the novel’s prologue describing Zoe’s flight to Rottnest Island by ferry on a stormy sea with baby Louise held to her chest.

Barker sets up a tense family drama and Let Her Go is a genuine page turner. The narrative point of view shifts among Zoe, Nadia and a teenage Louise, exploring the issues involved from each of their perspectives. Zoe struggles with the ferocity of her love for Louise, and her anxiety about Nadia’s claim on her. Nadia experiences the same grief from giving up Louise as women who relinquish their children for adoption. And Louise, for whom an ‘old familiar numbness’ has led to drug use and self-harm, feels like ‘a part of her [is] missing.’

Some heavy handed dialogue notwithstanding, Barker shares with authors like Wendy James and Honey Brown an ability to inject credible drama into ordinary people’s lives, encouraging readers to imagine what they would do in similar circumstances.

In reading group notes at the end of the book, Barker says she was drawn to write about surrogacy after watching a documentary on the topic and re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood:

I personally felt conflicted: being a mother myself, I would never deny anyone the right to experience the joy of being a parent, but there are ethical issues to consider. I wanted to write Let Her Go to explore my own feelings about this complex issue. (pp. 331-332)

Let Her Go ultimately raises more questions than answers about surrogacy. But Barker’s novel can and should contribute to current national discussions about infertility, surrogacy, parenthood and the rights of the child.

Let Her Go by Dawn Barker (2014) is published by Hachette Australia. Click here for the podcast of my review for Radio National Books and Arts Daily, Wednesday 17 September 2014.

This review has been submitted as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

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Review: Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters 1Lauren Beukes’s novel Broken Monsters opens with a disturbing monologue, followed by police finding the body of a boy from the waist up, attached to the lower half of a deer. With a limited tolerance for horror and graphic violence, I assumed I was going to hate this book – which could prove awkward, seeing as how I was scheduled to interview the author at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

To my surprise and relief, Broken Monsters turned out to be a beguiling, if at times brutal read, in equal parts wild ride and provocation.

The story is told from multiple points of view. Detective Gabriella Versado is trying to make a life for herself and her daughter, Layla, despite the violence and despair she deals with in her work as a cop; while Layla is trying to deal with an online world that seems as dangerous as the one her mother works in. Jonno is a brokenhearted hack, looking to Detroit for a story that will reinvigorate his career, if not his life. And TK is a homeless man trying to help those like him put their broken lives back together.

Broken Monsters 2Beukes creates distinct and credible voices for her ensemble cast, skillfully weaving the narrative threads into a coherent whole.

Most remarkable is the voice of the killer. Unlike the amoral psychotics you get in a lot of crime fiction, Beukes’s perpetrator is haunted and unstable. Despite the book’s title, he is not portrayed as a monster but rather as a damaged human being. I’m not usually one for supernatural elements, but they work in the book to illuminate the killer’s mental instability, and to enhance the otherworldliness of the Detroit setting.

And this setting is crucial to the effectiveness of the story.

During her recent appearances in Melbourne, Beukes said Broken Monsters was actually inspired by Detroit, a place where – to use her words – ‘the American dream was born, and where it died.’ Once a global centre of automotive manufacturing and a key plank in America’s ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ during World War II, Detroit became the largest US city ever to declare bankruptcy in 2013. Between 2000 and 2010, the city’s population declined by 25 per cent. Being in Detroit, Beukes says, is like ‘standing in the ruins of our own civilization.’

However, like her journalist character Jonno, Beukes looks to shed new light on the city. As Jonno tells himself at one point in the novel,

He’s read all that [ruins of the American Dream] shit. It’s all been done. The original stories are mined out, and all that’s left is fool’s gold. Or, more appropriately, Detroit diamonds, which is what locals call the blue glass on the street from broken car windows.

While Beukes doesn’t gloss over the severity of Detroit’s urban decay, she adds balance by portraying the resilience and creativity of the people who continue to live there, in addition to the madness that’s easy to imagine taking hold in such a place.

There’s also a subtext in Broken Monsters about the ugly side of social media and its ubiquity. The killer in Broken Monsters needs Jonno and ‘his’ Internet ‘to set it all loose’ and enable his gruesome legacy to live on. Layla and her friend Cas try to trap men who groom girls in online chat rooms; but Cas is stymied, forever traumatised by online video that shows her being sexually assaulted.

‘Social media means your humiliation can haunt you forever,’ as Beukes put it in Melbourne.

Or as Layla says in the book, ‘This is the way the world is now. Everything is public.’

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes (2014) is published in Australia by Harper Collins.

Click here for the podcast of my review for Radio National Books and Arts Daily, Wednesday 17 September 2014.


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Strange Territory

Guest author on the blog today is David Honeybone, founder of the original Crime Factory magazine, with a terrific write up on the Melbourne Writers Festival panel ‘Strange Territory’.

As Melbourne wins most livable city award again (how we laughed) it seemed prophetic timing to be attending the Strange Territory session at this year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival.

The program described it thus: “The hidden underbelly of Cardiff, Belfast and Perth makes perfect fodder for hard-boiled crime fiction. Belfast noir novelist Adrian McKinty, John Williams and West Australian David Whish-Wilson discuss the questionable values of politics, police and power in the tough and gritty cities of their crime thrillers.”

Whiskey-wow-wow I breathed, what a racy bunch. The Slight Foxing: My Year as a Lesbian Librarian session was going to look very tame by comparison.

Adrian McKinty, David Whish-Wilson, John Williams & Angela Savage, MWF. Photo: Sulari Gentill

Adrian McKinty, David Whish-Wilson, John Williams & Angela Savage, MWF. Photo: Sulari Gentill

Chaired by Most Livable City’s own Angela Savage (the judges had obviously never visited Brunswick) it was plain that an immediate rapport had been established judging by the banter before the session started.

And things got even better. Prompted by a knowledgeable chair, the disparate characteristics of the panel soon fused and caught light. The gnomic sagacity of Welshman, John Williams, and a laconic David Whish-Wilson provided the perfect foil for the fizzing energy and humour of Adrian McKinty.

John Williams is the author of Into the Badlands, a fascinating book that follows his travels in 1989 in America meeting and interviewing crime writers in their own cities. Think Elmore Leonard, James Crumley, James Ellroy. He has since written the Cardiff Trilogy and a biography of Shirley Bassey. He also worked as an editor for Serpents’ Tail and discovered David Peace’s 1974 in the slush pile!

Williams’ first book was set in London, which proved to be too big, too difficult and too well-known a place to grapple with. His home town of Cardiff provided far more accessible territory. Williams’ passion for crime writing stemmed from a fascination in his late teens, but rather than write a “crime novel” he became far more interested in the ordinary lives of the criminal classes and their reliance on illicit earnings, the people at the bottom of the pile and how that sub-society then comes to underpin the modern city.

In many ways he feels that the old Cardiff has now mostly been forgotten as re-development has seen an end to the old docks area, Tiger Bay, which features in his work. A bustling, multi-racial area that basically serviced sailors it has now been turned into ‘Cardiff Bay’, Big Money’s idea of waterfront gentrification. His true crime novel, My Bloody Valentine, centres on a miscarriage of justice regarding the murder of a prostitute. As he delved into the actual case it became clear that he was treading on toes and received threats and legal action from police lawyers for libel. An experience that convinced him to stick to fiction. Williams describes his crime trilogy as unconventional, a soap opera of the criminal classes set against the demise of the old city in the 1980s. 

David Whish-Wilson is based in Fremantle, and is the author of Line of Sight and Zero at the Bone. He has also written a biography of Perth.

The research for his book, Perth, uncovered some juicy morsels. Did you know that Perth was founded on a real estate scam and when folk lost their livelihoods and the colony was foundering the population was boosted with the introduction of convicts, the last Western country to do so, right upto the 1860s? As a result there were men walking around the city in the 1930s who bore the scars of the cat o’ nine tails.

As an alternative teller of Perth’s history Whish-Wilson has taken a particular interest in the crimes that hide in plain sight, the political and business community in lockstep. The 1970s saw an increase in this when the drug trade sprang up and an uncontested corruption took a grip. Like Williams he also received various threats in researching his book Line of Sight. Whilst teaching poetry in prison, he befriended an inmate whose mother, a brothel madam, had been murdered, allegedly by Perth detectives. Together with a private detective, he followed up new leads and spoke to people, although it soon became obvious that fear still surrounded the case even after 30 years. Word got out and threats and burglaries followed. As he related, there are two kinds of cops in Perth, the smart ones and bash artists. The smart ones will let things blow over and the bash artists…

Adrian McKinty’s trilogy featuring Sean Duffy are set in his native Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. The latest is In The Morning I’ll Be Gone.

McKinty freely admits to being lazy and hating research and having grown up in the troubles, what else could he write about that would lend such detail for stories? The army on the streets, armed police, riots everyday and cop for this: of his male peers from primary school, a third are or were in prison, a third joined the police force and a third emigrated. The girls all did well.

Crime fiction provides the perfect vector for portraying social history and class. McKinty says literary fiction is way too nice and upper middle class and provides little he can relate too. Crime fiction provides the means to portray genuine working-class lives without patronizing, telling real stories rather than caricatures. Not be left out, he too ran the risk of payback as the original manuscript of In the Morning… included the names of real paramilitaries, one of whom was a former neighbor, jailed for life for a triple murder but released under the Good Friday agreement in 1988. Unwittingly, an editor sent out galley copies of the book without changing the names. It’s fair to say this led to a very nervous wait as they were all retrieved. The possibility of a kneecapping can do this to a writer.

An Irishman, an Australian and a Welshman walked into a writer’s festival and a very good session took place.

David Honeybone

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Davitt Awards 2014 Winners

Sisters in Crime Australia last night presented the 14th Davitt Awards for the best crime books by Australian women. Although my shortlisted novel The Dying Beach didn’t win Best Adult Novel, I was delighted to see the prize go to one of my favourite Australian authors, Honey Brown, for her novel Dark Horse.

Davitt Award winners. Photo: Carmel Shute.

Davitt Award winners. Photo: Carmel Shute.

The complete results are:

Best Adult Novel: Honey Brown, Dark Horse (Penguin Books Australia)

Best Young Adult Novel: Karen Foxlee, The Midnight Dress (UQP)
Highly commended in this category were:
Ellie Marney, Every Breath (Allen & Unwin)
Felicity Pulman, A Ring Through Time (Harper Collins)

Best Children’s Novel: Jen Storer, Truly Tan: Spooked! (Harper Collins)

Best True Crime Book: Anna Krien, Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport (Black Inc)

Best Debut Book (Any category): Hannah Kent, Burial Rites (Picador Books)

Readers Choice: Hannah Kent, Burial Rites (Picador Books)

Me & fellow femme fatale Leigh Redhead

Me & fellow femme fatale Leigh Redhead

Guest of honour South African writer Lauren Beukes presented the awards. Earlier in the evening, Lauren was interviewed by Sue Turnbull about her writing career. I also had the pleasure of interviewing Lauren, together with Australian author Terry Hayes, on the panel Licence to Thrill, as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival. Lauren is an intelligent and engaging speaker and has become for me a writer to watch. I will be reviewing her latest novel, Broken Monsters, on Radio National Books & Arts Daily on Wednesday 10 September.

Congratulations to all winning authors of this year’s Davitts. And bravo Sisters in Crime for another stellar evening.

Read the Sisters in Crime media release here.

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Davitt Awards 2014 shortlist

Sisters in Crime Australia yesterday announced its shortlist for its 14th Davitt Awards for the best crime books by Australian women, and I was thrilled to learn that The Dying Beach made this year’s shortlist for Best Adult Novel.

It’s the first time a novel of mine has made the Davitts shortlist and, coming on the back of the Ned Kelly Awards shortlisting, I couldn’t be more excited.

According to Sisters in Crime Australia’s announcement, this year a record 76 books published in 2013 compete for six Davitts: Best Adult Novel; Best Novel Young Adult; Best True Crime Book; Best Debut Book (any category); Readers’ Choice (as voted by the 660 members of Sisters in Crime Australia) and, for the very first time, Best Children’s Novel.

Shortlisted are:

Best Adult Novel

  • Honey Brown, Dark Horse (Penguin Books Australia)
  • Ilsa Evans, Nefarious Doings: A Nell Forrest Mystery (Momentum Press)
  • Annie Hauxwell, A Bitter Taste (Penguin Books Australia)
  • Katherine Howell, Web of Deceit (Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • Hannah Kent, Burial Rites (Picador Books)
  • Angela Savage, The Dying Beach (Text)

Best Young Adult Novel

  • Karen Foxlee, The Midnight Dress (UQP)
  • Simmone Howell, Girl Defective (Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • Kim Kane and Marion Roberts, Cry Blue Murder (UQP)
  • Ellie Marney, Every Breath (Allen & Unwin)
  • Felicity Pulman, A Ring Through Time (Harper Collins)

Best Children’s Novel

  • Ursula Dubosarsky, The Perplexing Pineapple: The Cryptic Casebook of Coco Carlomagno (and Alberta) Book 1 (Allen & Unwin)
  • Ursula Dubosarsky, The Looming Lamplight: The Cryptic Casebook of Coco Carlomagno (and Alberta) Book 2 (Allen & Unwin)
  • Susan Green, Verity Sparks: Lost and Found (Walker Books)
  • Jen Storer, Truly Tan: Jinxed! (Harper Collins)
  • Jen Storer, Truly Tan: Spooked! (Harper Collins)

Best True Crime Book

  • Anna Krien, Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport (Black Inc)
  • Kay Saunders, Deadly Australian Women (ABC Books)

Best Debut Book (Any category)

  • Livia Day, A Trifle Dead (Twelfth Planet Press)
  • Karen Foxlee, The Midnight Dress (UQP)
  • Simmone Howell, Girl Defective (Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • Hannah Kent, Burial Rites (Picador Books)
  • Ellie Marney, Every Breath (Allen & Unwin)

Davitt judges’ wrangler, Tanya King-Carmichael, said that the five judges had been stunned by the number of entries in this year’s annual Davitt Awards.

“Australian women crime writers have their gumshoes (or stilettos) on and they’re marching across the literary landscape. This year, the five judges were confronted by an astonishing 76 books to get their blood pumping, including 40 adult novels with characters ranging from the psychic to the psychotic.

“Fourteen years ago, when the Davitts were established, only seven adult crime novels by Australian women were in contention. There’s been a great leap forward,” King-Carmichael said.

Kudos to the Sisters, too, for shortlisting an e-book for the first time: Ilsa Evans, Nefarious Doings: A Nell Forrest Mystery, published by Momentum Press, Pan Macmillan Australia’s new digital-only imprint.

The Davitts are named after Ellen Davitt, the author of Australia’s first mystery novel, Force and Fraud, in 1865. The awards will be presented at a gala dinner on Sat 30 August 2014 by South African crime writer Lauren Beukes.

As it happens, I will be interviewing Beukes, together with Australian author Terry Hayes, on the panel Licence to Thrill earlier that day as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival.

Congratulations to all those authors shortlisted for this year’s Davitt’s — lists that include some of my favourite reads for 2013. Again, I found myself not envying the judges…

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