My #AWW2018 Round UP – Australian Women Writers Challenge

What a year 2018 has been! I signed up for a modest three titles with #AWW this year, because I didn’t think I would have the time for more. In the end I have totted up a whopping fifty-two reviews this year – not bad considering I have also had five novels of my own published! A healthy nine of those reviews were of novels written by Australian women writers. Here are my reflections of the Australian women writers I have read over the last twelve months.

Egyptian EnigmaMud and Glass by Laura E Goodin

My Australian Women Writers Round Up

I have travelled far and wide through this collection of novels, from Ancient Egypt with L.J.M. Owen to the Scottish highlands with Patricia Leslie. I have dwelt long in Queensland with Slatter and Saftich and western New South Wales with Bendon and Steele. With Nightingale I have entered the fantasy realm of Tarya reminiscent of Medieval Italy. Not quite sure where I landed with Goodin, but it was a thoroughly entertaining place to be.

I have journeyed through genres too, from Owen’s captivating cosy mystery to Slatter’s gripping dark urban fantasy; from Nightingale’s charming YA fantasy series to the very upbeat fantasy-comedy of Goodin. A heartrending historical memoir from Saftich and some intriguing contemporary fiction from Steele. A fascinating mystery laced with mysticism from Bendon and a gender-bending gem – part historical, part urban fantasy – from Leslie.

All of these novels are top reads and deserve the attention of readers. All these authors demonstrate great care with their prose, and with their plotting and characterisation. A reviewer’s dream!

Is there something that defines these women and holds these books together? I believe there is. Australian women writers seem to display a sensitivity and deep consideration of the world around them. These are warm-hearted stories, at times witty, always considered and considerate.

My only lament is that all authors need readers, so next time you are after reading something new, pause before you pick up another Rowling or King and take a punt on an author you have never heard of.

You can find my reviews of all of these titles by clicking this link

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Book review – Three Hours Past Midnight by Tony Knighton

Three Hours Past Midnight

About Three Hours Past Midnight

His last job a disaster, a professional thief teams with an old partner eager for one last score – a safe in the home of a wealthy Philadelphia politician. But they are not the only ones set on the cash.
His partner dead and the goods missing, he hunts for his money and the killer only to find out whether this may have been a job best left undone.

 

My thoughts

The title alone, ‘Three Hours Past Midnight’, a reference to Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s 1956 Blues classic, will flag the sort of book this is. The track could just as well be playing in the background throughout the whole story, a backbeat that echoes, even amplifies an ever-present gritty urban vibe.

The reader dives straight into the action as an unnamed professional thief accepts an impromptu job from an ex-cop, George, who has stage 4 cancer and wants to leave a little extra for his wife. When the theft of a safe from a high-profile politician goes belly up and George is shot, the narrator goes on the hunt for the culprit. Only, he soon discovers he is also being hunted. What unfolds throughout that night is an edge-of-seat ride filled with action, menace and intrigue.

Social realism in Three Hours Past Midnight is strong. Philadelphia’s underbelly of corruption and organized crime is laid bare, noir-style. The point of view is narrow, focussed, sharp and Knighton’s prose is confident, taut and economical. The author sucks the reader right into the narrator’s reality. An atmosphere of urgency and justice, or the lack thereof, pervades every page. There is a touch of Hemingway and Chandler in the writing. The plot and pacing are excellent and twists come bang on cue. Knighton crafts his supporting characters deftly, slotting in enough to give an impression, the reader’s loyalty always kept firmly in the narrator’s pocket.

In all, hard-boiled noir thrillers do not come any better than this.

Book review – Twerk by Isobel Blackthorn

I had to share this stunning *****5 Star review of Twerk. The reviewer has summed up the essence of this novel much better than I could.

Stripper club

“With “Twerk”, Isobel Blackthorn has written a suspense novel set in the milieu of strip dancers with a superior mélange of brazenness and subtlety that, in my eyes, would be unattainable for a male author writing about the same theme. I’ll be short about the suspense aspect of the novel: Mrs. Blackthorn knows how to captivate a reader with a tale that is getting eerier with every page. The lust-driven killer in Twerk is a deeply sinister character. Mrs. Blackthorn describes his sadistic nature in scenes that definitely will chill your bones. Near the end of her story, she unveils the reason why this man is so ruthless and scary, and then you realize that the seeds of enjoying the fear, humiliation, and pain of others lie in all of us. Isobel Blackthorn has the gift of weaving tension in a spiral through her novel: she lets it smolder for a while, and then suddenly jumps to hair-raising levels. Afterward, she cuts back a little, only to go full throttle again when you don’t expect it.

But the high-grade suspense in Twerk isn’t the most important ingredient that makes this novel special. It’s the candidness with which Mrs. Blackthorn writes about the way the sex workers of the bar “Hot Foxies” think and feel when they’re dancing seductively around their poles, or about their relationship with their own bodies, and the differences in using sexual power between men and women. In showing the small intrigues, backbiting, and slander behind the podium, where the dancers behave like an extended family, she proves her understanding of the dancer’s lives. I wondered how she had done such thorough research until I read Blackthorn’s daughter Vicky’s Foreword: Vicky is a dancer in a club, and her stories have inspired her mother to write this unusual thriller. I was intrigued by this openness and visited Mrs. Blackthorn’s website where I read under the title “Society, Strippers and Shame” a beautiful and heart-captivating text about how she handled the fact that her daughter chose to be an exotic dancer. I tip my hat for the courage and strength of both mother and daughter, and in my eyes, the authenticity that is tangible in Twerk, making the novel extraordinary, is a result of that courage.

But “Twerk” gives more than a detailed insight in a strip dancer’s life: for a male author like me, it was equally fascinating to read how Isobel Blackthorn dissects the distorted male sexuality in the killer’s character. Blackthorn knows that underneath the virility and macho veneer of the male, lurks manhood’s eternal proof pressure to squash insecurity. I like well-written books that present a reader with more than suspense alone: “Twerk” is definitely such a novel.” – Bob Van Laerhoven, Belgian novelist

Read more about Twerk here.

Read more reviews on Amazon

Book review: The Unknown by Phil Price

About The Unknown

It happens every year. A select few disappear, never to return.

From The Falkland Islands to the Himalayas, Puerto Rico to England – people are vanishing without trace or explanation. A young man who’s lost everything stumbles across an ancient secret.

Can he unlock the mystery? Will he find those who need him?

…can he escape the Unknown?

My Thoughts

I rarely read fantasy/horror, but when I stumbled on The Unknown I decided to try it out. I was surprisingly entertained and even didn’t mind the vampires, which is a real credit to Price as I would normally stop reading the moment they appear. Writing with exceptional imagination, Price has a knack for luring his readers into his story world.

There can be no doubt Price ticks all the boxes of the genre. Strange and spooky happenings in far flung lands. A preternatural child with glowing yellow eyes. Vampires. Doors into other worlds. A looming sense of dread. And a black cross edged with silver on a black rope chain. The scene is set for a seriously creepy read.

Good characterisation, and Price is at pains to endear his protagonists to his readers. Effective world building is critical in the genre and Price has crafted a realm that is at once enchanting and menacing and convincing. I certainly lost myself in it.

After an engaging set up, The Unknown is filled with dramatic tension, with new plot lines and twists and plenty going on to hold the attention. Very well thought out, The Unknown is a visual feast and a gripping read. I would recommend to all who enjoy dark fantasy.

Book Review: Death Sentences by Michael Zimecki

Introducing Death Sentences, a novel written in the form of a memoir and narrated by a guy on death row.

#Death Sentence

About Death Sentences

Peter “Pop” Popovich is a 24-year-old unemployed glazier, anti-Semite and white supremacist who is pushed over the edge by his chaotic mother, his unresponsive lover, an uncaring stepfather and a right-wing hate machine that tells him liberals want to take away his guns and his liberty.
While ‘POP’ waits to be executed for his crimes, he squibs sentences, whole paragraphs, a novel about life on Death Row in which he reprises the life that landed him there.
Death Sentences is loosely based on an incident in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in April 2009, when a lone gunman, convinced that the government was coming to take away his guns, had a four-hour standoff with police.
This explosive novel, reminiscent of the works of Ed Bunker and Charles Bukowski, is a hellish story from the American underclass, its disenfranchised characters long abandoned by government and society and prone to constant failure and excessive violence.

My Thoughts

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened Death Sentences. This could have been the sort of book I would pass by as not that entertaining or interesting. I am glad I stuck around and delved in, for this is quite a gem of a book for a number of reasons, not least it is well written and instantly engaging.

Meet the bizarrely likeable “Pop”, who is on death row for murder, as he outlines his life of incarceration in a penitentiary in Pennsylvania. There isn’t much to say. Living is limited, humiliation and deprivation are constants and it is little wonder that most inmates commit suicide before they ever get to meet their prescribed death.

What drives this story is Pop’s past and how he came to end up on death row. It is a past that applies to a lot of disenfranchised men in the US.

Pop grows up in Pittsburgh in poverty, surrounded by dysfunction. His mother is an alcoholic who lurches from one disastrous liaison after another. Pop is not stupid but he drops out of school feeling alienated and harbouring deep resentments. He  absorbs the racial hatred that surrounds him. He has a love affair with guns. After a spell in the marines his far-right paranoia is fed by conspiracy theories, expounded by the likes of Alex Jones. It is a potent mix that is not going to end well. Pop is just not capable of being anyone other than who is he, because there is no one in his life to show him another way.

The narrative is fast-paced, raw and punchy. Zimecki applies a cold, hard realism, drawing the reader into a world they would probably rather not have to think about and holds them there as the all-too familiar descent unfolds. By the end of it, the reader will be forgiven for wanting to put on trial the system that led Pop to commit his crimes.

Death Sentences takes the reader to places This Boy’s Life would not dare to go, but could have, if the protagonist/narrator had been more like Pop – especially when it came to bad luck – and made one or two different choices along the way. Zimecki has penned a necessary read; Death Sentences ought to be a set text in high school English.

Book review: Return to Hiroshima by Bob Van Laerhoven

There is fiction that is entirely make believe. Then there is fiction that has its basis in fact and the historical record. Return to Hiroshima by Bob Van Laerhoven, in the tradition of political thrillers, is situated firmly in the latter group.

Return to Hiroshima

About Return to Hiroshima

Xavier Douterloigne, the son of a Belgian diplomat, returns to Hiroshima, where he spent his youth, to come to terms with the death of his sister.
Inspector Takeda finds a deformed baby lying dead at the foot of the Peace Monument, a reminder of Hiroshima’s war history.
A Yakuza-lord, rumored to be the incarnation of the Japanese demon Rokurobei, mercilessly defends his criminal empire against his daughter Mitsuko, whom he considers insane.
And the punk author Reizo, obsessed by the ultra-nationalistic ideals of his literary idol Mishima, recoils at nothing to write the novel that will “overturn Japan’s foundations”….
Hiroshima’s indelible war-past simmers in the background of this ultra-noir novel.
Clandestine experiments conducted by Japanese Secret Service Unit 731 during WWII are unveiled and leave a sinister stain on the reputation of the imperial family and Japanese society.

My thoughts

I have a healthy appetite for noir fiction and found Return to Hiroshima a sumptuous and wonderfully grotesque feast. Centred in Hiroshima and written for a Western audience, Van Laerhoven paints a vivid and dark portrait of Japan, its culture and society, and an equally vivid and dark portrait, both immediate and fifty years on, of the aftermath of Little Boy – the atomic bomb that fell on Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945.

Through the eyes of a diverse cast of characters, the reader enters a deep-state reality, shadowy, deceptive, peppered with lies and brutality. The author slowly reveals in short sharp chapters, the twisted and corrupt interplays at work behind the scenes as Japan endures a cataclysmic economic crisis. The novel is set partly amid the abandoned high rises built atop the coal mines of Hashima Island near Nagasaki, where Mitsuko wrestles with the reality she is forced to endure, dominated by her monstrous father and mafia-boss, so-called Rokurobei. She escapes to Hiroshima and forms a friendship with Yori, whose drug-crazed and maniacal boyfriend, Reizo, is at work on his novel in a squat in a disused warehouse.

Soon, the reader meets German photographer Beate Becht, Belgian graduate Xavier Douterloigne and maverick police inspector, Takeda. Each shines a spotlight on Hiroshima, and each is of course instrumental to the plot. What unfolds is on one level a straight ahead race to save Mitsuko from danger and reveal hidden truths. On a deeper level, Return to Hiroshima challenges authorised versions of events and their causes and perpetrators, those versions reported by the press.

Superbly written in an easy, fluid style with characters that are complex and believable, Return to Hiroshima contains a taut and artfully constructed plot. The reader is kept on edge. At any moment the tension will release. Eventually it does, dramatically yet incrementally, intertwined with revelation upon revelation, carrying the reader through to the last page.

While there are a few confronting scenes in this novel, with various victims meeting their awful ends, the ultimate victim in Return to Hiroshima is truth, at once laid bare by the narrator and distorted by the characters. Driving the plot are themes of memory and remembering, childhood trauma and unhealed wounds. Gruesome mutations caused by the atomic bomb are set alongside those caused by secret medical experiments. In all, Return to Hiroshima is an elaborate and insightful depiction of obsession.

Younger readers may not recall the sarin attack in a Tokyo subway that took place in March 1995, and the religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo who claimed responsibility. They may not know of Unit 731 and the atrocities the Japanese meted out in WWII on their prisoners of war, atrocities ignored by the West as we focus all our attention on the Nazis. Cruelty is a global phenomenon, then as now. In addressing this, Return to Hiroshima and its author deserve to be acclaimed.  An intelligent and compelling read.

 

Find a copy of Return to Hiroshima on Amazon

Book review: The Ka by Mary Deal

 The Ka by Mary Deal  

About The Ka

California archaeology student Chione has vivid dreams about the discovery of an opulent tomb. After the founder of the Institute of Archaeology learns that Chione’s dreams might be connected to events in Egypt, he accepts an offer to examine a mysterious site in Valley of the Queens.

After they discover an ancient burial site, spells encoded into the hieroglyphs on the tomb’s walls transport Chione and her former boyfriend, archaeologist Aaron Ashby, 3,500 years into the past: to ancient Egypt. There, they learn of Tutankhamon and Tauret, a priestess in Pharaoh’s Court.

Meanwhile, the other team members are affected in unfathomable ways by the Ka: the spirit of the entombed.

Chione and Aaron learn that Tauret plans to provide Tutankhamon with a living heir… and that they have been chosen to play a crucial part in completing their destiny.

My thoughts on The Ka

From the opening scenes in which a group of hot-tempered academics prepare to uncover a forgotten Egyptian tomb, The Ka draws its readers into a mystery centred in the ancient history of the pharaohs, one that pivots on mysticism and the paranormal. This is undoubtedly a potent mix.

Distinct and believable characters fumble and tumble their way through discovery and danger. The author clearly knows her subject, and provides a vivid and detailed portrait of the tombs and pyramids of ancient Egypt, along with the stories, the tragedies and cruelties, and the betrayals that went on. The historical exposition is cleverly woven into the narrative in the conversations among the party and in the mind of the protagonist, Chione.

The story maintains a good clip and is well-plotted with plenty of twists and surprises. The plot is driven by Chione, who endures many dreams and visions, at times clear, at others murky. Through Chione, Deal blends the present with the ancient, all the while imbuing the narrative with a looming sense of dread. Danger, is everywhere, as pervasive as the sweet odour that so enchants Chione.

Questions prevail, not least what is it between ex-lovers Chione and Aaron and will they re-unite? As the story unfolds the past and present collide in a dramatic way. Suddenly, ancient Egypt is a lived reality, not something dead and buried, but alive and influential, having lured Chione and Aaron back in time and trapping them there. What unfolds makes for a highly engaging read.

Original, refreshing and captivating from first to last, The Ka will appeal to historical fiction fans with a fascination for the supernatural.