Review 1780: Dead Point

Things haven’t been going well at the track for Jack Irish, Harry, and Cam. They just had to shoot a horse, which broke his leg just as he was winning a race. But that’s not the worst. The men’s friend Cynthia was returning from the track with the winnings for a syndicate they put together when she was robbed and brutally beaten. There are no leads, but they soon hear of another similar incident.

Jack’s involvement in these activities has been leading him to neglect a job for Cyril. One of Cyril’s clients wants him to find a man named Robbie Colbourne, who works as a bartender. Jack has barely started looking for him when he reads that the man was found dead of a drug overdose. However, the client asks to see Jack. He turns out to be an eminent judge who had an affair with Robbie, during which Robbie stole a compromising photo album. He hires Jack to find the album.

Peter Temple has written another great thriller, but he has also invented a rich life for his character, who surrounds himself with interesting people. He’s taking the “youth club,” a bunch of octogenarians, to the football, he’s installing a library, he’s advising his ex-partner on his love life, he might be getting back together with Linda. Temple likes his characters and makes working-class Melbourne come to life.

Bad Debts

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Without Fail

Review 1767: Classics Club Spin! A Town Like Alice

I haven’t ever read anything by Nevil Shute, so I decided to put A Town Like Alice on my Classics Club list, and then it was chosen for the latest spin. I’m glad I chose it for my list, because it’s a really good book, hard to categorize—part war story, part love story, part adventure story, about brave and resourceful people and challenges faced. I loved it.

The novel is narrated by Noel Strachan, an elderly solicitor, who finds himself the trustee for a young woman named Jean Paget. After they befriend each other, Jean confides to him that during World War II she was in Malaya when she and a group of women and children were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Since the Japanese didn’t know what to do with them, they were marched hundreds of miles back and forth over the Malay peninsula. Half of them died until Jean made a deal with a village headman that he would allow them to stay there if they helped with the rice harvest. During the time they were wandering, an Australian POW who was driving trucks for the Japanese tried to steal food for them and was crucified by the Japanese. Jean decides to use part of her legacy to dig a well in the Malayan village to thank them for helping.

While in Malaya, Jean learns that the Australian man, Joe Harman, did not die as she thought. She decides to go to Australia to try to find him. As fate would have it, however, he comes to Strachan’s office in London looking for Jean, having learned that she was single after thinking all this time that she was married.

About half the novel is about the couple finding each other, but then Jean sees the nearby town to the remote station where Joe works. She learns that the girls won’t stay in town because there is nothing there for them, and Joe can’t keep men on the station because there are no girls. The resourceful Jean decides that if she can’t bear to live in the town, something must be done to improve it.

It’s easy to see why this novel is so beloved, although caution—there is incidental racism that reflects the times. That being said, I found this novel deeply satisfying—engrossing, touching, full of life and spirit.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

My Brilliant Career

Salt Creek

Review 1748: Black Tide

I understand Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series is classified as hard-boiled crime, which is usually too much for me, but Temple’s writing is so effortless and funny and his characters so interesting that reading these books is a pleasure.

In this second book of the series, Jack is trying to help Des Connors, an old friend of his father. Des’s son Gary has borrowed all of Des’s savings and disappeared. Further, he has mortgaged Des’s house and not paid the bills. If Jack can’t find Gary, Des will be homeless and penniless.

Jack is also involved with his friends Harry and Cam in finding and betting on unlikely racehorses. While involved in this pursuit, they uncover serious cheating at the track.

One of the pleasures of this series besides its carefully constructed plots and punchy dialogue is the full life Temple has constructed for Jack. There is his bunch of elderly pals at the bar, who are obsessed with his dad’s old footie team, his woodworking apprenticeship under his severe teacher, Charlie, his disreputable clients, and his love life. This isn’t going so well as Linda Hillier has taken a job in Sydney.

As Jack looks for Gary, the plot becomes more and more tangled, and he keeps encountering dead bodies. These are really fun, exciting thrillers.

Bad Debts

Laura

In a Lonely Place

Review 1698: Bad Debts

My husband and I binge-watched all of the Jack Irish series and movies early during the pandemic. That led me to look for the first Jack Irish book, Bad Debts.

Jack Irish is a lawyer who has moved from high-powered cases to investigations and more mundane law work after the murder of his wife. He doesn’t immediately return the call of an ex-client, Danny McKillop, because he frankly doesn’t remember him. He misses another phone call from McKillop saying he’s in trouble and asking Jack to meet him in a pub parking lot. Jack looks up his file and finds that McKillop was found guilty of a hit and run of a political activist, while he was drunk. When Jack tries to contact McKillop, he learns he is dead, having been shot by police in the parking lot where he asked Jack to meet him.

Jack figures he probably didn’t do a great job of defending McKillop, since he was drunk most of the time after his wife’s murder. The evidence against him seemed solid: McKillop was found passed out in his car with Jeppeson’s DNA on the hood. But when Jack talks to Danny’s brother, he says that Danny was seen passed out some distance from his car shortly before the hit and run. McKillop’s wife says he had been a model citizen since he got out of jail, contrary to the police explanation of the shooting.

Jack decides to investigate the original incident, opening up a big can of worms.

This is an enjoyable novel, tightly plotted, full of action yet witty and well-written, a little more hard-boiled than I usually read but with appealing characters. The setting is a gritty Melbourne, Australia. Unlike most investigators in fiction, Jack has a well-developed other life, working horse-racing deals with Harry Strang and his colleague Cam, hanging out with the guys at the local, and learning woodworking from a master. And he meets Linda Hillier, an attractive reporter. I will definitely read more.

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Review 1628: My Brilliant Career

My Brilliant Career is the very singular story of the life of an Australian teenage girl in the bush in 1901. It isn’t so much singular in its plot as in the personality of Sybilla, the main character.

Sybilla’s childhood was spent in comfort, as her father was a prosperous horse breeder. However, well before this novel starts, her father decided his talents were wasted, so he sold his property and began a career selling livestock. He was unsuccessful, and he drank heavily in entertaining prospective clients. When the novel opens, the family is struggling to run a dairy with their father drinking away the money he makes selling butter.

Sybilla at 15 is admittedly a difficult person. Her mother never gives her a kind word, and her mother and brother twit her about her lack of good looks. She angrily resents their life of endless labor for no good result. In fact, she is ambitious to become more but doesn’t know how to go about it. She is an unusual mixture of self-confidence and self-hatred and is angry and rebellious.

Sybilla’s mother becomes so angry with her that she arranges for her to go live with her grandmother farther into the bush. There, Sybilla blossoms under the kind treatment of her grandmother, her uncle, and her Aunt Helen. Her aunt helps her look more attractive, but she never gets over believing she is ugly. Romance even seems to be on the horizon.

I thought that the view this novel gives of Australian frontier life is really interesting, and I was particularly struck by the amount of traffic going by the grandmother’s house and the number of homeless, wandering men. However, I was unsatisfied with this novel, and to explain why, I have to include spoilers, so be warned.

A feminist interpretation of this novel might be that the heroine chooses to write a novel instead of getting married, but that would be ignoring Sybilla’s difficult personality. Continually, she seems to bite off her nose to spite her face, and in the case of marriage, really declines out of a sense of inferiority rather than anything else. She decides not to marry Harold and stays in a life she hates because she can’t believe he loves her and she thinks she is not good enough for him. I find that really frustrating. It’s not that I wanted a romantic ending so much as it bothered me how she never really sees herself or is able to get past being told how worthless she is by her mother.

I read this for my Classics Club list.

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Review 1473: A Long Way from Home

A Long Way from Home is almost like two different novels, starting out as a light-hearted romp and finishing with the Australian treatment of its indigenous inhabitants. It is set in 1954 Australia, all over it.

Irene Bobs and her husband Titch are tiny people with a great will to succeed, but they are hampered by the activities of Dangerous Dan Bobs, Titch’s father, who seems to be working against them. When Titch, who is the best car salesman in Southeastern Australia, wants to open his own Ford dealership, Dan prevents it using his influence with his cronies at Ford. Having opened a junk yard, Dan continually drops off expensive objects at Titch’s and then charges him for them.

Irene always vigorously supports Titch against Dan, so when Dan scuppers the Ford dealership, she has already arranged something with GMC. Then, the two get the idea to compete with one of their cars in the Redex Reliability Trial, a grueling test of a car’s endurance on horrendous roads all around Australia. Irene and Titch will be drivers, and their neighbor, Willie Bachhuber, will navigate. Of course, Dan decides to compete against them.

Willie is a recently fired schoolteacher. He is also a competitor on a quiz show and a fugitive, who left his wife after she had a black baby and is wanted for child support. His quiz show work, after a long run, ends when his infatuation with his competitor interferes with his thought processes. He is a great reader of maps, however.

The novel starts out bright and energetic, with vibrant and quirky first-person narration by Irene alternated with that of Willie. It takes a darker turn, though, after an accident with Dan. Soon, Willie is separated from his companions in far Western Australia.

I was really taken with this book, especially at its zippy and vivacious start. I liked the characters, and I thought the ending covers important history about aboriginal abuse. However, these comments don’t convey how the novel zips along in its own quirky way.

I read this book for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1350: Nine Perfect Strangers

Cover for Nine Perfect StrangersLiane Moriarty must be reading Carl Hiaasen or something. Her works have changed from being domestic thrillers to almost a satire of the genre. In the latest, it was difficult to get too worried about the characters.

Frances is a romance novelist who has just received her first turn-down of her latest book, after a long career. She has also read a nasty review of one of her older books. Finally, she’s been the victim of a romantic scam. To recover, she signs up for a 10-day cleanse at a health spa.

Masha, the charismatic owner of the spa, is trying out some new techniques on her clients. A powerful executive ten years ago, she changed her life after a stroke and took up the health field with all the determination she showed in her previous life. Only now, she wants her clients to have an experience that will permanently change their lives.

For about half this novel, I wondered where the heck it was going. It seemed more comic than anything else. Masha is a marvelous egoist, but it was also hard to take most of the other characters seriously.

When the novel finally started getting somewhere, the whole idea just seemed kind of silly, as does the section where the characters inadvertently take some illegal drugs, well, not exactly inadvertently, and we have to observe their silly thought processes.

A hmmm for this one.

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Day 1283: The Husband’s Secret

Cover for The Husband's SecretCecilia Fitzpatrick is a super organized woman who volunteers for things and executes them perfectly all the while keeping an immaculate house, running a Tupperware business, and caring for her husband and children. One day, she accidentally finds an envelope addressed to herself from her husband, John Paul, to be opened in the event of his death. She asks her husband about it, and he gives her an unsatisfying answer and asks her not to open it.

Tess O’Leary thinks her marriage to Will is a happy one. She does, that is, until Will and her best friend and cousin, Felicity, come to tell her they are in love.

Rachel Crowley has been depressed ever since the death of her daughter, Janey, as a teenager. Only since the birth of her grandson has Rachel been happy. But now, her son and daughter-in-law are planning to move away to New York.

The lives of all these people are going to change with the revelation of John Paul’s secret.

I just gave this novel three stars on Goodreads but not because I wasn’t deeply involved in it. Rather, Moriarty presents us with some situations that aren’t easily resolved, but some of the choices she makes to resolve them make me uncomfortable. There is sort of a cruel quid pro quo that feels like it minimizes the acts of some of the characters. Further, it is put across in a jarringly flippant tone.

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Day 1261: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Cover for The Last Painting of Sara de VosBest of Five!
In 1957 New York, Ellie Shipley is a graduate student in art history who also does restorations. A contract for restoration work asks her to make a copy of a 17th century painting, “At the Edge of a Wood” by Sara de Vos, her only known work, for the owner. Soon, however, Ellie understands that she is creating a forgery, but she is too interested in the work to stop.

Marty de Groot, the painting’s owner, notices that his painting has been stolen. He determines he will find out who took it.

In 1631 Amsterdam, Sara de Vos and her husband are poverty stricken after the death of their young daughter. Because they have sold paintings without the permission of the guild, they have temporarily lost their membership. Sara has been painting flowers for a catalog and her husband has been working for a bookbinder. But secretly, Sara has been painting a symbolic memorial for her daughter, “At the Edge of a Wood.”

In 2000 Sydney, Ellie is now a respected academician and museum curator. She has discovered that both of the de Vos paintings, the original and the copy, are being sent to her museum for an exhibit on 17th century Dutch women painters. Now, after 40 years of strict integrity, she is afraid her past is catching up with her.

Although I found the story interesting, I was not at first that involved with this novel. Soon, however, I was totally captivated by all three stories. At first seemingly a crime novel, it goes much deeper. I really enjoyed it.

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Day 1199: Salt Creek

Cover for Salt CreekBest of Five!
Ten years after she left Australia in 1862, Hester Finch recollects the seven years her family spent in the Coorong, at Salt Creek, southeast of Adelaide. Her father brought the family there after all of his other business ventures had failed.

Originally from genteel stock, Mrs. Finch is appalled by the rusticity of the station, as are her children. Mrs. Finch, who moved to Australia for the sake of her husband, is depressed and apathetic, so Hester, the oldest girl, must take her place doing the housework and educating the younger children. Mr. Finch considers himself a godly man who must do his duty by bringing the natives to Christianity, so they take in a mixed race boy named Tully.

Life is difficult, and it slowly gets worse. Although Hester falls in love with Charles, a young artist doing a survey of the area with his father, she decides that she will never allow her fate to be determined by another.

As Hester tries to figure out a way to leave Salt Creek without abandoning her younger brothers and sisters, events occur that make the family understand the kind of man their father is.

Some readers may need patience for the beginning of this novel, as it is mostly setting the stage for events to come. I found the plaintive tone of the novel at first a little depressing. However, just before the halfway point, events get going, and the novel becomes absolutely gripping.

Although Treloar states that the novel is based very loosely on her family’s beginnings, the characters in the novel are completely fictional except for four of them. Those characters make up a subplot that involves an actual murder.

I felt the novel lacked descriptions that would give ideas of the appearance of the place (references are made to its beauty, but I was unable to form a mental picture), but the daily existence of the characters is fully realized. This is at times a harrowing read for my Walter Scott Prize project, but it is certainly worth it.

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