Book Review: The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean

Felicity McLean’s debut novel novel has been described as The Virgin Suicides meets Picnic at Hanging Rock. Set in small town Australia, the book is told in two time frames, and begins when Tikka Molloy returns home to reconnect with her sister Laura who isn’t well. She can’t stop thinking, had they did the right thing twenty years ago when their friends, the three Van Apfel sisters vanished. She looks back on that sweltering summer when she was eleven and the events that led up to their disappearance.

Tikka is a great child narrator – she reminds me a little bit of Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, if we’re thinking of book comparisons here. She’s smart and imaginative and comes from a loving family. At the corner of their street live the Van Apfels and Tikka and Laura spend a lot of time there as the family has a pool. The Van Apfels attend a fundamentalist church – their dad, though outwardly genial, is particularly strict and this causes tension with his wayward thirteen-year-old daughter Cordelia.

There’s a lot of Tikka trying to make sense of her world and understand what’s going on with the grown-ups, and the tension that seems to lurk at the Van Apfels. There’s a new teacher, Mr Avery, who has a mysterious past that may have included a stint in prison – as rumour has it. So along with the simmering heat there is plenty of simmering tension as the school plans its big, Showstopper concert at an outdoor amphitheatre, for which Tikka has written her own skit and where events build to a climax.

In true Aussie Noir style, the landscape plays a big part in this novel. The mangroves around a brackish estuary create a sinister backdrop (Tikka complains of an unpleasant smell); the empty landscape beyond; the heat bouncing off the tarmac. It all adds to the mood and tension of the book. And there is a hint of the unreliable narrator about Tikka. How accurate are her memories from childhood? Even now as an adult she still can’t help looking for Cordelia (Cordie) at railway stations, at busy intersections, her blonde head just disappearing around corners, failing to stop when called. The Van Apfel girls may have disappeared that summer, but a part of Tikka seems to have been lost as well.

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is an impressive debut, a character driven mystery that is also quite the page-turner. There is plenty of humour with the way McLean re-imagines childhood, the rivalry between sisters and between classmates, the rumours and the secrets, the superiority of the older kids. This balances out the sadness of what happens and the feeling of lost innocence which runs through the story. Not a long book, McLean’s novel is well worth picking up, and heralds a promising new author to look out for. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Survivors by Jane Harper

It’s hard not to be disappointed that the new Jane Harper isn’t set in the outback like The Dry and The Lost Man. She uses the relentless heat and harsh environment of that setting in a way that adds suspense and atmosphere by the bucketload. The Survivors sweeps us off to Tasmania and a coast that has seen scores of shipwrecks with tides that can catch out the unwary. A different environment, but still there’s that sense of danger.

Though for most of the inhabitants of Evelyn Bay it’s just the place they call home and where many make enough of an income from the tourists that visit every summer. It’s the place where Kieran grew up, but he’s made a new life in Sydney with Mia, who knew Kieran at school. The couple have returned with a baby in tow to their childhood home to help Kieran’s parents pack up and move to a nearby town. Kieran’s dad has dementia. The family are still haunted by a tragic event that took the life of Kieran’s brother, Finn, and almost Kieran too, for which he feels survivor’s guilt and more.

But this was a dozen or so years ago, and Kieran has a family, a new life, plenty to be getting on with. Another death, a murder no less, threatens to drag the earlier tragedy back into everyone’s thoughts. For at the same time that Finn and his friend had been attempting to rescue Kieran, Gabby, a fourteen year old girl and Mia’s best friend, disappeared, her backpack washed up days later. When Bronte, a young waitress, is found murdered on the beach, questions arise about why the death of Gabby wasn’t investigated properly all those years ago.

Harper really understands how to work small-town prejudices, the tendency to make connections where there are none, to leap to conclusions. The emotions run high in this book, particularly around Kieran and his family, but also on the appearance of Bronte’s parents. You can’t help but feel a parent’s anguish of losing a child. Then there’s all the guilt Kieran feels for the events that led to the earlier tragedy, particularly as he remembers the laddish behaviour, the sexism and one-upmanship he and his mates indulged in. One can’t help hoping he’s a better man now.

The Survivors is another brilliant read by Jane Harper – it doesn’t really matter where she sets her books, because it’s the characters and the way we connect with them that really drives the plot. And living in a country with treacherous coastlines everywhere you look, it was easy for me to visualise the setting and imagine the danger. And yet…. I just love the buzz of reading about the outback and I’m kind of hoping to return there with the next Jane Harper. Still, this one scores and easy four out of five from me.

Book Review: Where the Dead Go by Sarah Bailey

I discovered this series with the first book, The Dark Lake, which introduced beleaguered police detective Gemma Woodstock. She’s got a lot of baggage, which is relevant to the first novel and here, a couple of books later, things aren’t getting any easier in Where the Dead Go.

Gemma has temporarily left Sydney to return to small town Smithson due to her ex-partner’s death. They have a young son, Ben, although they haven’t been together for a few years, Gemma having made a new life in Sydney with charismatic, older and wiser, Mac. Gemma just makes it through the funeral, when her old boss Jonesy is asked to pick up a missing person’s case in the coastal town of Fairhaven. Jonesy can’t spare the hours, so Gemma ups stakes and bolts, eager to leave the claustrophobic town of her upbringing and immerse herself in work, taking young Ben with her.

This causes all sorts of disapproval – from her dad, from her friends, from Mac. But Gemma is headstrong and sees work as her refuge. The case – a fifteen-year-old girl who vanishes after a party – is tricky with few leads. Possible suspects include Abbey’s ex-boyfriend and her violent father. Plus there are some texts on Abbey’s phone from a mystery man who seems to be stalking her.

Bailey does small towns really well. The way everyone knows everyone and talks about them behind their back. The secrets that no one wants to share with strangers, let alone a strange police woman. Gemma is up against it all. She’s filling in for a Detective Inspector who’s had a car accident and has a grudge against women high achievers like Gemma. Her team vary from being hostile – in the case of detective de Luca, another woman who’s battling the DI – and incompetent. And then there’s the fact that the case reminds Gemma of another girl who went missing in Sydney and who she failed to save. That case is still giving Gemma nightmares.

Soon there’s a death and then Gemma is threatened, reminding us why she should never have brought Ben to Fairhaven. The setting of a seaside town that makes it’s living off a transient holiday population adds atmosphere. Danger builds up to a point where Gemma’s life is at stake and there are some brilliant action scenes.

But the real tension is in the character of Gemma herself. She’s impulsive, forgets to look after herself, and ignores Mac’s frequent texts and phone calls. As a reader I was frequently begging her to pick up the phone, to check back on Ben, to get the heck out of there. While the story seemed to sag a little in the middle with all the characters and interviews and forensic reports, I know I will return to the series to check in again on Gemma – she’s just so interesting. Three and a half stars from me.

Book Review: Scrublands by Chris Hammer

Aussie Noir has become incredibly popular since The Dry by Jane Harper was published in 2016. Similarly drought and the high heat of summer, this time in outer New South Wales, is the setting for Hammer’s debut crime novel. Newspaper journalist Martin Scarsden visits Riversend, site of a mass killing, a year later to write an update on the town, a story previously covered by rival journo, D’Arcy Defoe.

Scarsden, once something of a lothario, suffers from PTSD following an incident when he was covering the Gaza Strip for his paper. His boss thinks this assignment will be a tonic – get him out of the office yet keep him busy. But Riversend is a depressed sort of place for recovery. The miserable Black Dog Motel lives up to its name; the town’s businesses are struggling and nobody’s very forthcoming – except for the young policeman, Robbie Haus Jones, the hero of the day.

Reverend Byron Swift was a good-looking, charismatic preacher, popular with the young and, with Jones, helped resurrect the youth centre, a Pied Piper figure it seems. So what made him open fire on his church steps, gunning down several men from the Bellington Anglers Club? Scarsden talks to the locals and gets a few more snippets out of Harley Snouch, the dero who says Swift was a pedophile. He takes coffee and comfort at the Oasis bookshop, run by drop-dead gorgeous, Mandalay Blonde – a what’s a beautiful girl like you doing in a place like this scenario.

Fortunately before you have too much time to wonder on the clunkiness of the love angle or the characters’ names, events start to hot up, literally. Martin becomes suddenly popular when he saves a teenager’s life and helps out with a bushfire. There are more murders, including a cold case involving two German backpackers. But Martin’s luck soon runs out as he tries to get his facts straight and more reporters and the police close in. People may be talking but everyone seems to have something to hide. Who can Martin trust?

Hammer manages a lot of plot threads in the novel, carefully reeling out backstory and tying them all together in the end. The pressure to file the story first and the mock camaraderie between the news teams add authenticity. I really enjoyed the lively, unmistakably Australian dialogue which spins the plot along nicely making Scrublands an entertaining read. And in the background there’s that oppressive, drought-stricken landscape.

Hammer earned a best new crime novel Dagger Award for Scrublands and it’s easy to see why. It’s an interesting story given weight by the way it deals with bigger things like evil and redemption. But I found the character of Mandalay Blonde (that surely should be a Bond heroine) and her relationship with Martin didn’t work for me. This one gets a three.

Book Review: Into the Night by Sarah Bailey

 

9781760297480I reviewed The Dark Lake by this author not so long ago but actually, it was this book – her second Gemma Woodstock crime novel – that I picked up first. It just looked so interesting with its brooding Melbourne in winter setting; a damaged detective (Woodstock is hopeless at relationships, has more baggage than you can shake a stick at, including a young son she has left behind in the small town where she grew up); and everything’s new – new flat, new job, new city, new partner.

But you just have to read book one first. Into the Night begins with the murder of a homeless man and Sergeant Gemma Woodstock feels the pressure to close the case quickly so that other Melbourne homeless feel safe and the news media think the police care about those who slip below the radar. Continue reading “Book Review: Into the Night by Sarah Bailey”