Nhu “Ned” Kelly – P.M. Newton’s novels

PMnewtonjI’d been wanting to read P.M. Newton’s The Old School for a very long time. Ever since it came out in 2010, actually.

My buddy, Rodney, who is quite the afficionado of Australian crime fiction, had mentioned it to me and I was immediately taken with the idea of a Vietnamese Australian detective in 1990s Sydney.

It took me till 2013 to read The Old School (thanks, @oanh_1)and I included it as part of my AWW 2013 listing. The impending publication of Newton’s second novel with the same lead character – Nhu “Ned” Kelly – spurred me to get a hold of the first. I inhaled the book, with its fast-paced narrative and tough, adeptly attuned characterisations. Then I eagerly awaited the second.

Beams Falling sat on a library shelf one weekend, tempting me with its new-bookish allure. I snatched it up immediately.



Kids’ books: Chicken Big (Keith Graves)

Chicken Big (Keith Graves) In our family compound, plans were afoot for a shared chicken house for a rather long time.

S. had been cutting steel and welding in between the school and kindy drop-offs for months. Finally, in September, four point-of-lay hens and four chicks came to roost.

In preparation for the chickens’ arrival, I’d bought Keith Graves’ Chicken Big when I spied it in a bookstore.

It sat for weeks in the cupboard. Things were moving slowly on the chicken palazzo front.

When we finally broke it out and read it to the kids, it was love at first sight: peals of laughter; reading it cover to cover repeatedly and literally (there are cartoons on the back cover); imitations of the characters over breakfast; and fragments of text as family code.

It is a book that’s a lot of fun. It’s a classic story about not belonging, and trying to find one’s community. Even if that community is kind of nuts, and thick, and…well, you have to read this book. I’m sniggering to myself just thinking about some of the phrasing and images.


AWW 2014 – signing up

AWW 2014 badge
AWW 2014 badge

Well, this probably comes as no surprise to those of you who follow me on Twitter, but I will be taking part in AWW 2014.

I’ve been tweeting about enjoying hardcopy books again, after finding myself juggling three paperbacks in my reading hours.

They are all books written by Australian women authors, and include crime fiction and memoir/autobiography. They will probably be reviewed during AWW 2014, as this newly created page flags.

What am I reading at the moment?

  1. PM Newton’s The Old School
  2. Michelle Lee’s Banana Girl
  3. Michelle Dicinoski’s Ghost Wife

It’s purely by accident that I’ve ended up in the midst of this fab constellation of writers/books.

1. I finally got into Old School (which I’ve been meaning to read for YEARS, as @oanh_1 will testify…) because I saw that Newton’s second book about Detective ‘Ned’ (Nhu) Kelly was coming out soon.

2. Dicinoski’s book was gifted to me by the author herself after we had a great, energising chat (our first meeting!). I couldn’t resist having a peek at the first few pages and was immediately engaged by the prose and my own Brisbane nostalgia.

3. Lee’s book was a discovery during one of my frantic Xmas bookshopping blitzes. I hadn’t heard anything about this book, but was immediately sucked in by the fact that it was by an Asian Australian woman who lives in Melbourne. Also: the title.

It’s probably an apt time to cut’n paste a reminder about what the AWW challenges are about:

The 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge was set up to help overcome gender bias in the reviewing of books by Australian women. The challenge encourages avid readers and book bloggers, male and female,

Australian and non-Australian, to read and review books by Australian women throughout the year. You don’t have to be a writer to sign up. You can choose to read and review, or read only. (Suggestions for what makes a good review can be found here.)

The challenge will run from Jan 1 – Dec 31, 2014. You can sign up at any time.

I will (again) be attempting the Franklin (10 read, 6 reviewed), and I’m not opting for particular genres this time. Given my predilections, and initial momentum, I suspect it’ll be heavy on crime/thriller and memoir.

Hope you’ll consider signing up as well, and joining in what has grown into a bustling, chatty, and very supportive community!


My previous AWW sign-up posts:

AWW 2013 – how’d I do?

AWW 2013
AWW 2013

So, I failed again.

I keep signing up, though, so don’t fault my consistency.

For AWW 2013, I had signed up for the Franklin challenge, which meant reading 10 books and reviewing 6 (if one was intending to review, which I did).

I had decided to have a focus on fantasy/horror for this challenge, but wandered off that trail quite early. I tend towards crime fic, and am a fan of Young, so it’s not surprising that I had to read Antidote to Murder. I’d heard so about Savage’s books that I had to try one for myself, and Gardiner’s trilogy is one I’ve been wanting to read ever since I heard about them.

I started well. In fact, I started better than I thought I would. I read Lister and Chan within a month, and felt I was ahead. Each came from the genres I had said I’d focus on.

Chuffed from this, I managed to then let the challenge down by not keeping an eye on the year as it – again – sped past.

Before I knew it, we’d hit November and I was three reviews short and had three more books to go.

I didn’t hold much hope for getting more books read, but I did want to get two more review done, given I’d read the books and all. One of the reviews was for a trilogy of YA novels, which I’d considered splitting into three reviews but thought that might be a bit sneaky (not to mention a lame and transparent attempt to complete the challenge without attending to the spirit of the reviews…).

My final completed book and review list is:

  1. Dionne Lister. Shadows of the Realm. –> my review
  2. Queenie Chan. The Dreaming series. –> my review
  3. Felicity Young. Antidote to Murder. –> my review
  4. Angela Savage, Behind the Night Bazaar –> my review
  5. Kelly Gardiner, Ocean without End (Swashbuckler! series)
  6. Kelly Gardiner, The Pirate’s Revenge (Swashbuckler! series)
  7. Kelly Gardiner, The Silver Swan (Swashbuckler! series) –> my review of the trilogy


Am I signing up for AWW 2014, which is now officially open?

I’m not sure yet. Truly. It seems a bit pathetic to keep signing up for a reading challenge that I then never complete.

The thing that makes me want to sign up and participate, though, is that AWW is a great community (on Twitter and in blogging circles). It’s companionable to be part of the challenge, even when I know my feet are dragging and I’m not in any danger of completing it.

Watch this space…!

AWW 2013 REVIEW – Swashbuckler trilogy (Kelly Gardiner)

Ocean without End (Kelly Gardiner)I’ll admit it. I’m one of those people who has tried to read, but never finished, Moby Dick.

And I’d like to admit further that it has haunted me. It’s one of those books that a person with a literary studies PhD is expected to have read. Along with all the works of Shakespeare, and Austen, Dickens, the Brontes, and – in Australia – White.

I’m not one of those literary studies PhDs. But I digress…

Trying to read Moby Dick and other classics that involved ships and steam-trains caused me to build an aversion to books that featured these things. Seriously. I know it sounds silly. To this day, I haven’t read Murder on the Orient Express, even though I’m a big Christie fan.

So, when I first encountered Kelly Gardiner’s (@kmjgardiner) trilogy and realised ships were involved, I hesitated. But I was won over by the idea of a pirate girl protagonist, and I was on the look-out for books to recommend to my daughter as she moved up the reading levels.

I had intended to dip into the first book and see whether the trilogy would be something I’d recommend to her.


AWW 2013 REVIEW – Behind the Night Bazaar (Angela Savage)

Behind the Night Bazaar (Angela Savage)I’m a latecomer to Angela Savage’s books, which is part of the joy of discovering them because there are now three novels to relish in the Jayne Keeney series.

The latest, The Dying Beach, launched only recently (mid-July). Here’s Angela’s take on that book’s launch.

The blurb for the first novel goes like this:

“Investigating murder, child prostitution, and corruption—all in a day’s work for kickass PI Jayne Keeney. The first in a series of funny, gripping crime novels set in Thailand, Behind the Night Bazaar introduces us to this likeable thirty-something private investigator, working undercover in a place where she can do anything but blend in.”

I really liked the book.

The narrative pacing, characters, and setting were all well tailored and clever. Jayne, in particular, was presented as engagingly human, complete with the damaging emotional choices she has made in her past and present.

The Thai setting was also given centre-stage in a credible and effective way. It worked well beyond the ‘exotic backdrop’ mode of so many novels set in Asia, where local colour doesn’t impinge on the unfolding narrative. I really appreciated the way Savage’s writing gave texture to everyday life and tension in Thailand, particularly the ways in which the story presented a society that was responding (or not) to fast change and urban drift. The motivations of the characters, embedded with these tensions, are engaging and effective. Sometimes, this was a little too effective and I had to take moments out of the novel because the emotional weight of the issues it deals with got to me.

The thing about this novel that I liked the best was its ability to surprise me. I would be reading along, expecting something that wouldn’t come to pass. A lot of this was due to Jayne being very smart and savvy; perhaps I’m too used to protagonists who get caught out, or exposed? That said, she’s no superhero, nor does she turn out to be a virtuous crusader. And this is all to the good.

I would definitely recommend this book to those who like clever crime, strong female leads (really, what worthwhile person doesn’t?), and immersion in a context fraught with politics and race tensions.

I’m definitely looking forward to spending time with The Half-Child, Savage’s second novel in the Keeney series!

Kids’ books: Spork (Kyo Maclear)

Spork (Kyo Maclear)
Spork (Kyo Maclear)

One of the greatest joys of having children is how I’ve rediscovered the fabulous embrace of public libraries.

It’s a constant enjoyment because the kids are moving through the stacks as they get older and their tastes change.

6.5yo E.’s already dipping into the occasional graphic novel and moving into short novels. I’m finding new authors to catch up on (most recently, Neil Gaiman – I know, I know, I’ve never read Gaiman, but that’s another post). 4yo G. is starting to recognise words and sound them out; he’s moving on from the cardboard books to relatively long narrative picture books.

The other  weekend, I had the added delight of discovering Spork by Kyo Maclear.  The book was on constant rotation when it came home. Usually, little G. eases into the ‘new books’ from the library every week but, with Spork, he was a fan from Day 1. Every night, he’d flip through other books and choose some, but he’d always go to this one and drop it on the bed’s ‘to-read’ pile.

When I saw the author’s name I did a double-take. I know Kyo Maclear. She’s an academic in Asian Canadian Studies. I had read her research, and had colleagues who mentioned Kyo with regularity.

Seeing her turn up as a children’s book author was an absolute thrill. There’s something about finding academics with lives that spill outside of universities that makes me feel better about the world.


AWW 2013 REVIEW – Antidote to Murder (Felicity Young)

Antidote to Murder (Felicity Young)As you can probably tell from my review of Felicity Young’s first novel in the Dody McCleland series, Dissection of Murder, I’m a fan.

I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this second novel, and it didn’t disappoint.

Well, except that it ended.

Within a few pages, I was back in Young’s evocation of noisome, overheated, early twentieth-century London. As well as the crush and noise, the second-class citizen status of women was immediately clear in Dody’s interactions with hospital staff.

The notoriety of her profession is well layered into the narrative, as is her difficult and often derided role as the first woman in it. Dody is always met with distinct reactions to her chosen lifestyle.

The intrigue starts early with Dody’s beau, police-officer Matthew Pike, doing a runner from the hospital where he was slated for surgery.

We’re quickly into the thick of undercover investigations, illicit drugs, and criminal medical activities. Dody’s sister, Florence, is once again stirring things up, sometimes without realising it. Dody herself is causing more unease than usual by becoming a zealot about sex education and birth control, and who can blame her after the extreme situations that she has to deal with in the impoverished alleyways of Whitechapel.


Pages for pixels

Commuting dreams (Photo by Tseen Khoo)
Commuting dreams (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

I haven’t read a hardcopy book for close on two and a half years now.

My most common reading window is on my work commute. Given the rarity of seats on the train at peak hour, the likelihood that I’ll be swinging around in an aisle or central section is high. I’m not coordinated enough to hold a book + turn pages + balance… hence, the domination of e-reading. Single hand, one-finger swiping. I can read even if I’m being totally sardined by too many people in suits and with hefty bags. Pressed in on all sides + with nothing to hold on to, I can easily disappear into a book with no bag juggling or trying to gain more space.

Diving into a book on the commute works for me. Others have been shocked that I can read so much on the small screen of the phone, but text size is comparable to what they’d be reading on a Kindle or iPad. There’s just more swiping involved.

On my phone, I think I’ve read over 100 books, including all the “Song of Ice and Fire” series (George R. R. Martin – Game of Thrones), most of Lee Child’s Reacher series (up to book 11), just about all the Rizzoli & Isles series (Tess Gerritsen), + many of the AWW 2012 books.


AWW 2013 Review: The Dreaming series (Queenie Chan)

Cover for 'The Dreaming' omnibus (Queenie Chan)
Cover for ‘The Dreaming’ omnibus (Queenie Chan)

I’ve been wanting to follow up on Queenie Chan‘s work and read her stories ever since I put together the diverse women authors post for AWW 2012, and @tansyrr left a comment that reminded me of Chan’s work.

The Dreaming series, which I read all at once in a single book, has three volumes.

I must admit to not having read or seen much of Chan’s work. I’m also not much of a manga reader, but I know the broad style.

I was immediately struck by how true to the Japanese manga aesthetic Chan’s settings and characters’ expressions seemed to be.

For me, it was quite a twist to discover that this horror story is set in the Australian bush, complete with gum trees, billabongs, and Aboriginal mythology.

Reading the three volumes at once was such quick work that I felt guilty about not spending time appreciating the inkwork and scene transitions. Chan is refreshingly down-to-earth about her practice and skills (see her entry, “How I got started”) and prioritises the narrative above artwork:

I persevered not because I started off wanting to be a great manga-artist and drawing “cool comics” (though that crossed my mind more than several times), but because I had a story I wanted to tell, and wanted to tell it in manga format.

The Dreaming hit many classic creepy notes for me, particularly as it cross-referenced the girls-disappearing-in-the-bush motif (Mirandaa-aaa! – cf. Picnic at Hanging Rock). The superstitions and untold stories added to the narrative tension, as did the leakage of disturbing dreams to waking life.

Chan consistently references Victorian era schoolgirls in bustly dresses with good, chilling effect. What is it about that element that lends itself to a studied creepiness? Perhaps that brandished carving knife didn’t help…

My two caveats about the trilogy: First, I did have some difficulty in the beginning with the immediate introduction to the cast of characters. The girls in the school, especially, confused me because – dare I say this? – they kind of looked the same… I soon depended on their hairstyles to tell them apart. Second, while I was effectively sucked into the narrative, I found the pacing uneven and, at times, repetitive.

In the end, Chan’s back-story for the school and its dark history is satisfying. She tied up many loose ends, but not all. I liked having some questions floating in the mix after closing the covers.

Chan has also drawn several of Dean Koontz’s books, and she recently featured in a women manga artist symposium at the Art Gallery of NSW (January 2013). I’ll certainly be looking out for more of her work in the future, and am considering snagging the Koontz books.

Queenie Chan’s website: http://www.queeniechan.com