Wednesday, December 6, 2017


HUNTRESS MOON by Alexandra Sokoloff (Thomas & Mercer, 2014)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

FBI Special Agent Matthew Roarke is closing in on a bust of a major criminal organization in San Francisco when he witnesses an undercover member of his team killed right in front of him on a busy street, an accident Roarke can't believe is coincidental. His suspicions put him on the trail of a mysterious young woman who appears to have been present at each scene of a years-long string of "accidents" and murders, and who may well be that most rare of killers: a female serial. 

Roarke's hunt for her takes him across three states...while in a small coastal town, a young father and his five-year old son, both wounded from a recent divorce, encounter a lost and compelling young woman on the beach and strike up an unlikely friendship without realizing how deadly she may be. As Roarke uncovers the shocking truth of her background, he realizes she is on a mission of her own, and must race to capture her before more blood is shed.

A few weeks ago, the fifth instalment in screenwriter-turned novelist Alexandra Sokoloff's ripsnorting 'Huntress/FBI' series, Hunger Moon, was released. If you're new to the adventures of vigilante killer Cara Lindstrom and FBI Special Agent Matthew Roarke, then lucky you: you've got lots to look forward to! When I first tried one of these books, I ended up buying and devouring three titles back-to-back-to-back in one weekend.

Compelling is a reviewer cliche; here it's an understatement.

Sokoloff is a master storyteller, who keeps action and pace high while threading her dark tales with plenty of thought-provoking themes, vivid imagery, and memorable characters - all while keeping we readers wobbling on the edge of our seats, unsure quite what to think or feel as events unfold.

The series began with Huntress Moon, which adroitly managed some impressive sleight-of-hand: it upends some classic serial killer thriller tropes while in of itself being a superb serial killer thriller.

There are many very impressive aspects to Huntress Moon, which all add up to it just being a heck of a good read. The storytelling is seamless, and works on multiple levels. If you're looking for a fast-paced, adrenalin-pumping tale, then Sokoloff delivers spectacularly on that front. But then she layers in much more too: issues and themes that are unsettling and stay with you beyond the final page. There's depth and richness to the settings, the characters, and the underlying story. It's the kind of book that matches 'airport thrillers' for pace and suspense, but feels much 'bigger' and richer.

I found myself cajoled, concerned, compelled. Different readers might identify more with Lindstrom or Rourke, the two main characters. For me, I found both fascinating in different ways, and their growing interplay hints at fireworks to come in the ongoing series. Huntress Moon is the kind of book that immediately has you rushing out to add the rest of the author's work to your bookshelf.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He's interviewed almost 200 mystery writers and discussed crime writing onstage at festivals on three continents, and on national radio and top podcasts. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards (Australia), the McIlvanney Prize (Scotland), and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards (New Zealand). You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Tuesday, December 5, 2017


HOT FLUSH by Rosy Fenwicke (Wonderful World, 2017)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Euphemia Sage watched helplessly as Jane, covered in blood, clutched her precious jewelry and was bundled into the Mercedes. Just a few days earlier she’d discovered that Alison, her mousy receptionist at Sage Consulting, had been working as a loan shark on the side. And now Alison, her husband and those thick-necked men in the cheap suits wanted the money back.

When a desperate Jane had come to Euphemia, of course she had to help. After all, wasn’t this what she was supposed to do? Euphemia had waited more than twenty years to find out if the story in the mysterious letter she’d received on her thirtieth birthday was true. So when at 53 her first hot flush triggered a genetic switch and gave her unexpected powers, she felt more than ready to save Jane and deal to Alison. But what had seemed simple suddenly became complicated when Alison produced a gun. 

Euphemia Sage has been receiving strange letters over the years – from her deceased aunt, the woman who raised her when her mother ran off.  The letters have been spookily aware of Euphemia’s circumstances at the time she reads them, and they speak of strange powers that she will possess once she hits menopause. Euphemia is looking forward to seeing if the letters are true, but unsure how she will use such powers – her life being relatively uneventful. She runs a consultancy business with her golf-crazy husband, and has two daughters, one a police detective and the other a cyber-whiz who works in the family business. She finds enjoyment in her family, her work, running, and in Petal her pug. But that all changes when the hot flushes start.

Euphemia’s annoying but efficient receptionist turns out to be running a loan shark business along with her obnoxious husband – using the Sage’s business to target clients. And an old school rival, Jane, ends up at risk of having her legs broken by the loan shark’s heavies. When Kenneth, Euphemia’s husband, goes off on a golf trip with a group that includes Jane’s husband, Euphemia thinks she has everything under control and can help Jane. But that is before she sees Jane beaten and bundled into a car at gunpoint – and before the heinous baddies take Petal as an additional hostage. After that, things go from terrible to dire, and Euphemia can’t go to the Police, so from the Police point of view she is starting to look like part of the problem.

Hot Flush is a great romp, you find out more and more about the characters as you read, and the story is unveiled layer by layer, with things turning out to be not at all what they first appear to be. Greed, manipulation, and playing the long game, all underpin the story. The writing is very funny, and it is great having the drivers of the plot for the most part being strong women – and having ageing, change of life, and mitochondrial inheritance focussed on in a positive way. There are also unanswered questions and lots of unfinished business, which promises there are more adventures of Euphemia Sage to come – excellent!

Alyson Baker is a crime-loving librarian in Nelson. This review will also appear on her blog, which you can check out here

Thursday, November 30, 2017


NEW HOKKAIDO by James McNaughton (VUP, 2015)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

It is 1987, forty-five years after Japan conquered New Zealand, and the brutal shackles of the occupation have loosened a little: English can be spoken by natives in the home, and twenty-year-old Business English teacher Chris Ipswitch has a job at the Wellington Language Academy. But even Chris and his famous older brother—the Night Train, a retired Pan-Asian sumo champion—cannot stay out of the conflict between the Imperial Japanese Army and the Free New Zealand movement. When Chris takes it upon himself to investigate a terrible crime, he is drawn into the heart of the struggle for freedom, guided along the way by the mysterious Hitomi Kurosawa and the ghost of Kiwi rock ’n’ roll legend and martyr Johnny Lennon.

I so wanted to like this book! McNaughton’s debut novel New Hokkaido is set in a counterfactual New Zealand where there was no bombing of Pearl Harbour, the US did not enter the Second World War, and the Japanese invaded and colonised New Zealand and then formed the Red Sun Alliance with the USSR, which after its victory over Germany had colonised most of Europe.

The book is set forty-five years after the occupation – in 1987, and the Red Sun Alliance stands in opposition to ‘free’ countries such as England, Australia,and the United States. The main character is Chris Ipswitch, an English teacher at the Wellington Language Academy. This is a job of privilege, as any Kiwis lucky enough to have jobs under the oppressive regime are more usually employed as manual labourers. Chris’ position is probably due to the fame of his ex-Sumo wrestler brother, professional name “Night Train”. But Night Train has fallen into disgrace by marrying Japanese Chiyo, and even worse having a mixed race child, Sarah. Chris becomes embroiled in helping his brother whose situation goes from bad to worse, and who ends up accused of murder.

In a parallel story, Chris’ rugby team mates join a Free New Zealand movement bid for freedom by hijacking the Lyttleton Ferry and heading out for Australia. On his quest Chris receives encouraging messages from his hero Johnny Lennon, who came to New Zealand on a Compassion ship during the English famine of 1946, and became a revolutionary musician before dying in police custody in 1972. And he is also accompanied by the mysterious Hitomi Kurosawa, one of Chris’ students who is a ‘Settler’; a Japanese sent to New Zealand as punishment for some sort of crime in Japan.

It is all great fun and an opportunity to explore colonisation and national identity.

McNaughton at times cleverly describes a New Zealand culture which has unwittingly absorbed some Japanese elements, and has nice details like the Irish (who remained neutral in the war) playing a New Zealand produce trade facilitation role between the Japanese and the English. But on the whole the caricatures of the Japanese and New Zealand culture are so coarse that the novel doesn’t really go beyond the original conceit; it is possible that McNaughton is trying to say that gumboot wearing rugby players and 'ladies, a plate' Sheilas are as much a ‘nostalgic’ stereotype as samurai and geisha, but if so that wasn’t developed. The murder mystery Chris sets out to solve is unsatisfactorily concluded and the hijacking sequence not really integrated into the story.

It is a pity. New Hokkaido was such a good idea, but a missed opportunity.

Alyson Baker is a crime-loving librarian in Nelson. This review will also appear on her blog, which you can check out here

Wednesday, November 29, 2017


MURDER IN THE FAMILY by Leonie Mateer (2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Audrey is a psychopath and a serial killer residing in a small town in rural New Zealand. Audrey’s three estranged sisters arrive at Tiromoana for their brother’s funeral stirring up a dark family history of murder and deceit. 

As Audrey attempts to keep the past from destroying their futures, Detective Constable Higgins suspicions cause her to cover her tracks with deadly and dastardly results. 

This was an interesting, surprising, unusual read. The fourth book in Mateer's series centred on Audrey, a female serial killer living as a bed and breakfast host in scenic Northland, New Zealand, Murder in the Family, is told in terse prose with a tendency to veer melodramatic or a little cheesy. There's a sense of fun, of not taking itself too seriously. Audrey lives life on her own terms, while sometimes ending the lives of those who cross her or get in her way. But she's not a super-evil serial killer, more a lovable psycho.

I'd read an earlier instalment of the series, and found this one to be better-crafted. Mateer seems to be hitting her stride with her series. It's almost like a bit of a guilty pleasure, as I found myself enjoying the tale more and more as it went on, and being less bothered by the slightly cheesy writing style as it went on. Murder in the Family is pretty well plotted, with plenty of action and a variety of interesting things happening to keep the pages turning.

There are some beguiling characters populating this story, as Audrey's family gathers together - an unusual event in itself. We get more insight into some of what perhaps made Audrey how she is, and can see her in a more sympathetic light. The family relations provide plenty of great fodder.

Overall, Mateer manages to bring everything together pretty well, even when at times she seems to have rather backed herself (or her story and characters) into a corner. There's excitement and a sense of fun. I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed the read, even though it isn't my usual style of crime novel I enjoy. One on the lighter end of the crime spectrum, despite some dastardly deeds.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He's interviewed almost 200 mystery writers and discussed crime writing onstage at festivals on three continents, and on national radio and top podcasts. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards (Australia), the McIlvanney Prize (Scotland), and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards (New Zealand). You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


NONE BUT THE DEAD by Lin Anderson (Pan Macmillan, 2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Sanday, one of Britain's northernmost islands, inaccessible when the wind prevents the ferry from the mainland crossing, or fog grounds the tiny island hopping plane. When human remains are discovered to the rear of an old primary school, forensic expert Dr Rhona MacLeod and her assistant arrive to excavate the grave. Approaching mid-winter, they find daylight in short supply, the weather inhospitable, and some of the island's inhabitants less than cooperative. 

When the suspicious death of an old man in Glasgow appears to have links with the island, DS Michael McNab is dispatched to investigate. Desperately uncomfortable in such surroundings, he finds that none of the tools of detective work are there. As the weather closes in, the team, which includes criminal profiler and Orcadian Professor Magnus Pirie, are presented with a series of unexplained incidents, apparently linked to the discovery of 13  magic flowers representing the souls of dead children who had attended the island school where the body was discovered. 

But how and in what circumstance did they die, and why are their long forgotten deaths significant to the current investigation? As a major storm approaches, bringing gale force winds and high seas, the islanders turn on one another, as past and present evil deeds collide, and long buried secrets break surface, along with the exposed bones

This is an atmospheric and very enjoyable mystery set on the remote island of Sanday in the outer Orkney Islands off the northern coast of Scotland. The eleventh in Anderson's series starring Rhona MacLeod, None But the Dead flows really well, and ticks plenty of boxes for crime-loving readers as it takes us on a fascinating, twisting journey alongside the Glaswegian forensic examiner.

The story kickstarts with two bodies: one in Glasgow and one in Sanday. In the city, an elderly man is found dead in his flat in suspicious circumstances. A few hundred miles to the north, a skeleton is uncovered when a new arrival in the Orkney Islands is converting an historic school into a house. Sanday is an island steeped in history, but this skeleton is neither recent nor ancient, instead it's from a time decades ago but within living memory for some residents. And what does the grisly find have to do with the thirteen dust-covered flowers discovered in the old school's attic? Flowers that the new owner was warned to leave alone or risk disturbing the souls of long-dead children.

Dr Rhona MacLeod is sent to the Orkneys to deal with and find answers about the skeletal remains. When DS Michael McNab stumbles over a link to Sanday with the Glasgow body, he heads out to the islands to investigate as well. There's an interesting tension between MacLeod and McNab.

In None But the Dead, Anderson does a terrific job creating a vivid sense of Orkney atmosphere; its challenging weather, unusual geography, and rich history. The wildness of the place seeps from the pages, as the winds howl and rains lash the island. MacLeod and McNab are tested on several fronts as they try to extricate the truth behind two deaths. The islanders are an unusual community with plenty of secrets, and are none to keen to share them with officials from across the sea. The uncovered skull vanishes, McNab is attacked, and a young islander goes missing. The bones that brought Dr MacLeod to Sanday may be decades old, but there is plenty of danger in the present too.

And as a storm closes in, MacLeod and McNab are marooned on Sanday, cut off from outside help.

None But the Dead is a cracking page-turner that's likely to have new readers immediately adding Anderson's backlist to their TBR piles. Authentic, atmospheric, and a bloody good read.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He's interviewed almost 200 mystery writers and discussed crime writing onstage at festivals on three continents, and on national radio and top podcasts. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards (Australia), the McIlvanney Prize (Scotland), and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards (New Zealand). You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Saturday, November 25, 2017


HOW TO KILL FRIENDS AND IMPLICATE PEOPLE by Jay Stringer (Thomas & Mercer, 2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Fergus Fletcher is a hit man. For five thousand pounds, he’ll kill anyone you want. For seven, he’ll frame someone else. Pretending to kill someone is a first, but Alex Pennan has stolen from the mob and needs to fake his own death.

Fergus is looking for love. So is Sam Ireland, a private investigator and part-time bike messenger. But she’s got her hands on a very important package and is in a world of trouble with the mob. Joe Pepper, pillar of society and corrupt gangland fixer, will stop at nothing—nothing at all—to intercept the package and protect his reputation.

Can Alex stay dead while his widow dances on his grave? Can Joe save himself before his stomach ulcer explodes? Can Fergus and Sam make it to a second date before Joe hires him to kill her? Welcome to Glasgow. It’s a love story. 

Put simply, this is one of my very favourite reads of 2017, of any kind. Stringer was a new-to-me author, though I'd seen his name popping up on various Noir at the Bar and festival events in the UK. So I went into this with an unvarnished mind, with no idea what I might find. The answer was something quite wonderful: kinetic prose, fascinating characters, a tale barmy and brilliant.

How To Kill Friends and Implicate People is a ripsnorter of a read. Taking a step back, it has a slightly implausible hook, yet it just works terrifically thanks to Stringer's storytelling. There's no worries about suspending disbelief, as the reader is sucked into the characters' Glasgow world.

Sam Ireland, bike courier and part-time investigator, returns from Stringer's earlier novel Ways to Die in Glasgow. Her life gets complicated thanks to an unusual package pick-up, a couple of new private eye gigs, and her online dating dalliances with an enigmatic guy named Fergus. Unbeknownst to Sam, Fergus is a professional killer who's own work is entangled with some of what Sam is hired to investigate. Forget six degrees of separation in Glasgow, Sam and Fergus have dangerous crossover.

Meanwhile Fergus is fascinated by Sam, while at the same time juggling the fallout and planning of a couple of different gigs himself; one with the unusual twist of being a non-killing. A man wants to hire Fergus to 'kill him', but not kill him, so he can escape the clutches of criminals he's ripped off.

This is not your usual murder mystery, private eye, or police procedural-style crime novel, but it's a brilliant crime tale. Imagine a Tarantino movie (or perhaps Coen Brothers or Guy Ritchie) in book form. A richly evoked world, memorable characters that leap off the page, and lots of interconnections and entanglements in plotlines and character relationships. It's a heck of a fun read.

It's a little tricky to review this book without providing spoilers, so I'll just say that if you're in the mood for something a little different in your crime reading, something that has a real energy crackling through its writing, vibrant and fascinating characters, and plenty of action, then give this a go.

Highly recommended.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He's interviewed almost 200 mystery writers and discussed crime writing onstage at festivals on three continents, and on national radio and top podcasts. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards (Australia), the McIlvanney Prize (Scotland), and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards (New Zealand). You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson


OLMEC OBITUARY by LJM Owen (Echo Publishing, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Yearning for her former life as an archaeologist, Australian librarian Dr Elizabeth Pimms is struggling with a job she doesn’t want and a family she both loves and resents.

A royal Olmec cemetery is discovered deep in the Mexican jungle, containing the earliest writing in all the Americas. Dr Pimms is elated to join the team investigating the ancient skeletons found on site. Triumph is short-lived, however, as Elizabeth's position is threatened by a volatile excavation director, contradictory evidence, and hostile colleagues. With everything working against her, will Dr Pimms find the cause of death for a 3,000-year-old athlete and those buried with her?

Having spent six months travelling through Latin America several years ago, visiting ruins famed and lesser-known and learning about ancient cultures like the Inca, Mayans, and Olmec, I was quite curious about this debut crime novel from an Australian author.

There are several things readers could enjoy about the first Dr Elizabeth Pimms tale, but this reader was left a little underwhelmed by the read overall. I'm a crime omnivore, enjoying everything from cosy to noir, humorous crime to the darkest serial killer tales. This book sits more at the cosy end of the genre, with little in the way of on-page violence or sex, a 'lighter' tone even though it was serious in parts, and a quirky investigator probing a rather bloodless crime at its heart, etc.

Dr Pimms is potentially an interesting character, though I felt at a distance to her most of the time, not fully engaged. I wouldn't go so far to say she's unlikable, more that she's just tricky to warm to. She jumps to a lot of conclusions, and overlooks her own flaws while focusing on those of others.

A former archaeologist, Dr Pimms is now reluctantly working as a librarian back in Australia, supporting her family after her father's death. Her vocational spirits are lifted by an opportunity to work as a volunteer on bones recovered from an Olmec cave. But something strange seems to be going on with the discovery - there are mysteries present and past when it comes to the bones.

There is plenty of background detail peppered throughout the book, though Owen seems like a novice chef who's a little clumsy and heavy-handed with their seasoning. It felt like the author tried to stuff many of her personal interests into the book, which rather than texturing the story, overwhelmed or took away from it at times. That said, the background and historic details are quite fascinating.

Lots of interesting topics are touched upon, and there were good pieces for a great cosy mystery here, but the story and writing was just a little lacking overall. Plenty of promise, and some great pieces for an ongoing series starring Dr Pimms. I think this one would be most appreciated by crime readers who are big fans of cosies, and maybe those who enjoy the likes of Kathy Reichs but are willing to give a novice author a bit of latitude as she finds her storytelling feet.

I'd give LJM Owen another go.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He's interviewed almost 200 mystery writers and discussed crime writing onstage at festivals on three continents, and on national radio and top podcasts. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards (Australia), the McIlvanney Prize (Scotland), and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards (New Zealand). You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Friday, November 24, 2017


ALL OUR SECRETS by Jennifer Lane (Rosa Mira, 2017)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

The River Picnic was one of the biggest events that ever took place in Coongahoola, and even wilder than the street party the night Malcolm Fraser became Prime Minister. The adults spoke about it in whispers and only when they thought us kids were out of earshot. All I knew for sure, apart from the fact that Stu Bailey’s wife drowned that night in the Bagooli River, was that four times more babies than usual were born the following October and not all of them looked like their dads.

A girl called Gracie. A small town called Coongahoola, with the dark Bagooli River running through it. The Bleeders — hundreds of ‘Believers’ who move in and set up on the banks of the river. Who start buying up the town, and winning souls. The River Children — born in the aftermath of the infamous River Picnic. They start to go missing, one after the other. 

Gracie Barrett, the naively savvy spokesperson for her chaotic family (promiscuous dad, angry mum, twins Lucky and Grub, Elijah the River Child and fervent, prayerful Grandma Bett), for the kids who are taken, for the lurking fear that locks down the town and puts everyone under suspicion.

Gracie is funny and kind, bullied and anguished, and her life spirals out of control when she discovers she knows what no one else does: who is responsible.

If there is one thing you'll come away from ALL OUR SECRETS with, it's the voice of Gracie Barrett ringing in your ears. It's an impressive portrayal.

There's something very worrying going on in the fictional town of Coongahoola, New South Wales. It's not just The Believers (or Bleeders as they are quickly nicknamed) - a cult led by the oddly charismatic Saint Bede. Long before they arrived there was the infamous River Picnic, on the night Malcolm Fraser became Prime Minister. Stu Bailey's wife drowned in the Bagooli River and there's a group of kids around town, all born around the same time, that don't look like their dads - everyone calls them the "The River Children".

Which never seemed to be a major problem for Coongahoola. Everyone knew and despite a bit of huffing and puffing about some childish pranks, most people seemed not to care too much. But then River Children start disappearing, and Gracie is worried for a lot of reasons. Her own family life is a more than a bit chaotic. Her Mum and Dad got married very young, Dad has moved out and seems to be continuing his pattern of relationships with a lot of women in town. Gracie, her Mum Nell, the twins Lucky and Grub, and her brother Elijah all live with Grandma Bett. Dad's mum, friend of Nell despite the marital complications, and the families constant in their slightly crazy lives. There's lots of love in this bunch of battlers, for all their problems they are a family - supportive, loving, caring, accepting and worried. Elijah is a River Child after all.

Told from Gracie's point of view, the tone and observations of a young girl feel absolutely spot on. Gracie's a good kid, bullied and anguished, she's funny, kind, loving and conflicted. She wants her family to stay together, Dad to come home and Mum to stay away from Saint Bede. She wants Elijah to be safe, but she's not too keen on the solution of shipping him off to relatives to keep him out of harm's way. She loves her Grandma even though she doesn't always get her, and she likes the town that she lives in, even if sometimes people can be a bit iffy. She's also somebody who isn't going to sit around and wait for a solution when things go pear-shaped. Somebody's killing River Kids and she's going to find out who it is.

Right from the opening lines you get an immediate feel for the tone of Gracie's voice and hence the book:
The first bad thing happened back when Elijah was five. Some people reckoned it triggered all the terrible things that happened later. But despite what they said, it wasn't Elijah's fault. He's my brother and I know everything about him, even that he was circumcised at nine months (thought that's not much of a secret - the fight Mum and Dad had afterwards was loud enough for the whole of Australia to hear). I know better better than anyone that he didn't mean to kill Sebastian. 

(no spoiler provided as you'll find out very quickly who Sebastian is and what happened).

Author Jennifer Lane lives in New Zealand, was born in Australia, and has had short stories published before, but (I understand) this is her her debut novel. Sitting somewhere between something aimed at older teen readers (Gracie is 11, nearly 12 in this novel), and something that is very readable for adults, ALL OUR SECRETS is strongly voiced, has a great sense of place and character all round, and an excellent plot. It's an absolute gem.

Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006. Karen also reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the Ngaio Marsh Awards. This review was first published on Aust Crime Fiction.