Unsolved Australia

09/01/2015 at 2:05 PM (Books) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

When I read Unsolved Australia by Justine Ford, once a reporter on Australia’s Most Wanted,  it reminded me of Cold Case, the television show because it is essentially a true crime book about unsolved homicides in different Australian states and territories and the reader is invited to become an armchair detective. While cases on television are wrapped up within an hour, in real life many unsolved investigations continue for years because up-and-coming scientific technologies and shifted loyalties with the passage of time is what provides the required breakthrough evidence to solve a case. This book features 18 chilling cases that are probably less heard of than the equally frightening stories of Daniel Morcombe or the Beaumont Children.

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The first unsolved case is that of the murder of Shane ‘Bones’ Barker, who was gunned down in Tasmania outside his house on August 2 2009. The most significant lead that was unearthed is about an unidentified man who Shane Barker was seen talking to outside his home on the morning he was murdered. The case is still open.

The second chapter covers the case of Daniel O’Keefe who had gone missing from his parents house in Geelong on July 15 2011. His sister Loren has devoted her time to getting the message out to remote corners of  Australia and in the mean time founded the Missing Persons Advocacy Network to assist others facing a similar situation. Daniel still has not been found.

The third case is the tragic story of street worker Elaine ‘Beverley’ King who ended up murdered in Room 96 at the Burlington Hotel on July 11 1974. It had been very difficult at the time to obtain evidence due to public drunkenness and while the case is being looked into now, it has become difficult now because exhibits are hard to find, witnesses have since passed on and leads are no longer fresh. No one still has been arrested for Ms King’s murder that occurred in Sydney.

Chapter four is about the shooting of Brewarrina bush schoolteacher Bjarne Carlsen who was branded with the words KKK on his chest. The fatal gunshot was heard by a local on January 25 2000, and on spotting a man wearing a white pillowcase with the eyes and mouth cut out climbing though the fence, who fled in fear for his life. While the gun had not been recovered when the book was written, the police made a breakthrough using handwriting analysis and are convinced the murderer is a local.

The fifth case is about the disappearance of a young mum from the coastal town of Burnie, Helen Munnings, who had told her mother she was going to the doctor for a pap smear but in reality was meeting her love interest Adam Taylor, father of her son Donovan and during the time, the de facto partner of Karalina Garwood. Karel Munnings is convinced that Helen was killed and cannot move on until she finds out exactly what happened to her missing daughter even though the coroner stated no ruling could be made about how or why Helen died or whether any person contributed to the cause of her death. Police still wish to speak to anyone who may know more about her disappearance.

Case number six was about the child killer Derek Percy and the information discovered during the investigation into the case of abducted 7-year-old Linda Stilwell. The cases for which police suspected Derek Percy of involvement were: the vanishing and abduction of the Beaumont children; the Wanda Beach murders of Christine Sharrock and Marianne Schmidt; the murder of 3-year-old Simon Brook; the murder of Alan Redston and obviously he was caught red-handed for the murder of Yvonne Tuohy for which he was found not guilty on the grounds of insanity. Unfortunately he chose to take some secrets to the grave.

The seventh chapter was about the rack man who was pulled in by a fisherman attached to a rusting metal crucifix. The manner in which the body was found makes one leap to the conclusion the victim may have been involved in organised crime but it is still a travesty of justice he still remains unidentified and his killer too.

The next featured missing person, feared murdered was Sandrine Jourdan, mum of three children, who had been expecting an unnamed guest on the day she disappeared, July 13 2012. While Sandrine struggled with depression and suicide was suspected, the arrival of bizarre correspondence to her family after she went missing suggests it was someone she knew who was responsible.

Chapter 9 was the story of Marlene McDonald who had domestic problems with her estranged husband, John McDonald. While he was charged with the murder of his former wife who went missing on December 18 1986, unfortunately her body has not yet been recovered. 

The disappearance of Paul Stevenson who was last seen going for a motorbike ride on March 11 2012 apparently to the vicinity of Paradise Dam was the topic of the tenth case. His bike was found on the Mount Perry-Gin Gin Road but Paul was not. His family is still waiting for answers.

As I kept reading, I  was  hit with the realisation Australia has some extremely sad missing persons cases, but these stories seem to have evaded attention. One such story was that of the stolen life of trusting country nanny, Penny Hill, found on July 8 1991 in a comatose state by local teacher, Sue Brown. Her death still remains unsolved although persons of interest were investigated.

The most frightening story was that of the Northern Territory murder of Don Stevens and the sister who survived, welfare officer Noelene Stevens. It is the story of a colleague driven by jealousy to hold his workmate hostage in her own home, brutally murder her innocent brother and dispose of her pet dogs. While Matt Vanko is currently behind bars, Noelene is still finding it hard to let go of her torment. This was an odd story because the crime appeared to be wrapped up.

The case right after it was just as chilling because it covered the murder of traveling salesman Nigel McAree in Sydney’s Royal National Park who was found beheaded. The tranquil setting and the violence against the victim suggests a personal vendetta to me but the far more experienced Unsolved Homicide Team suspects that it could have been a thrill kill. The murderer in this case has still not been identified and the family longs for closure.

The outback disappearance of Western Australian nursing student Brett McGillivray on April 10 2006 has led to the speculation of two fascinating theories: he got lost and perished in the scrub or he is still out there in a state of advanced confusion. The latter theory isn’t that implausible considering Brett left without his medication and he had previously undergone  psychotic episodes. It is also possible the bush search party failed to locate him but with no evidence of a body coming to surface the family awaits his return home.

The fifteenth case was about the abduction of twin teenager Daniel Sheppard who went missing after New Years Eve celebrations on January 1 1995. It hit close to home for Michael Sheppard when schoolboy Daniel Morcombe went missing while waiting for a bus. While the possibility of cult kidnappings have been explored, nothing solid came out of it to identify a perpetrator and secure a conviction.

As he was in all intents and appearances a family man, the abduction and murder of Turkish Ali Sonmez, an invalid pensioner,  in a gangland-style killing and the odd discovery of his body dumped in the Darling river across a state border was nothing short of baffling. While it has been established his body was discarded from the New South Wales side, there is a paucity of evidence and even witnesses making it difficult to find people who would have wanted him dead. There are suspicions involving drug money or fruit trade rivalries but the killer is yet to be caught.

The next case is that of skater boy Donny Govan, who, then 16, disappeared on August 31, 2012 from the Echuca camp site where he had been camping with his sister, Rachel O’Keane and four friends. Suddenly becoming paranoid about his camp mates and convinced they were out to get him, Donny runs off into thick bush. Although sightings of Donny have been reported in but not corroborated, Rachel persists in the belief he’s there alive.

The final chapter and case includes the double murder story of sweethearts Alex Rees and Ray Hill who met their tragic deaths during a romantic tryst on 2 January 1970 in a popular lovers’ lane. It was believed shots were fired through the open window of the driver’s door. Theories put forward about the culprit at the time explore if it were an opportunistic thrill killer who took a gambit and succeeded or  jealous ex-partner taking revenge or even a hospital employee/patient known to Alex through her job. Unfortunately no one has been able to prove who killed Alex and Ray and Arie is still waiting for justice to be doled on the killer.

The writing in Unsolved Australia is fantastic and the book is well researched. Some cases were going through court or were tied up, but the most need to be brought to the front of people’s minds so new evidence can come to light.

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Ape House

08/31/2015 at 1:32 PM (Books) (, , , , , )

Ape House by Sara Gruen was a book I expected to fit in the genre of literary fiction but the constant telling rather than showing made me feel this was made for mass-market, commercial appeal. Even the plot which involves stereotypically-painted, vegan-branded protesters taking vigilante action to free bonobos involved in a language lab under the misapprehension that they are being mistreated by the university is not very original and the journalist/writer couple do not deliver on the empathy stakes. The fictional Great Ape Language Lab in Ape House was inspired by Sara Gruen’s visit to the non-fictional Great Ape Trust in Iowa and as many reviews say, this fiction would have been better off as a personal memoir reflecting on her own experiences as it falls flat on research. I cannot help but agree.

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Source: Goodreads

There are many narrative threads in the story: the main premise involves a language lab which houses six bonobos that can communicate using American Sign Language and scientist Isabel Duncan who is injured during the forceful “rescue” of the bonobos who end up being used in a reality television show produced by a porn mogul; another story explores the trials of  reporter John Thigpen and his wife, Amelia as they navigate their marriage while dealing with the ramifications of free citizen journalism and book manuscript rejections culminating in a move from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. The book includes a vile, cheating boyfriend who isn’t who he paints himself to be, an unexpected student friend who ends up being Kevin’s source to break a factual story in a tabloid and thwart a rival reporter at his former job, and a suspected paternity case stemming from a university prank gone wrong.

It’s just too many preposterous things at once and while you can connect the dots, I didn’t find it impressive. Isabel becoming close to Celia was odd and did not sit right with me given what happened after the new year party although I suppose she had no-one else being more bonobo than human. The way Celia bailed her boyfriend out of jail and manipulated Kevin was also unpalatable. Isabel seemed like a doormat but I suppose she was a victim rather than a protagonist in the story. While I found Kevin fairly sympathetic, the way he found the most damning evidence isn’t in the least credible and I found his desire to harp on Amelia’s sexiness rather unnecessary. On the face of it, I suppose apart from Celia’s character, all human characters were either boring or overtly stereotyped. Ape House may be a fun read but it lacks substance.

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Dancing on Knives

08/30/2015 at 8:08 AM (Books) (, , , , , )

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Source: Goodreads

Dancing on Knives is the third book by Kate Forsyth I have read and it surprised me because I am used to her fairytale retellings and this deviated from my preconceptions as it was essentially a murder mystery. I didn’t understand Sara’s predicament until I realised that she literally had not left her home in five years because she is a sensitive soul. We learn when she was a child that she was subject to so much torment and bullying to the point that she left school and refused to go back. Her way of enduring the predictability of her life is reading romance novels and seeking solace by reading the tarot cards left to her by her beloved grandmother, Consuela, who used to tell her dark fairy tales that inspired her to paint until her volatile and womanising father Augusto Sanchez, a brilliant artist, undermined her efforts. Her siblings regard her fairly useless as she is in fear of most things which subject her to panic attacks and nightmares.

One stormy night, her father does not come home and his body is found hanging on a branch over a cliff. Although he is found alive, the mystery of his fall brings buried family secrets to the surface. There are a multitude of characters who had good motives to kill Augusto Sanchez: Teresa, the half sister who claimed she went to a party; older brother Joe who comes home late claiming he went for a surf; the twin brothers who were supposedly hanging out with their friend Nya; her father’s brother-in-law’s family who want the farm they have to convert it into a tourist caravan park; even her aunt Maureen who had only visited once after her sister Bridget’s car crash. Dancing on Knives is about how family can suffocate and free us, how art can be felicitous and ruinous, and how strong bonds can be constructed from a crisis. The suspense slowly builds and unfolds telling us about the mystery fall suffered by Augustus while the back story leads us to the day of the fall. Meanwhile the power of the sea and the little mermaid story are played up in the book ultimately enabling Sara to rescue herself from her self-imposed imprisonment and open herself to a real romance.

Dancing on Knives is not what I would call a thriller but it is the beautifully written story of a dysfunctional and unusual family and the denouement clears everything up and makes sense. I appreciated this dark, powerful story even if the mystery was subtle without too many unexpected or surprising twists.

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The Paying Guests

08/29/2015 at 8:39 AM (Books) (, , , , , , )

Set in post-war London, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters paints a bleak picture of how returning soldiers came back to no employment and most women were in mourning for lost sons or husbands. The pious Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter Frances, having once being members of the genteel class, are forced to take in lodgers, a young couple of the “clerk class” to maintain their stately home in South London. The arrival of up-and-coming and fashionable married couple Lilian and Leonard Barber transforms the path in life Frances resigned herself to of being her mother’s carer as their tenancy ends up with her becoming part of a love triangle and as a result also being entangled in a complicated murder case. Frances has always been good at keeping secrets but she cannot but help battling with her conscience when an innocent life is at stake.

The Paying Guests

Source: Goodreads

This is the first Sarah Waters novel I have read so Frances revelation about her sexual history surprised me given the attitudes of the time period the book was set in. I am not sure if The Paying Guests should be categorised as historical fiction or romance or suspense because it features all those themes. Strangely enough, this book just like The Last Dance is also about adultery but of the more emotional rather than physical sort although the latter isn’t ignored. The protagonist of this book, Frances, didn’t charm me being the hard-edged soul that she was. The whimsical Lillian Barber was a bit of an enigma to me especially her actions in the last part of the novel; were those motivated by love or selfishness or revenge? The character of odd Leonard Barber was the easiest to read. Mrs Wray seems far too close-minded and very judgmental when it comes to women behaving in ways contrary to her expectations. In more minute roles, other characters also feature: Lillian’s extended family, Leonard’s confidante and business associate, Charlie Wismuth, the immediate family of Leonard, Mrs Wray’s companion, Mrs Playfair and so on.

The Paying Guests starts quite slowly so I was expecting this to be a gruelling read until the affair was discovered. However after a new and unexpected friendship blossoms between Lillian and Frances, the plot starts to move faster due to developing frustrations and mounting passions. That being said there was a lot of dwelling and reflecting on unnecessary points making me feel The Paying Guests would be a better reading experience if reduced in amount of mundane detail.

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The Death Cure

08/28/2015 at 8:53 AM (Books) (, , , , , )

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Source: Random House

I was reading this final instalment of the The Maze Runner trilogy because I thought I will get answers to my lingering questions but the author in a odd turn of events leaves 75% of the story unexplained. While it is hard not to wonder if the The Kill Order will answer them, somehow given the disappointing trajectory of the three books, I’m unconvinced if James Dashner’s prequel will resolve questions about the survivors of the Scorch and those that remain after the final showdown in The Death Cure.

The behaviour of the characters in here conflict with the characters we have come to know. Brenda and Teresa both feature in this book and this time as allies, not adversaries. I think the only point of those two was just so there was a love triangle of the girl/boy/girl variety rather than the stereotypical boy/girl/boy. While it was obvious Thomas was losing the plot in the Scorch in the previous book, in here he makes extremely strange decisions because of his developed mistrust of WICKED. The choices Thomas makes eventually end being incredibly confusing for the reader. I did though like the sudden resurgence and turncoat behaviour of a character I had thought was unlikely to re-appear. There are two deaths in the story: one was expected and also understandable but the other was bit of a pointless melodrama.

The ending is interesting because the author points out it was an alternative solution to the one that was initially planned for those undertaking the trials but the offhand remark by a character who knew too much felt like a cop-out because so much was left out.

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The Strays

08/27/2015 at 10:19 AM (Books) (, , , , , , , , , )

Although fictional, the debut novel and Stella Prize winner The Strays by Emily Bitto is somewhat influenced by the story of the Heide Circle of Melbourne and is a fascinating narrative of idealised dreams, emotional sacrifices and conflicted loyalties mostly set in the atmosphere of 1930s depression-era Melbourne.

The Strays Book Cover

Source: Goodreads

Only child Lily makes a connection with Eva, the middle daughter of the Evan and Helena Trentham, on her first day at school that evolves into a complex and deep friendship. When tragedy befalls her family, Lily takes the opportunity to stay with Eva and the community of bohemian artists who are given residence to pursue their creative passions at the Trentham home. It becomes obvious this is not an appropriate environment for children as the artists are far too engrossed in their work to do any thing as mundane as looking after the kids, who need a responsible adult in charge. As they navigate their teenage years, Eva starts to keep things from Lily until she realises things have gone too far when she finds out Eva has been having a sexual relationship with an older resident artist who she had thought was interested in her and that starts the cracks in their trust. Upon being exposed, the artist who has also been upstaging Eva’s father leaves but not alone (he leaves with not one but two girls) leaving a scandal in his wake.

What stood out the most to me was how much power author Emily Bitto’s prose gave to the mediums of art and literature, also my passions. The descriptive passages were not too long-winded and the characters were of sufficient interest to keep reading The Strays until I found out how Lily responded to the invitation she received at the beginning.

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The Last Dance

08/26/2015 at 9:46 AM (Books) (, , , , , , )

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Source: Goodreads

So it turns out during my December vacation this year, I will be heading off to the exotic destinations of Spain, Portugal and Morocco with my cousins. This reminded me of The Last Dance, a present my sister’s boyfriend gave me for my birthday, because some of the most climactic action in the book takes place in the bustling alleys and bazaars of Morocco. So i’m pretty excited I have the chance to see this North African country in person.

The initial impression I had of The Last Dance was it was a spy thriller but as it progresses the romance takes precedence. The two main characters first meet at a ballroom dance where Stella has resorted to selling herself as a dance partner to earn an income. The mysterious Montgomery, who is charmed by Stella, organises a position for her as a governess at Harp’s End, home of the well-off Ainsworth family. I was wondering at this point if this was some kind of tribute to  Jane Eyre but I was wrong on that score.

Stella is responsible for tutoring Grace, the daughter of Douglas Ainsworth. Coming from an impoverished background and given her position, she struggles to fit in with the grand household or the servants as her employer insists dinners are taken with the family but she is still hired help. When Stella finally comes to face her married employer, she realises the family has a lot of secrets but the forbidden love that sparks between them becomes the hardest to conceal because this story is really about an affair. The palpable tension in the house after an accidental slip of the tongue by Grace almost drives Stella away but she somehow finds enough courage to accompany the family on a cruise to Morocco. As the setting is pre World War II, the trip turns out to be fraught with peril and conspiracy as her employer is not quite who she knew at Harp’s End. It turns out it was for the best Stella went on the cruise as she is able to enjoy a brief romance and witness events of significant importance before her world gets shot to pieces. While the sacrifice that is made is bittersweet, Fiona McIntosh gives birth to hope because of the way she reconciles the end.

The last impression I have of The Last Dance is that in spite of the not so savoury motivations of many of the characters, it was still entertaining.

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The Eye of the Sheep

08/25/2015 at 9:31 AM (Books) (, , , , , , )

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Source: Goodreads

The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna was a birthday present I received from my sister. It is mainly about the six-year-old character of Jimmy Flick, a kid with learning difficulties whose behaviour indicates he may have autism. The only person who seems to understand him is his mother, Paula. Even the local school is unable to provide him with the special care he needs and chooses to neglect him. Jimmy gets some support from his older brother Robby until the escalating domestic abuse at home starts creating a lot of tension in the family dynamics, especially after Gavin is made redundant from his refinery job and Robby chooses to pursue a life at sea because he cannot stand watching his mother get mistreated.

No-one is there to support Jimmy when life for the poor family becomes even worse when they receive devastating news about Paula that will alter the course of Jimmy’s life. Given the narrative is told from his point of view, although he doesn’t realise the future in store for him has changed, we do. During a brief period of temporary bliss, Jimmy finds a friend in Ned, his uncle’s dog who grounds him but when it comes to crunch time, can his father give up the bottle and step up?

The writing is simple and evokes a child who sees things too complex for him to comprehend: bruises on his mother’s skin; his father sleeping in the shed; disappearing bottles of Cutty Sark. It is obvious the parents are in love but the drinking is affecting the family badly. This is why Gavin, Jimmy’s father, sometimes comes off as deserving of empathy in spite of his lapses into violence. The Eye of the Sheep feels like a combination of Emma Donoghue’s Room and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time because of the juxtaposition of child-like perspective filled with hope in bleak times and curious choices of behaviour.

 

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The Luminaries

08/24/2015 at 10:24 AM (Books) (, , , , , , , )

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Source: Amazon

I am a fan of Dickens which is why I picked up Eleanor Catton‘s zodiac-inspired novel, The Luminaries, with its golden spiral formula that helped it win the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Set in 1866 in the New Zealand goldfields, the book imbues its following twelve main characters with traits of the astrological star signs.

  • Te Rau Tauwhare (greenstone hunter): Aries
  • Charlie Frost (banker): Taurus
  • Benjamin Lowenthal (newspaper man): Gemini
  • Edgar Clinch (hotelier): Cancer
  • Dick Mannering (goldfields magnate): Leo
  • Quee Long (goldsmith): Virgo
  • Harald Nilssen (commission merchant): Libra
  • Joseph Pritchard (chemist): Scorpio
  • Thomas Balfour (shipping agent): Sagittarius
  • Aubert Gascoigne (justice’s clerk): Capricorn
  • Sook Yongsheng (hatter): Aquarius
  • Cowell Devlin (chaplain): Pisces

The traditional qualities tied to each sign forms the foundations upon which Catton builds full-fledged characters. These twelve characters provide with each individual version of events the missing links in the story pertaining to a series of unsolved crimes. They are interrupted by the arrival of a stranger who will have a key part to play in a trial because he becomes privy to all their secrets. He and another set of characters associated with traditional planetary bodies listed below are also characters key to unlocking the mystery.

  • Walter Moody: Mercury
  • Lydia (Wells) Carver née Greenway: Venus
  • Francis Carver: Mars
  • Alistair Lauderback: Jupiter
  • George Shepard: Saturn
  • Anna Wetherell: The Sun/The Moon
  • Emery Staines: The Moon/The Sun

In spite of its technical prowess, the book didn’t connect with me. It didn’t give me the emotions I felt upon reading Oliver Twist, Great Expectations or Little Dorrit although it attempts some social commentary and contains all the elements of a Dickensian Victorian-era novel: a man is killed; a will is missing; a politician is hiding a secret; the governor accepts a trade off the books; an opium addict is mistreated and so on. While I hold it in high esteem for its structural cleverness, The Luminaries failed to capture my heart.

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American Psycho

08/23/2015 at 7:29 AM (Books) (, , , , , )

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Source: Goodreads

American Psycho is an extremely graphic and violent book by Bret Easton Ellis about the 26-year-old handsome, educated, intelligent but misogynistic psychopath called Norman Bates who works on Wall Street interspersed with some banal content presented as postmodern social commentary. Having been subject to censorship due to transgressive content, there is a plethora of analysis about American Psycho out there. The common theme seems to be readers either hate it for its blatant sexism or love it because it defies the norm.

Personally I found the book boring given I was reading for pleasure. I may have viewed it differently had I been studying it. To be honest the protagonist’s emotionally-detached first person perspective of the world started to get fairly repetitive and dull. His friends are repulsive in their hubris and obsession with materialism which makes it difficult to like anyone in this book. Naturally with characters as repugnant as this, I was unable form any emotional attachment while the verbose and constant descriptions of brand names and insight into how Bates stimulated himself made me bored very quickly. Bret Easton Ellis may have been making a satire of consumerism but I cannot help wondering if he was trying to be shocking for the sake of it.

I know experiencing or creating a product does not make anyone an advocate of it but the problem was the lack of empathy in how torture scenes are described created prose that wasn’t particularly riveting but was stomach-churning and it happens multiple times. It could be the combination and the equal treatment of the banal and the brutal what makes American Psycho so shocking to most readers but while that may make it an interesting topic for academic dissertations, it failed to engage me which is what I desire from books.

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