09 December 2019

Review: Death on the Derwent - Sue Neill-Fraser’s story by Robin Bowles

Death on the Derwent - Sue Neill-Fraser’s story by Robin Bowles book cover
* Won in a Scribe Publications giveaway hosted by Australian Writers' Centre *

On 26 January 2009, Bob Chappell went missing from his yacht Four Winds and was never seen again. Bob Chappell had been with his partner Sue Neill-Fraser for 18 years at the time of his disappearance and their yacht was moored near the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania marina in Hobart. Neill-Fraser was eager to help Police and gave several statements, each varying a little on the details. With nothing else to go on, Police became convinced she had harmed Bob and charged her with murder.

The trial was held in 2010 after which Neill-Fraser was found guilty and sentenced to 26 years with a non-parole period of 18 years. (As an aside, I can't understand how Borce Ristevski can receive a sentence of 9 years with a minimum of 6 - since increased to 13 years with a minimum of 10 - after pleading guilty to his wife's murder while Neill-Fraser is sentenced to 26 years!)

The court case was widely reported at the time and many - including the defendant's family and friends - believed she was not guilty of the crime.

Australian author Robin Bowles draws on her experience and connections in Tasmania to give the reader an in depth look at all the ins and outs of the crime, the investigation, the court case and more in Death on the Derwent - Sue Neill-Fraser's story. Since reading and reviewing Into the Darkness - The Mysterious Death of Phoebe Handsjuk in March 2017 Bowles' writing style has improved in that she no longer inserts herself into the content presented.

Before picking up Death on the Derwent I believed Sue Neill-Fraser was innocent. My opinion hasn't changed but at least now I'm more informed. I was very moved by a 60 Minutes interview with Meaghan Vass in March 2019 which has significant bearing on this case. Vass was one of the witnesses in the court case and she told 60 Minutes her friends murdered Bob aboard the Four Winds in January 2009 and disposed of his body.

This recorded admission essentially exonerates Neill-Fraser but Police decided not to take any further action. Whaaat? Furthermore, it's a shame this interview was aired after the publication of Death on the Derwent as I'm almost certain Bowles would like to have included this key information.

However the bigger question is, how is Neill-Fraser still in jail after this 'confession' from Vass? It's astounding. And if we believe Vass, it follows that the killer is still walking around! Bowles attempts to explain the injustice and the inner workings of Tasmanian legal politics however it only served to make my blood boil.

Overall, there was an abundance of information presented here that exceeded my level of interest in the case, but the end result is a comprehensive account. I hope Neill-Fraser receives justice some day soon.

Recommended for readers of true crime and those interested in the law.

My Rating:
★ ★

06 December 2019

Review: Things In Jars by Jess Kidd

Things In Jars by Jess Kidd book cover
RRP $39.99 AUD
Published May 2019
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

London 1863 and Christabel Berwick - a girl of striking appearance and unnatural powers - has been kidnapped. Investigating the kidnapping is our protagonist Mrs Bridie Devine, a pipe-smoking redheaded domestic investigator who also conducts minor surgical procedures.

This detective novel takes us into the seedier corners of Victorian London and the lives of nefarious doctors, anatomists and their collections of curiosities and a travelling circus renowned for showcasing the strange and wonderful.

The city of London is expertly described:
"But for now, the slums are as they have always been: as warm and lively as a blanket full of lice." Page 25
"Follow the fulsome fumes from the tanners and the reek from the brewery, butterscotch rotten, drifting across Seven Dials. Keep on past the mothballs at the cheap tailor's and turn left at the singed silk of the maddened hatter. Just beyond you'll detect the unwashed crotch of the overworked prostitute and the Christian sweat of the charwoman. On every inhale a shifting scale of onions and scalded milk, chrysanthemums and spiced apple, broiled meat and wet straw, and the sudden stench of the Thames as the wind changes direction and blows up the knotted backstreets." Page 25
As you can see, the writing in Things In Jars by Jess Kidd is superb. At one point she describes a character as having resplendent whiskers and I thought yes! Her writing is just that: resplendent. I paused often to enjoy a sentence or particular description which seemed effortless yet poignant and often quite funny. My mind was buzzing with sheer joy at her turn of phrase and the story became a mere byproduct.

Bridie Devine enjoys smoking Prudhoe's Bronchial Balsam Blend despite the possible side effects:
"But the list is long and includes many adverse reactions, from sweating of the eyeballs to sensitivity to accordion music." Page 14
It was difficult to rate Things In Jars by Jess Kidd; the writing was divine (see what I did there?) and definitely worthy of 5 stars however the story wasn't anywhere near as faultless, earning 3 stars.

As much as it pains me, I give this gothic historical fiction detective novel 4 stars. Highly recommended.

Carpe Librum!

My Rating:

P.S. For more, check out my review of The Hoarder by Jess Kidd.
04 December 2019

Winner of Hide by S.J. Morgan announced

I had a lot of fun reading your answers to the Hide giveaway last week. You might remember S.J. Morgan used 20 words to describe her novel in our interview together and you needed to choose one to enter the giveaway. The most popular word chosen was dysfunction and our winner chose the word grit.

The giveaway closed at midnight AEST Sunday 1 December 2019 and the winner was drawn today.
Hide by S.J. Morgan cover


You've won a personalised signed copy of Hide by S.J. Morgan. I’ll be sending you an email shortly with the details and the author will be sending out your personalised prize directly.

Enjoy and stay tuned for more giveaways.

Carpe Librum!
02 December 2019

Review: The Royal Art of Poison - Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicines and Murder Most Foul by Eleanor Herman

The Royal Art of Poison by Eleanor Herman cover
The next book I read for the Non Fiction November Reading Challenge was The Royal Art of Poison - Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicines and Murder Most Foul by Eleanor Herman.

It covers all of the toxic poisons contained in cosmetics and the disastrous medicines used by doctors and well-meaning apothecaries. It examines a collection of famous figures from history and their deaths, with modern reviews and theories on whether they were poisoned.

Heavy metal poisons include: arsenic, antimony, lead and mercury. Some notable plant poisons include: belladonna or deadly nightshade, hemlock, henbane, monks-hood or wolf's bane. Post renaissance poisons included: cyanide, sarin and strychnine.

I'm interested in the food poisonings in royal courts and was amused to learn that when servants carried food into a royal dining chamber: 
"they placed them on a credenza, which takes its name from the various 'credence' tests for poison conducted there." Page 153
The horn of a unicorn was believed to show indications of poison when it was waved over or dipped into food or drink. It wasn't a real unicorn horn but the tusk of a narwhal, a creature not discovered until the eighteenth century. Bezoar stones were also used.

As we now know, many poisons were used in cosmetics. For white teeth, ladies applied a powder:
"that contained grain, pumice stone, aloe, vinegar, honey, cinnamon, pearls, scrapings of ivory, quinces, and walnuts crushed into a paste and cooked with silver or gold foil." Page 607 
The abrasive powder removed stains but also the tooth enamel.

Many medications contained heavy metals and the sicker a patient became, the more medicine they required often making them sicker. I knew about the humours, blood letting, enemas and poultices, but I didn't know that: 
"whenever a member of the royal family was gravely ill, doctors would remove saintly body parts and entire corpses from churches and monasteries and put them in bed with the invalid." Page 793
Outrageous! Herman introduces us to poisons used today that are almost untraceable and concludes with the poison hall of fame. This was an ingenious list containing the quickest poison (cyanide), the most painful poison (strychnine) and so on.

All in all, Herman gives us plenty of interesting tidbits from history to sink our teeth into. I could have done with less of the biographical history in each of the modern autopsies but it's a small complaint. The Royal Art of Poison was informative, unexpectedly funny (have you ever felt so sick you believed you were bursting in twain?) and highly recommended.

Carpe Librum!

My Rating: