30 August 2023

Review: Badness by Gary Jubelin

Badness by Gary Jubelin audiobook cover

After dipping my toe back into the true crime pool again recently, I've roused an old curiosity regarding how people can become capable of hurting others emotionally, psychologically and in some cases physically. I was hoping a retired Homicide Detective might have some answers, and decided to listen to Badness by Gary Jubelin with Dan Box.

Retired NSW Homicide Detective Gary Jubelin was charged with recording conversations with a suspect in the disappearance of William Tyrrell. I've got a lot of time and respect for the author after enjoying his podcast I Catch Killers, which is up to 300+ episodes now. Those familiar with the podcast or the book I Catch Killers will easily slide into his latest offering.

Jubelin takes a look at badness, what it is, what causes it and what separates the guilty from the innocent. Along the way, I think he finds that it's not all black and white.

There's quite a bit in here about Jubelin's responses to developments in the William Tyrrell case, and I guess I shouldn't have been shocked to hear the sheer number of people who reach out to Jubelin every time there's a shift in the case. This has included the search of the home and bushland in Kendall and charges against the foster parents, and I did enjoy hearing Jubelin's perspectives. I'll admit, every time there's a new development, I wonder whether Jubelin might have been able to secure a result by now if he had been left in charge of the investigation.

Working now as an investigative journalist, it was interesting to find the author describes himself as having a foot in both worlds. He still sees himself as a cop deep down, but he's also a criminal and he seems to really struggle with this dichotomy. This reader will never consider Jubelin a criminal, quite the opposite, we need more homicide detectives like him.

But don't worry, this isn't a misery memoir and Jubelin doesn't scream at the skies like I would. While admitting being full of rage, he directs his energy into commencing a new career as a journalist with a passion for helping victims of crime.

Jubelin takes up boxing to release his pent up anger and frustration, and quite a bit of time is spent exploring the different people he's met in the early morning sessions, and what they've each taught him. The most memorable for me was the discussion with bank robber and serial prison escapee Bernie Matthews.

Jubelin seems to have found a kind of affinity with Matthews, who - after his days of law breaking were over - also became a journalist. I'll never forget the story of Bernie and the button he found in the darkness.

Unable to see or hear anything in solitary confinement, one day Bernie was down on his hands and knees feeling around his cell when he found a button. By touch he could tell it was plastic, and:
"To him it was a treasure, more valuable than anything that he possessed, which wasn't much, because it could save him from the mind numbing ordeal of solitary confinement. I'd flick the button in the dark and I started searching for it." 6hrs 46 mins
Bernie said sometimes it took minutes to find the button and other times it would take him hours, but the button gave him purpose and he did this for days at a time. It's easy to understand how Jubelin formed a friendship with this convicted bank robber turned journalist, his story moved me too.

In Badness, Jubelin includes the stories of many people as he reflects on the nature and nurture of badness and how we can learn from the past. Narrated by Rob Carlton, Badness by Gary Jubelin is recommended for fans of I Catch Killers and readers interested in true crime.

My Rating:

22 August 2023

Review: The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes

The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes book cover

This Victorian historical crime novel is based on the true story of young Harriet Monckton, who was murdered in Kent in 1843. Harriet was 23 years old and was found poisoned in the privy behind the chapel she regularly attended in Bromley, Kent. Sadly, Harriet's murder remains unsolved, however Elizabeth Haynes has attempted to show us who Harriet was, why she may have come to harm and who might have been responsible for her untimely death.

Elizabeth Haynes is better known for writing psychological thrillers, and you might recall my reviews of Into the Darkest Corner (5 stars) and Human Remains (4 stars). With many more crime novels under her belt, writing historical fiction is a first, and I think she nailed it! Drawing on historical records and archives, including the content of two inquests, coroner's report and witness testimonies, The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes is a convincing historical fiction novel by an author who has clearly done their Victorian era research.

The novel is presented in alternate chapters from several character points of view, and it took me a number of chapters to adjust to the regular shift in narration as a relatively large cast of characters began cycling through. One of the characters appeared guilty from the get go, but some of them aren't telling the truth:
"Trouble is, the truth is plain and easy to remember. Lies, though, that's different. You lie once, you have to remember the lie, the truth doesn't fade when time passes, but a lie does." Page 242
Harriet seems charismatic and is loved by many and envied by some, with characters seeing different sides to her personality:
"I felt my heart twist a little, at that. It reminded me of something Harriet had said to me once. That she should not meet anyone she loved as well as me. But that was the old Harriet, of course. The good, kind Harriet. Not the hypocrite, the harlot, the betrayer." Page 301
In the novel, we learn Harriet was pregnant, despite being single and unwed. Identifying the father of the child is a mystery just as compelling as the guilty party behind her murder. Are they one and the same?
"If I am spared, of course. It is at this time of night that I feel the most afraid; it feels that death and damnation lurk all around us, in the darkness, waiting to claim us. In the morning I shall feel foolish for these thoughts, of course, but now it seems that nothing good lies ahead for me." Page 405
Coming in at just over 500 pages, it was a little long, and Harriet's chapters did start to become a little tiresome as she fretted about her situation. A suspect is revealed by the end of the book, although of course we have no way of knowing if this is truly what happened.

If you'd like to give The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes a try, you can read a free excerpt of the first 21 pages on the publisher's website here. You might also like to check out my 2014 interview with the author.

The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes is a slow burn, historical whodunnit based on a true story. Recommended!

My Rating:

16 August 2023

Review: The Widow of Walcha by Emma Partridge

The Widow of Walcha by Emma Partridge book cover

Walcha (pronounced like polka) is a small town in NSW, located half way between Sydney and Brisbane with a population of approximately 2,475 people. In 2017, Natasha Darcy murdered her partner Mathew Dunbar and tried to make it look like suicide. Australian journalist Emma Partridge is the Senior Crime Editor for Nine News, and has won several awards for her court reporting.

In The Widow of Walcha, Emma Partridge tells Mathew Dunbar's story, and in doing so, exposes the greedy and despicable behaviour of one of the most cold and calculating females in Australia.

By all accounts, Mathew Dunbar was a kind, quiet, generous and successful sheep grazier who owned a multi-million dollar farm called Pandora. Actively involved in the community, Mathew was looking for love and wanted to have a family, making him the perfect target for Natasha Darcy.

After drugging her ex-husband Colin Crossman and burning down their house with him still in it, Natasha Darcy was charged with attempted murder in 2009. Serving time in jail, Natasha was later released, yet bizarrely remained in close contact with Crossman. They were unable to claim the insurance money for the house and were in serious debt when Natasha Darcy shifted her sights to Mathew.

With a ruse to meet the wealthy grazier and instigate a speedy romance, Natasha was soon spending Dunbar's money freely, while spending months online obsessively researching the best ways to kill him.

There were hundreds and hundreds of damning search terms, but here's a sample:
'how to commit murder', 'poisonous spiders', 'murder by injection,' 'can Police see search history?' and 'does helium show up in autopsy?' Other searches included: 'lethal dose of oxycodone', 'can Police see deleted messages' and '11 toxic wild plants that look like food'.
Thoroughly investigated by Emma Partridge, the case, arrest and subsequent trial showed Natasha Darcy to be a compulsive liar, and an evil and manipulative woman. At the time of the victim's death, the entire town believed Natasha had murdered Mathew, and locals couldn't understand why she was walking around free. Darcy was eventually arrested 4 months after Dunbar's death.

There was so much damning evidence in this case it was quite mind-blowing. Most shocking (to me) was why in hell ex-husband Colin Crossman - a Paramedic, no less - who had been drugged by Darcy and nearly died when she set his house on fire, was still actively involved in the children's lives. Darcy even took out a life insurance policy on Colin, this woman was bad news.

In an odd twist of fate, Crossman was the first Paramedic on the scene when Natasha 'discovered' Mathew unresponsive and frantically phoned for an ambulance. Partridge doesn't allege they were 'in on it' together, but this reader certainly wondered. Especially when you consider that when the author first sees Natasha, she and Colin are transporting a fridge from Pandora to his house. She was even interviewed by Police at Crossman's house. What is Crossman thinking? 

Worth millions, Darcy repeatedly asked Mathew to change his will to leave Pandora to her and her children if anything happened to him. Denying it later, Police were able to retrieve deleted text messages and evidence of her repeated nagging about the will.

Darcy had been in and out of jail for various charges including theft, and even had the nerve to ask another inmate if she'd lie to Police and inform them Mathew had been contemplating suicide days before his death. Darcy promised to pay her friend $20,000 for the lie when she 'automatically' inherited Pandora on her release. Fortunately the friend was already wise to the toxic manipulation and cut all ties, later coming forward during the trial with her information.

Narrated by Jo Van Es, this case was a shocking glimpse into the sordid mind of a self-serving, unfeeling, greedy and manipulative woman, prepared to do anything to further her financial position in life at the expense of all others.

Darcy finally settled on her method to dispatch Mathew, despite previous unsuccessful attempts which left him on crutches just days before his death. Mixing a cocktail of different drugs (including her son's medication and ram sedatives purchased under an assumed name), Natasha blended them in a Nutribullet to sedate Mathew. She then put a bag over his head and pumped helium gas into it, which eventually killed him.

I was gripped the entire time I was listening to The Widow of Walcha by Emma Partridge and found it hard to fathom the fact a woman could be so cold and evil. Recently finished, this book was very much in mind when I learned of the recent mushroom poisoning by Erin Patterson in the town of Leongatha where my parents live. Originally an intervention / mediation lunch, Erin's ex in-laws and family relative passed away after eating lunch at Erin's house containing fatal death cap mushrooms.

In this new case, the ex-husband Simon Patterson was supposed to attend the lunch and pulled out at the last minute, and just as well. Last year, he was in ICU for 16 days and underwent multiple operations to treat an undiagnosed gut illness. What's the bet this was Patterson's first attempt?

I see similarities in the early days of the mushroom poisoning case and the hideous behaviour of Natasha Darcy. If guilty, I hope Police find enough evidence to convict her and that she is brought to justice for killing three people with another still clinging to life at the time of writing. I hope the investigative journalists on this case are as dedicated to their jobs as Emma Partridge, and choose to put the truth and justice ahead of sensationalism and click bait.

No-one expects to live alongside a female murderer in their small town, and the family and friends of Mathew Dunbar in Walcha still mourn his loss. Taking advantage of a wealthy middle aged man with the promise of providing an instant loving family is the lowest of blows, and I only wonder why she couldn't be content living that life. Sentenced to 40 years in prison with a non-parole period of 30 years, Natasha Darcy's black widow days are well and truly over.

The fate of Pandora hadn't been legally settled when The Widow of Walcha was published in May 2022, but thankfully the author gave me peace of mind when she pointed out that regardless of the outcome, Darcy's children cannot legally inherit Pandora. Thank goodness for that!

The Widow of Walcha by Emma Partridge is one of the best Australian true crime accounts I've ever read!

My Rating:

14 August 2023

Review: The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill

The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill book cover

The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill has many layers, some of which I'm still untangling while trying to write this review. This mystery novel contains a book within a book and so many layers I had trouble counting them.

Hannah is writing a novel. In it, her protagonist Freddie is sitting in the Reading Room of the Boston Public Library trying to write a novel when The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill opens. Freddie decides to take inspiration from the people seated around her, and when a woman screams, and is later found dead, the strangeness of the situation brings about the meeting of Winifred Kincaid (Hannah's protagonist Freddie) with Cain McLeod, Marigold Anastas and Whit Metters. Bonded by trauma these four characters become fast friends, although one of them is a killer and we don't know who.

The character of Freddie is written in the first person, so my first mistake (I think) was assuming Hannah heard the scream, met the others at the library, and decided to write a novel inspired by these new friends. I later realised this all must be happening in Hannah's Freddie's manuscript, as Hannah is living in Australia, not in Boston.

Chapters from Hannah's book feature alongside letters from a correspondent called Leo although we never see her replies. Based in the USA, Leo is a beta reader providing feedback on each of the chapters and it starts to get complicated when Hannah writes him into the book as a friend to Freddie.

Australian author Sulari Gentill has convincingly set her tale in Boston and I loved Leo's comments and advice regarding the differences between Australian and US readers and the terms they know and recognise. It was amusingly meta!

The Woman in the Library contains clever literary mechanisms that seemingly moved up, down and behind me and I got a sore neck trying to keep track of everything. Reading this stand alone was a little like watching Inception and I'll admit being confused by the two Leo characters. The ending wasn't clear cut for me and I'm not quite sure if it was one last little twist or an exclamation point on the plot.

To unearth the gems in this deeply layered mystery I needed to concentrate harder, so perhaps this was a case of the wrong time for me and this book. Don't be fooled by its brevity as I was, The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill definitely packs a punch.

For more from this author, check out my review of Chasing Odysseus by S.D. Gentill.

My Rating:

11 August 2023

Review: Zero Days by Ruth Ware

Zero Days by Ruth Ware book cover

* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

Discovering The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware was a reading highlight of 2019 and the book made it onto my Top 5 Books of 2019 list. I've been chasing that high ever since, so when Ruth Ware's latest Zero Days arrived from the publishers, I dove right in with the hope this would be a return to previous top form.

Our protagonist, Jack and husband Gabe expose the security risks and weaknesses of companies who pay them to break in to their premises or hack their systems online. They're penetration testers or 'pen testers' and Jack is one of the best. Early on in the novel - it's on the cover, so not a spoiler - Jack comes home from a job to find her husband has been murdered and she's the primary suspect.

The trope of the wrongly accused fighting to prove their innocence or clear their name is a familiar one and I think I'm beginning to tire of it.

Jack goes on the run to try and work out what happened to her husband, who killed him and why. I love a kick-arse main character, but I did have to roll my eyes at Jack's extraordinary ability to soldier on in the face of injury and illness to the extreme that she did. 

Zero Days
by Ruth Ware was an enjoyable standalone crime thriller with good pace, but didn't give me the high I experienced at the end of The Turn of the Key. As I said, I loved that book so much that it made it into my Top 5 list that year. Since then, I followed up by reading One by One (4 stars in 2020) and The It Girl (3 stars in 2022) but Zero Days hasn't captured my heart, or snatched the breath from my throat.

Have you experienced this phenomenon? I feel like a novel junkie (yep, I did just say that) chasing that first gasp of surprise and elation Ruth Ware gave me and I think I'm still chasing. Luckily for me, I have plenty from the author's back catalogue to discover, and in the meantime, I hope Ruth Ware is given carte blanche to write her heart's desire, free from pressure so that she can steal our hearts once more.

My Rating:

07 August 2023

Review: The Puzzler by A.J. Jacobs

The Puzzler - One Man's Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life by A.J. Jacobs audiobook cover

This audiobook was a sheer delight! With a smooth and uniquely distinctive voice, author and puzzler A.J. Jacobs takes us on a tour of puzzles and the people who love them in The Puzzler - One Man's Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life. The author's first love is crosswords, but he succeeds in taking us on a balanced and thoroughly satisfying tour through the world of puzzles.

A solver is a person who does puzzles, and in the book Jacobs interviews many who dedicate their lives to creating or solving a variety of puzzles. He covers a broad range of puzzles, including: anagrams; ciphers and codes; crosswords and cryptic crosswords; chess; jigsaw puzzles; riddles; Rubik's cube; logic problems, sudoku and more.

Jacobs shares his experiences with each of the puzzle types and I especially enjoyed his story about entering an international jigsaw puzzle competition with his family. This led me down a jigsaw rabbit hole, watching a short documentary about the mind blowing jigsaw competition that sees solvers given a series of brand new previously unreleased puzzles from Ravensburger as they compete to solve them. There are solo events, pairs and team events and it's a fascinating sub-culture.

When defining what a puzzle is, Jacobs declares a puzzle will almost always:
"... cause the solver to experience a period of difficulty and struggle, followed by relief. They provide an a-ha moment, tension leading to, an almost, well, orgasmic ending." Chapter 2: The Puzzle of Puzzles.
Jacobs involves the reader at every opportunity, creating a bonus puzzle time for audio listeners, and providing a PDF with 100+ pages of puzzle examples and supporting material for the book. Some of the puzzles mentioned sent me on a nostalgic trip down memory lane, or inspired me to seek out more info. Did you know the world's largest puzzle is from Ravensburger and contains 40,320 pieces? It's estimated that if a solver spends 2 hours per day working on the puzzle, it will take an entire year to complete it!

The author is serious about his puzzling, checking every night without fail for the online release of his favourite puzzles, and volunteering to tackle some of the hardest puzzles in the world. The Japanese puzzle box desk sounded incredible and I longed to see it in person.

Jacobs explores why so many of us love puzzles, concluding that the art of puzzling is 'bafflement, wrestling and solution'. Some of us become bored or frustrated and give up at the bafflement or wrestling stage, but Jacobs discusses the pleasure to be had from the mental and intellectual effort and the sense of accomplishment that follows when a puzzle has been solved. His enthusiasm for the topic is infectious and I enjoyed this tantalising look into the puzzle world.

I enjoy a puzzle myself, and am still doing the daily Wordle and - thanks to this book - occasionally taking on the Spelling Bee by The New York Times. I've asked myself how I can give an audiobook about puzzles my top rating of 5 stars, because that's what I'm about to do.

All I can say is that I had such a great time reading this. I was inspired to share some of the riddles and puzzles with my husband and we had a good laugh solving them (or not) together. As I said, The Puzzler by A.J. Jacobs was an absolute delight. I looked forward to listening to a chapter or so each day and was sorry when I 'solved' the last one.

Highly recommended!

(For more like this, check out my review of It's All A Game - A Short History of Board Games by Tristan Donovan).

My Rating:

02 August 2023

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern book cover

"The circus arrives without warning."
The opening lines of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern draw the reader into a whole new world, where magic is real and those with the gift disguise their talent as illusionists or magicians. Two magicians are pitted against each other as youngsters in a challenge that lasts their lifetime, eventually converging at the circus.

Beginning in 1873, the travelling circus of the title is known as Le Cirque des RĂªves (The Circus of Dreams) and is only open at night. The magic deployed by performers at the circus is to delight, entertain and astonish those who visit, and the circus is a wonderland more than the centre of any magic battle.

Elite circus personalities regularly attend an exclusive midnight dinner party when they're not working, and my mouth was watering at the tasty morsels and decadent cuisine described, but check out the desserts:
"The desserts are always astonishing. Confections deliriously executed in chocolate and butterscotch, berries bursting with creams and liqueurs. Cakes layered to impossible heights, pastries lighter than air. Figs that drip with honey, sugar blown into curls and flowers. Often diners remark that they are too pretty, too impressive to eat, but they always find a way to manage." Page 69
It was here in the book that I noticed the prose reminded me of the descriptive writing style I enjoyed in The Starless Sea; momentarily forgetting that it's by the same author!! While at the same time patting myself on the back for noticing the similar descriptive style, should I be concerned that I failed to remember the same author penned both urban fantasy novels?

The circus performers are talented and Padva was a terrific character, impeccably described here:
"On this evening, Mme. Padva wears a dress of black silk, hand embroidered with intricate patterns of cherry blossoms, something like a kimono reincarnated as a gown. Her silver hair is piled atop her head and held in place with a small jeweled black cage. A choker of perfectly cut scarlet rubies circles her neck, putting forth a vague impression of her throat having been slit. The overall effect is slightly morbid and incredibly elegant." Page 70
Wouldn't you give anything to see her? The Night Circus is begging to be adapted for the big screen, and a quick search confirms the TV and film rights were optioned years ago. The alluring black and white striped tents, the incredible illusions and the otherworldly clock are ripe for cinematic interpretation, all that's missing is the smell of caramel and popcorn.

The power of The Night Circus is the circus itself, held together with evocative writing and the power of description. Not a lot happens between the characters, with an overarching theme driving the plot but without much action. I was expecting a dramatic showdown, denouement or climax that never arrived, thinking perhaps this would happen in the next book. Not so.

I've punched my ticket to The Night Circus later than most, with the success of the book at its peak in 2011. I remember deciding whether or not to request a copy for review, however I'm not really into circus settings or young adult romance, so decided not to. After enjoying The Starless Sea, I'm glad I decided to give this urban fantasy meets historical fiction novel a chance.

A word about editions. I love seeing hardbacks with a sprayed edge, and The Night Circus has produced some of the most stunning editions of any book I've ever seen and I still drool over the deluxe editions and fan art readers have come up with.

Previous visits to the circus on my reading calendar include:
If you want to read about magic showdowns, battles and duels, you won't find it here. If you want to have your imagination stretched and your senses stimulated in a light young adult romance set in the Victorian era with magic, then you will be entranced by The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Just don't forget to wear a red scarf. 

My Rating: