Mystery of the Month – Where the Dead Go

I was reading another book, quite a good book… but then Where the Dead Go appeared on my Kindle on August 5 (thanks to my pre-order). I immediately started reading it, and the other book was soon forgotten.

This is Sarah Bailey’s third novel featuring Detective Gemma Woodstock – the first being The Dark Lake about the murder of a high school teacher in Gemma’s hometown, Smithson, and the second novel Into the Night set in Melbourne with Gemma investigating the death of a celebrity.

Where the Dead Go is set four years after the events of Into the Night. Gemma now works in Sydney but a death in the family has forced her to return to Smithson. Gemma is no stranger to death. Her adolescence saw the loss of both her mother and her boyfriend, and it’s the nature of her job as a detective to work closely with the deceased. But this particular tragedy has hit her hard and she’s looking for a distraction. So when her old boss, Jonesy, mentions they’re looking for a stand-in to investigate the murder of a young man in Fairhaven, Gemma jumps at the chance. Before long, she’s ignoring her father’s advice not to make hasty decisions and arriving in the coastal town of Fairhaven with her eight-year-old son, Ben, in tow.

This time, Gemma is the boss. Leadership suits her as she rises to meet all of the challenges she is faced with – a prickly Constable to work with, some nasty threats and having her competence called into question. Her knack for solving tricky mysteries comes in handy when she finds herself investigating not only the homicide but also the disappearance of the victim’s girlfriend, fifteen-year-old Abbey.

Sarah Bailey is particularly skilled at writing vivid settings – her descriptions of the vast ocean, sunburnt tourists and salty air bring to life the fictional Fairhaven. The northern NSW town is populated with a cast of intriguing characters all strategically positioned to misdirect the reader – an indisposed chief inspector, a handsome and genial publican, an indefatigable journalist, a few boisterous British backpackers, a soothsaying itinerant, and some dope pushing parents. And as Gemma delves further into Abbey’s home life, she uncovers a family dealing with some very serious issues.

All the while, Gemma is true to form – throwing herself into her work and avoiding her personal problems. And once again, she is letting the events of the past drag her down. This time it’s her guilt over another missing girl case, one she didn’t solve and something which she views as the lowest point of her career. She wears her guilt like heavy chain mail, desperate to find Abbey to atone for the girl she couldn’t save. She pushes away her partner, Mac, who seems a genuinely good match for her and beats herself up over whether she can be the parent that Ben needs.

But even when you are frustrated with Gemma and some of the decisions she makes, you’re still rooting for her to succeed. She has a hard shell but underneath lies an unfailing hope that she will find Abbey alive and an overwhelming love for her son, both traits which make her appealing and relatable.

I raced through this book, as I’ve done with all of Sarah Bailey’s novels. It feels like this may be the last we’ll see of Gemma, which is a shame as I’ve enjoyed reading about her over the past three years. But whatever Sarah writes next, she has surely amassed plenty of fans who will race to get their hands on it come the release date.

Where the Dead Go by Sarah Bailey is published by Allen & Unwin.

Standout Simile:

Insects bleat like a faulty smoke alarm, and I smack my arm to dislodge a feasting mosquito.

Conflicting Feedback on Your Writing

Feedback on my writing is my favourite. No, really – it is. There’s positive feedback, which makes you feel warm and fuzzy and lets you know you’re on the right track with your work. Negative feedback can be good motivation to make you work harder. But what about when feedback from different sources contradicts each other?

Example A. The opening of my novel, The Princess Murders, a murder mystery.

As writers, we’re told the best way to get the attention of an agent or publisher is by having a knockout first chapter. I’ve reworked and rewritten my first few chapters so many times that I could recite them. I’d been feeling pretty good about them.

Simply put, this is what happens in the first few chapters:

  • The main character (MC), a private detective, is conducting surveillance on a teacher who lives in her hometown. She hasn’t been back in seven years and returned specifically for this case.
  • A reunion with the MC and her former school friends.
  • The morning after the reunion, the MC wakes up to find a text message from her friend, who is upset with her about something she said at the reunion.
  • Unable to contact her friend to apologise, MC goes to her house and is horrified to find that she has been murdered.

The opening scene where the MC is conducting surveillance establishes her life before the inciting incident, the murder. The murder triggers her to act – she has a new task, which is to solve the murder of her friend.

In the first draft stages, I received feedback from a mentor (a professional, published author) who said I should get to the reunion scene as soon as possible. To achieve this, I cut a fair chunk of out of the beginning, which was mostly the MC’s thoughts and feelings about seeing her old friends again.

Since then, I was twice shortlisted for the Flash 500 Novel Opening Competition, a competition judged on the appeal of your first chapter and synopsis. I viewed this shortlisting as a good sign that my opening chapter was not too terrible.

Earlier this year, an agent read my opening chapters and provided me with encouraging feedback, and requested to see the rest of my manuscript.

More recently, I did an online self-editing course. The feedback I received from the tutor (a professional, published author) was that the murder happened too late in the story. She said the murder should happen as close to the start of the book as possible. She questioned what happened in the first few chapters, assuming it involved the MC moving back to town to set up her agency, and concerned that this might be too much backstory.

However, the following week I had a meeting with a publisher/editor at a writer’s conference about my first chapter and synopsis. Her thoughts were quite the opposite. She said that the beginning of the novel felt too rushed. She suggested I slow it down and start the story by introducing the MC before she returns to her hometown. Perhaps a scene where she is trying to decide if she should return to her hometown, and her thoughts and feelings about that. Ultimately, the publisher/editor was not interested in my manuscript.

In summary, the professional advice I’ve received so far in regards to the structure of the opening of my novel are as follows:

  • It starts in a good place.
  • Needs to start later by bringing the murder closer to the start of the book. Don’t have too much backstory!
  • Should start earlier so we can get to know the MC better before we see her in action. Needs more backstory.

It seems like everyone is telling me to do something different, resulting in much confusion. It would be easy to get annoyed and frustrated and wonder if I should give up on this manuscript and start something new. But if I did that, I wouldn’t learn anything.

And even though the advice is different, what if they’re actually all correct?

Obviously I can’t start the book in three different places at the same time. But what if I look at the reasoning behind each suggestion? For example, I’ve been saying the murder is the inciting incident, but what if it’s not? Maybe the MC returning to her hometown is the inciting incident. And the publisher/editor suggested adding a new scene because she didn’t feel a connection with the MC in the opening action sequences and couldn’t understand why she was doing what she was doing. Evidently something is missing that needs to be looked at and reworked.

In the meantime, I’ve engaged a professional editor to review my manuscript and offer some guidance. There could be some major changes ahead and I’ll talk about these changes more in my next blog post.

Have you ever had conflicting feedback? What did you do? Please let me know in the comments below.

Mystery of the Month – Come Back For Me

On a stormy night in 1993, Stella’s parents bundle her and her siblings onto a ferry, desperate to leave their home on Evergreen. Little Stella adores living on the small island just off the Dorset coast, and can’t understand why her parents want to leave. Flash forward twenty-five years and Stella now works as a counsellor. She still reminisces wistfully about her childhood on Evergreen and is shocked one evening to see her old family home on the news – human remains have been found in the garden. Stella is compelled to return to the island but soon discovers she’s not welcome and that someone is prepared to take extreme measures to make her leave.

Come Back For Me is the latest suspense thriller from Heidi Perks, author of Now You See Her – both novels which explore what it means to tell the truth. Like its predecessor, Come Back For Me is quick to pique the reader’s interest with lots of burning questions. Why were Stella’s parents in such a hurry to leave the island that night? Whose body has been found? Who is the killer? The tension amps up when the identity of the murder victim is revealed – it’s someone Stella knew. When her brother, Danny, is implicated in the murder, Stella makes it her mission to prove his innocence.

Heidi Perks is a skilled suspense writer and the book moves along at a cracking pace, building an unsettling atmosphere laden with suspicion. The narrative deftly alternates between timelines – with the scenes from the past shifting viewpoints between Stella’s family – loner sister Bonnie, misunderstood Danny, and parents, Maria and David, as they navigate their relationship with Iona, a mysterious newcomer who seems intent on ingratiating herself with their family.

The reader journeys along with Stella as she sifts through one murky lie after another. The setting of Evergreen is perfect for a murder mystery – the claustrophobic island setting and the silo mentality of a small town, where everyone knows everyone (perhaps a little too well) and protect each other’s dirty secrets for fear of their own exposure. And although I’ve read many books about secrets, I haven’t come across anything quite like this. The reveal of what is actually going on in Evergreen was unexpected, interesting and written in a believable and authentic way.

Come Back For Me is an engaging read about loyalty and the lengths a person will go to in order to protect the people they love. What happens when lies spiral out of control? Is telling the truth always the best option? In this case, the truth is that this book needs to go to the top of your TBR pile, immediately!

Come Back For Me by Heidi Perks is published in Australia by Penguin.

Standout Simile:

I close my eyes, breathing deeply, slowly, pulling my hands away as I tip my head to the sun which is shooting like an arrow through a slit in the clouds.

The Writer Who Isn’t Writing

I’m certain writers spend a lot of their time not writing. Not because we’re busy with other occupations, family responsibilities or the time-sucking minutiae of daily life. When we do have a spare ten minutes to write, do we actually use that time to write? Or do we do something else – make a coffee, put on a load of laundry, or fall into an Instagram abyss?

I’m writing a new book. Supposedly. This one is more ambitious than my first novel. Instead of one POV character, I’ve got two, maybe three. The story alternates between the 1950s and present day Brisbane. It isn’t a cosy mystery like my first novel, but it is another murder mystery. I’m been ruminating on it and researching, doing some staring into space… but I haven’t actually started writing it.

So why not? I really need to get cracking. I have a 9 month old baby and there’s only a few tiny windows of time in my day where I can write. I should be taking advantage of these opportunities. But I don’t. Instead I vacuum or upload baby photos to the laptop or wonder if there’s something I can sell on eBay.

Obviously I’ve got some serious procrastination issues here. I’ve thought about why and I’ve come up with three main reasons why I’m not writing:

  1. Sheer laziness. I’m sleep deprived. This makes the task of amazing writing even more challenging than usual. And writing a book is hard work. The first book was much harder than I thought it was going to be. It took years! The thought of taking years to write another book isn’t sitting well with me. I want it written yesterday. So when it all feels too hard, I just do nothing.
  1. Self doubt. Yep, all the writers have been here. Even the published ones. A ‘fear of failure’ complex. What’s the point of putting in all this time and effort if no one will ever read the book, apart from my family and friends? I’m proud of my first book but now it’s done it feels a bit anti-climactic. Is that it? If an agent doesn’t want me based on that book, is that it? If no publishers like it, why would they like anything else I write? Poor me, etcetera.
  1. Guilt. As a new parent I feel like all my spare time should be devoted to my son. If he’s sleeping, I should be doing his laundry. Researching schools for him. Making baby food. That’s what parental leave is for, right? And he’s just started crawling so neglecting the vacuuming might be perilous to his health. I should probably also mop or something. I don’t know.

Fellow writers, we all know I’m not going to throw in the towel. I don’t really have a choice. I’m excited about my idea and somehow, this book is getting written. I’ll just bash out an 80,000 word draft over the next few weeks. Don’t worry. I’ve got this.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to hang the baby’s washing on the line, and then make a Spotify playlist. For inspiration! I swear …

Mystery of the Month – The Ex

The Ex wins Mystery of the Month (albeit more thriller than mystery) and also the title of Trickiest Book to Review. It’s near impossible to describe the plot without giving away the gasp-out-loud reveal.

Georgia has always struggled to find a sense of belonging. She loves her job as a nurse but is keen to settle down with the man of her dreams. Finding herself alone at a bar after a failed Tinder date, Georgia meets Luke. He’s charming, witty and clever, and their relationship blooms quickly. There’s just one obstacle on their road to happily ever after – Luke’s “problem ex”, Cadence. Luke tells Georgia they’re still living together and Cadence is not quite ready to let him go. Georgia begins to receive nasty notes on her car and disturbing emails telling her to stay away from Luke. After her home is broken into and ransacked, Georgia wonders how far Cadence is prepared to go to destroy her relationship with Luke. Could she be dangerous?

That’s about all I can say about Nicola Moriarty’s The Ex before we venture into major spoiler territory. I needed Panadol for the eye strain I suffered after binge reading the end of the book in one night. I had to know how Georgia was going to get herself out of the predicament she unwittingly found herself in.

This a fastidiously plotted novel. Nicola Moriarty is clever not to give too much away, providing just enough detail for an astute reader to correctly guess what’s going on whilst simultaneously making us doubt ourselves. Georgia’s developing romance with Luke is interspersed with short scenes of a confrontation between Cadence and Georgia in an elevator. Is this their first meeting, and if so, what has brought Georgia to the point that she’s stuck in an elevator with the unpredictable and possibly unhinged Cadence? The interactions between Georgia and Cadence are the best moments in the story.

The dialogue is tight and often witty, and while the first third of the book serves more to raise the reader’s curiosity, once we get past the big reveal in the middle, the tension amps up quickly and dramatically. It’s not all doom and drama – there are several light-hearted moments between Georgia and her regular patient, Jerry, as well as some nice scenes with Georgia’s family, and moments of humour involving her mother. Despite the sometimes grim subject matter, this is a fun and entertaining read.

If you enjoyed Friend Request by Laura Marshall, or Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris then you must read The Ex – a top notch domestic noir thriller about past relationships coming back to wreak havoc on your life.

The Ex by Nicola Moriarty is published by Harper Collins Australia.

Standout Simile:

In the in-between stage, after she’d swallowed the tablets but before she’d passed out, the regrets had come marching across her body like an army of ants. What have you done? they hissed as they marched. What have you done?

As A Writer, I’m Sentimental About Old Buildings

I love old buildings, particularly old houses. The older the better. My husband and I often drive around on the weekend, takeaway coffee in hand and baby in tow, visiting open houses in Brisbane. Last weekend it was a beautiful 1880’s home with stained glass windows and a tiny staircase winding up to an attic with city views.

Writers often feel inspired by old homes. Charlotte Bronte is said to have been inspired by a North Yorkshire home she visited, Norton Conyers, which became the basis for Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre. And Kate Morton often posts photos of quaint cottages and stately homes to Instagram, indicating they may feature in her next work of historical fiction.

Many people voiced their devastation in April this year at the news Notre Dame Cathedral was on fire. There were serious concerns that the building would sustain significant damage, destroying centuries of history. Someone created a meme making fun of everyone who, at hearing the news of the fire, quickly posted their holiday photos of Notre Dame to social media. Fair enough, that’s exactly what I did. I loved it there and was sad to hear it might be lost. Other people were commenting that it was only a building and no one had died. That’s perfectly true. It is a building and human lives are more precious. But I started to think about the reasons why people were so affected by the loss of a building. A building as iconic as Notre Dame Cathedral may have a different meaning to you depending on who you are. It’s an important building to the Catholic Church. It’s a symbol of France. For me, I like to imagine all of the people who’ve walked through the space. Who were they and how did they live? The world has changed and keeps changing but Notre Dame has survived and is still standing, marking time. An article at The Conversation explores this topic in more detail.

If a building is suddenly gone, will it then become harder for us to remember what happened in that space? Memories can fade and change with time. We might have photos but we can’t capture the way a room made us feel when we were standing in it. We probably didn’t record the sound of our footsteps on the floorboards, and we can’t bottle the musty smell that’s distinctive to old buildings. Many novelists have said their writing is richer if they can visit the actual place they’ve set their novel. As a writer, it’s much more difficult to imagine people moving around in a space if the space is no longer there.

I like to write stories set in Brisbane, where I live. There are interesting tales embedded into the city’s history – little seeds with the potential to grow and blossom into a novel. Being able to visit the homes, buildings and locations where things actually happened can also inspire a writer to notice details that add authenticity – a grand old jacaranda tree shedding purple flowers in the front yard, or an original door handle that would have been touched by every person who lived in the house over hundreds of years. Each building holds secrets within its walls about the lives of its previous occupants, and as a writer, we can imagine what those secrets might be. The building doesn’t have to be old, but the older the building, the more likely it will have secrets. To lose any of these beautiful old homes and buildings would mean the loss of those possibilities. And while it wouldn’t be the end of the world, it would be a great shame.

What inspires you as a writer? Have any real-life buildings served as the inspiration for your work of fiction?

Mystery of the Month – Blood River

It’s Brisbane, 1999. Three men have been savagely murdered during a flood. Lara Ocean, a fledgling homicide detective of seven months and her veteran partner, Billy Waterson, arrest seventeen-year-old student, Jen White. The media labels Jen ‘The Slayer’ and she is sentenced to life in prison.

Twenty years later and Queensland is in drought. Jen is released on parole and Lara is now the Police Commissioner. The Attorney-General threatens to terminate the president of the parole board and all its members unless they put Jen back in prison. Meanwhile, The Slayer plans to take advantage of Jen’s release – they will kill again, unless Jen can find a way to stop them.

Blood River is the first standalone novel from Australian author, writer and producer, Tony Cavanaugh, who is the author of the Darian Richards series. He is also responsible for a long list of memorable Australian productions including the award-winning mini-series The Day of the Roses and the story of the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain, Through My Eyes, as well as a writer/editor for the television game show series Cluedo, which, despite what his website bio states, I haven’t forgotten and it wasn’t dreadful!

Female detectives are becoming more prevalent in Australian crime fiction, with Sarah Bailey’s Gemma Woodstock novels (The Dark Lake, Into the Night), and James Patterson and Candice Fox’s Detective Harriet Blue series topping recent bestseller lists. Lara Ocean is another intriguing, flawed and carefully rendered protagonist, a tenacious detective with a complicated backstory spurred by rebellion – drug use and dangerous boyfriends. We meet her in 1999 through the eyes of another character – “the youngest detective in the Squad, ever, a twentysomething Asian with dyed blonde hair”. She’s busy trying to balance the pressure from her traditionalist mother to get married and have babies with her desire to work her way to the top of the police force.

Blood River bounces between many different viewpoints with the narrative separated into five parts, each beginning with lyrics from the African-American spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep”. It’s the first person narration from Lara and from Jen that drive the story forward – both engaging characters with strong voices. There are also scenes with an omniscient viewpoint scattered throughout, including two graduate engineers who stand staring at the rising waters of the Wivenhoe Dam, trying to decide if they should open the sluice gates. The effect of these varying viewpoints is as though the reader is watching a movie, which is hardly surprising given Cavanaugh’s lucrative career writing and producing for screen. He also has an excellent and almost disturbing grasp of the voice of The Slayer to the point where, on several occasions, I nearly skipped to the next section because I couldn’t bear to be inside their twisted mind any longer.

With the majority of Australian crime fiction set in and around Sydney or Melbourne, I was interested to read a novel set in Brisbane, especially having enjoyed recent local crime drama, Harrow (ABC), which is filmed predominately in Brisbane. The Blood River murders occur at the iconic Kangaroo Point cliffs and the Brisbane Botanical Gardens, with several other notable locations also featured – the Breakfast Creek Hotel, Racecourse Road and the upmarket suburb of Ascot. The feel of Brisbane is expertly painted onto the page with descriptions of jacaranda trees lining the footpaths, tumble-down Queenslanders, and of course, the sub-tropical humidity and fierce heat of a Brisbane summer. The fictional murders are grounded in real-life local crimes, some of the gruesome details being quite similar to the 1989 Brisbane ‘Vampire Killer’.

In an interview with Hachette, Tony Cavanaugh states he was keen to explore the notion of the doppelgänger and there are many dualities and contrasts throughout Blood River – 1999 versus 2019, the odd coupling of Lara and Billy, flood versus drought; and within the lives of each main character – Lara’s chequered past is the opposite side of the coin to her professional and upstanding future as a Police Commissioner; Jen’s innocence versus the necessity for her to find the killer inside so she can have a future; and, the real killer, who is living a lie and waits like a dormant volcano ready to wake up for one last hurrah.

Another thing I found clever were the name choices for each character – an Ocean and a Waterson introduced during a flood, and I think the real name of The Slayer may have been chosen due to it’s connection to a drought, but I won’t say anything further here in case I give it away.

The mystery of The Slayer’s identity had me intrigued and as it turns out, I did correctly guess the killer earlier in the novel (an instinctive choice), but then became distracted by red herrings, only to discover I’d been right at the start. The author has planted enough crafty clues to enable the reader to guess correctly – but beware of sneaky misdirection (or if you prefer, you can enjoy being tricked).

A solid piece of entertaining, clever, and thoughtful crime fiction, Blood River was a story I read quickly, eager to find out what was going to happen, and which stayed with me long after I’d finished.

Blood River by Tony Cavanaugh is published by Hachette Australia.

Standout Simile:

‘Yes?’ I said to Billy, still looking out the window at the mass of brown river water, flowing under the Victoria Bridge on its journey downstream to the ocean like an impatient humbering flow of low beasts.