All posts by Narrelle

Review: Murder, Misadventures and Miserable Ends – Tales from a Colonial Coroner’s Court by Catie Gilchrist

Social history, especially as it pertains to murder and crime, will always be a lure to get me into a book.  Catie Gilchrist’s account of Henry Shiell’s 33 year tenure as colonial Sydney’s City Coroner through a selection of the cases over which he presided has been on my wish list for a while.

The cases that passed through Shiell’s court between 1866 and 1899 are presented in distinct categories: murder, manslaughter, suicide, accidental deaths occurring through the hazards of work, transport and daily life, and the deaths resulting from unwanted pregnancies, either through abortion or infanticide. It’s a sad and sometimes sensational record of life and death in a colonial city and the usual spread of human suffering, passion, cruelty and pity.

Gilchrist doesn’t simply provide a litany of cases and their outcomes – her research into various cases comes with commentary of how Sydney society responded to notorious and sometimes heartbreaking cases. She also records the instances of when inquests resulted in suggestions for changes in laws and attitudes – whether such calls for change were ignored, embraced or took several years for authorities to act.

Gilchrist adds her own observations on how poverty and societal attitudes towards women and men affected various kinds of deaths, remarking with asperity particularly on damaging and contradictory attitudes to women and the poor (and poor women especially) that created situations in which so much tragic death occurred.

The author’s occasional tendency to withhold the names of key perpetrators for effect was sometimes frustrating. The reader needs to stay alert too, as cases mentioned one or more chapters ago might come up again to demonstrate the timeline. (I took a four week break between starting and finishing this book, which meant I lost track a little!)

Coffee and sticky notes: research essentials

Those quibbles notwithstanding, I read Murder, Misadventures and Miserable Ends: Tales from a Colonial Coroner’s Court with morbid fascination and finished it with a greater understanding of the conditions in Victorian-era Sydney. My copy is now festooned with sticky notes against cases and relevant laws that I may refer to for further research in my own writing.

Review: Circus Hearts 1 – All the Little Bones by Ellie Marney

Ellie Marney’s Every… YA trilogy was fantastic, especially with it’s brushes of Sherlock Holmes characters and canon over its story of James Mycroft and Rachel Watts stumbling into crime (and into love) in an Australian setting. I’m delighted to find that the same deft gift for depth of character and neat plotting continues in the first of this new series.

I’ve read a few circus-themed books over the years, the most recent being Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, which was all poetry, mysticism and elegant Victorian-era repressed romance fantasy.

Ellie Marney’s All the Little Bones (the first of the Circus Hearts trilogy) has a lot more crunch and texture. The sweat-and-greasepaint reality of it is more along the lines of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Catch Trap, but unlike that 1940s-50s-set and fairly brutal and unhappy exploration of queer love, All the Little Bones gives the reader both a gripping back story, and a romance with a kinder heart.

All the Little Bones follows Sorsha Neary, a teenaged trapeze artist, on the run from her family circus troupe after defending herself from an assault. The troupe’s apprentice strongman, Colm Mackay, is charged with taking her to safety, south to Klatsch’s Karnival.

Colm is supposed to be looking after Sorsha, not falling for her, especially as he was a witness to what happened. Sorsha is having nightmares, and when they finally reach the relative safety of Klatsch’s, not everyone is welcoming. The young pair have to negotiate their precarious situation with the law against trying to fit in to the new circus, along with the emotional fallout of the crime and how they are feeling about each other.

There’s a lot to juggle (pardon the circus pun) but Marney keeps everything at the perfect pitch and the perfect pace right to the end, when disaster of more than one kind brings everything to a head. The story handles the instigating crime and its consequences intelligently and compassionately, and while motivations can be doubted, the story is subtle enough not to have an outright, irredeemable villain. (Well, maybe one.)

It’s great to see the next book in the series, All Fall Down, builds on the events of All the Little Bones – I look forward to reading it soon!

Buy Circus Hearts 1: All the Little Bones

Review: Shadowmancy by Jason Franks

Jason Franks, who wrote the marvellous Bloody Waters and the dark, darkly funny and unexpected Faerie Apocalypse has given us a new story, expanded from a 6-page comic published in 2008. This fine history for Shadowmancy means that the novel is illustrated with some striking black and white art from Nicholas Hunter throughout.

We have so many stories about schools of sorcery, from the mystical mysteries of Dr Strange’s Himalayan retreat with the Ancient One, Hogwarts with its breathtakingly cavalier approach to duty of care and student safety, Pratchett’s The Unseen University and countless mountain-top Shaolin monk and ninja training camps from the movies.

Franks distills all of these tropes down into the sinister Academy, residing on a hidden mountain, where students attempt to absorb the Arts without being directly taught. The venerable Chancellor who gives the young Quay a chance to study there, after Quay’s father broke the most fundamental rule (don’t have a family) retains echoes of Dumbledore/Gandalf/Ancient One but he’s also his own scheming self.

That’s one of the joys of this book: all the echoes of fictions past, which draw on our collective memory of magic schools and give a frisson of recognition before taking sharp turns in its own direction, delivering a dark and gritty study of a boy who thinks he will out-learn them all. Quay is a misanthrope and sociopath, and still Franks makes him work as the central antihero.

Chosen One and teen hero tropes are inverted, sometimes messily, and the prose gives eloquent insights into philosophies of art, mind and power.

Shadowmancy is a crunchy little book, thoroughly enjoying, in its dark and brooding way, the dismantling of mystic-mountain-school pop culture. (Franks does like to invert tropes, which is a thing I love about his writing).

If you want to read about a magic school and what it’s probably really like, or if you just want dark fantasy fiction written by an author with a grip on his craft, I recommend this book with a Wahoo!

Buy Shadowmancy:

Dublin WorldCon Ghost stories – “Jane” by Narrelle M Harris

I had a blast reading an extract from my ghost story “Jane” at the Irish Ghost Stories panel at Worldcon tonight. Huge thanks to the fantastic Dr Jack Fennell who invited me to participate, and my fellow panellists.

“Jane” won the ‘Body in the Library’ award at the 2017 Scarlet Stiletto awards, and was published in Scarlet Stiletto: The Ninth Cut 2017.

A big shout out to all the people who came to me after the panel to ask how the story ends: you can get it in The Ninth Cut anthology, but the award sponsor, Melbourne’s Athenaeum Library, also has it online.