Category Archives: reviews

Review: The Secret Art of Poisoning by Samantha Battams

When I first moved to Melbourne in the late 1990s, I lived in Richmond. At some point during my five years there, before I moved to the city, I learned about Martha Needle, the woman who lived on Bridge Road in the 1890s and poisoned her husband, three children and the brother of her fiance.

That’s as much as I knew, but that little conjured an image of a sly, vicious woman, disposing of unwanted encumbrances to get her own way and maybe a spot of insurance money.

As with all true stories, however, a lot more complexity is unravelled when you start to explore the details. Martha Needle’s guilt, on the face of it, is undoubted, and she was hanged for her crimes – but author Samantha Battams does an excellent job of uncovering the details of Martha’s tragic history and the circumstances of her crimes in The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner.

Martha Needle circa-1892. Photo: Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria

Battam goes into Martha Needle’s life in detail, beginning with the life of her mother, Mary Newland, who arrived in Adelaide in 1852, one of many women who came to be brides for the male-dominated colonial outpost.

The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner is a very thorough account of Martha’s harsh and difficult life, her precarious mental health and the deeds she committed and for which she was punished. Biased news coverage, many personal letters, the court proceedings (including the judge’s summing up) and other primary documents are quoted at length, and the final chapter brings together Battams’ observations on the social and historical influences that are so deeply embedded in the fate of Martha Needle and her victims.

On the technical side, a more stringent proofread before publication would have caught some of the more obvious typos and inconsistencies in punctuation which caught my eye and interrupted the reading flow, especially in the early chapters, but it’s a minor niggle in the presentation.

It’s a solid account, but if there’s a disappointment, it’s in an early promise not fulfilled. Battams reveals in the introduction how she stumbled across Martha Needle’s story by first encountering the story of how one Alexander Lee poisoned his wife and children in the 1920s. Lee was Martha Needle’s nephew.

The early suggestion of looking at how these two relatives and their fates were connected is only lightly touched on. I’d have enjoyed a bit more analysis, involving a more explicit look at their parallels, especially since the introduction specifically notes “I was also curious to know, did Alexander Lee know his Auntie Martha and grow up with stories of her infamous deeds?’ while the back blurb reads “What strange quirk of fate led these two relatives… to commit virtually the same crime?” Any answer is inferred rather than fully examined.

Although my curiosity is left largely unsatisfied, The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner is a thorough examination of a horrible crime, trial by media, the treatment of poverty, trauma and mental health by the 19th century justice system, and how the truth is always so much more complex than a sobriquet like “The Richmond Poisoner” can ever hope to show.

Buy The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner:

Review: A Night with the Knight of the Burning Pestle by Julia Bozza

A Night with the Knight of the Burning Pestle

Technically, this curious and charming book is A Night with the Knight of the Burning Pestle: Full of Mirth and Delight by Francis Beaumont and Julie Bozza. Beaumont wrote the original 1607 play-within-a-play that forms the central part of the story. Julie Bozza has added another layer of metatextual storytelling with the relationship between two of the play’s performers, Dale and Topher.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle was an unusual play in its time: performed once only in 1607, published in 1613, it’s a satire on chivalric romances of the time and considers the fourth wall as less than the dust beneath its feet.

First, to precis the Beaumont play: a group of actors are putting on a romance called The London Merchant. To the surprise (I expect) of all the punters, two audience members – a grocer and his wife – complain loudly about the representation of the middle classes. The grocer sends his apprentice, Rafe, onstage to show what the middle classes are made of. Rafe is dubbed the Knight of the Burning Pestle and seems not to notice that it’s not kindly meant. His antics keep bursting in on the plot of The London Merchant until it tangles up with that story.

A Night with the Knight of the Burning Pestle swirls another layer into the parfait with a behind-the-scenes love story. Dale, who plays Rafe, and Topher, who plays Jasper, had a one night stand in the past. Anything more didn’t gel with Dale’s grand Life Plan. Now, on the last night of the play’s run, Topher wants Dale to reignite their connection and see there’s something worth sharing for the long term.

Dale resists – it doesn’t fit with the plan – and over the course of the night, their relationship clashes and transforms as this 17th century satire offers some meaning to their 21st century lives.

1613 cover

A reader might fear that the layers of story – actors playing actors in The London Merchant interacting as actor/character with audience members playing Rafe and his sidekicks – will render the whole too muddled to follow.

Fear not, reader. You’re in good hands with Julie Bozza. She’s always been a skilled storyteller with a grasp of the complex, and her knowledge of and affection for theatre and for the Beaumont play are clear (she acknowledges several influential productions).

She handles each layer of the story with clarity, delicacy and warmth, allowing the crossovers of relationships, themes and centuries room to develop without ever overwhelming you.

2017 Paperback cover

The Dale/Topher romance underpins the story rather than being the whole focus – there’s as much joy to be had in how the play actually unfolds as with these two lads getting their romantic act together – but that feels rightly balanced with what also feels like a love letter to an obscure play that was a failure for its playwright at the time. I do hope Francis Beaumont knows, somewhere, that Julia Bozza loves him. And at the end of this book, so do I!

A Night with the Knight of the Burning Pestle is an ebook release of the 2017 paperback and can be found at:

New life for ‘Nil By Mouth’ and ‘The Fear Collectors’.

Shooting Star Press is bringing back to the Australian genre scene some very bright stars that paradoxically contain some very dark matter – as you can tell from these magnificently unsettling covers.

I was delighted and honoured when publisher Cath Brinkley asked me to introduce two of their newly republished works at their Continuum 15 launch in June 2019.

Nil by Mouth by LynC

I first read Nil By Mouth in 2014 and was profoundly captured by the story of Ale, a human being who undergoes many emotional and physical transformations in the course of an alien invasion. 

Nil By Mouth is many things: deeply horrific and deeply humane; filled with thoughtless cruelty and mindful compassion. It’s unexpected and unpredictable and entirely marvellous. I’m so pleased that Shooting Star Press is bringing this impressive work back into print.

And as unsettling as the cover is on first glance, I’m growing to love it more and more. What we think we see at first isn’t actually what’s happening.

What seems on the surface monstrous is something else: from the blue alien eye that, with time, appears to be gazing on Ale with compassion; and Ale’s rock-bottom despair is on the verge of the what-comes-next, the hope that’s about to bring him from the abyss. (Of course, I have the benefit of hindsight – I’ve read the book!). Lewis Morley has been as extraordinary with this cover as LynC as been with its contents!

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The Fear Collectors by Lauren E Mitchell

Do you know that feeling in dreams that begin to morph from thing to another and it makes sense because that’s just how it is in dreams?

That’s sort of The Fear Collectors, which is adventure/horror meets YA meets surreal science fiction meets hello-I-wasn’t-expecting-that-to-happen. Or that. That either.

It’s like how dreams start so simply and non-threatening sometimes and proceeds to take weird left turn after turn until you don’t know what’s what.

One minute you’re bicycling down a hill in your pyjamas and then suddenly you’re wearing a backpack full of hardcover books but no they’re moving (and are rats now) and you’ve cycled off a cliff and if you pedal fast enough you’ll keep in the air and then you’re at a picnic (the bikes are leaning against the stone wall) and everyone has baguettes and you hear music and get up and can’t find how to turn the music off so it doesn’t wake up everybody else (and you don’t want to even think about who all those everybody elses are) and then you actually wake up and you’re still in bed and everything feels bent out of shape even though you know you were only dreaming, or at least you think you were, and you’re not still dreaming, and you *are* awake now, aren’t you?

The Fear Collectors zings through its paces like that, from placid to terrifying; from youthful adventure to nightmare fuel; and dark horror to SF, all the way to the end.

Buy The Fear Collectors

Review: The Definitive Albert J Sterne by Julie Bozza

The Definitive Albert J Sterne

This 2019 re-release of 2012’s The Definitive Albert J Sterne brings together the original novel along with the interweaving short stories previously published as Albert J Sterne: Future Bright, Past Imperfect. The result is over 220,000 words of crime thriller/complex love story. It’s a hefty book, but it’s dealing with some fairly hefty themes while still being an enthralling and gripping story.

The Definitive Albert J Sterne” rewards the time, though. Author Julie Bozza has crafted a book that is a slow burn and often difficult thriller which is threaded through with a slow burn and often difficult love story.

FBI forensic pathologist Albert J Sterne is a brusque perfectionist, impatient with the folly of the world yet dedicated to using his superb skills to solving crime. Intensely private and putting people offside wherever he goes, few know of the childhood trauma that has led to so many layers of walls between his actions and his feelings.

Sterne meets Special Agent Fletcher Ash in 1976 while attending a crime scene that Ash discovered by chance while walking. Ash is more charming than Sterne but he has his own awkwardness within the Bureau – an ability to intuit things about cases which could leave him open to all kinds of accusations and cynicism. Ash seems almost immune to Sterne’s brusqueness; Sterne seems to find Ash less objectionable than other people.

Thus begins a friendship and FBI partnership that leads them both onto the path of a serial killer. Over nine years, their friendship evolves into a ‘friends with benefits’ and goes through many difficulties on the way to a better understanding. They both have significant faults, but one of the greatest barriers is Albert’s ruthless capacity for shoving his feelings behind a fortress and pretending he doesn’t have them. He’ll give everything to Ash through love, except any part of his true self.

Ash is hardly the model boyfriend either, and this story primarily takes place in the 80s, when to be outed would be to lose their jobs. Ash is also obsessed with the serial killer who leaves the brutalised bodies of young men buried in the woods over several states. Frequently troubled and frustrated, Ash also has some selfish tendencies when it comes to Albert.

And then there are the skin-crawlingly vivid chapters seen through the eyes and the disturbing mind of the killer himself.

The reader knows early who is behind these deaths, but whodunnit is not the point. From start to finish, The Definitive Albert J Sterne is a psychological drama about love, trauma and death. It does go from dark into the light, but there is a lot of dark to work through first.

The writing is always clear and crisp, but the subject matter and Ash and Sterne’s never-easy relationship can be challenging as everything unfolds. I’ve said that it’s dark, and yet the core of it – Albert’s uneasiness about his love for Ash; Ash’s sometimes oblivious but ultimately utter conviction in his love for Albert – is a light of hope all the way through.

No solution comes in a hurry, but come it does, with great texture, compassion and deft understanding of human nature in a compelling thriller.

Content warning:

Because the story line deals with a serial killer, who gets his own chapters that give horrible but necessary insight into his state of mind, as well as descriptions of abuse, torture and violent crimes,  Bozza has included a content warning in the book. This isn’t a light romance or cosy crime story – it’s gritty, often gruesome in its detail, and as excellent as it is, if the topics make you squeamish it doesn’t hurt to read that spoiler-free content warning in full.

Buy The Definitive Albert J Sterne