Review: Half the World in Winter by Maggie Joel

 

Title: Half the World in Winter

Author: Maggie Joel

Published: Allen & Unwin October 2014

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Status: Read from October 13 to 16, 2014 — I own a copy {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

A story of tragedy, grief, and redemption, Half The World in Winter centers around Lucas Jarmyn and his family who are mourning the grisly death of nine year old Sofia. As the household struggles with the loss of their beloved daughter and sister they turn away from each other, and their home, in which Lucas forbids a fire to be set, grows ever colder.
Hundreds of miles away a train accident claims the life of a young girl. Her grief stricken father, Thomas Brinkley, demands justice from the head of the railway, Lucas Jarmyn, and when it is not immediately forthcoming, seeks revenge on the man and his family.

Half the World in Winter is an exploration of the dynamics of a family in mourning, and the impact of death and grief in a period where tragedy was common. The Jarmyn family are not only struck by the death of Sofia, they lose a nephew to the Boer War, a cook to a chicken bone, a discarded maid to vice, and are burdened by the deaths of those souls killed on the railway.

“Inside 19 Cadogan Mews time had ceased. It no longer existed, it had no meaning. A silence had fallen that no one felt willing to break. Footsteps were muffled, and commands, if they were given at all, were given in muted whispers in the hallways and corridors. doors were kept closed and before entering hands hesitated on doorknobs and deep breaths were taken. An excuse not to enter at all was often found.”

Set in England during the 1880’s, the period detail is rich and meticulous, from the minutiae of the Jarmyn’s household to the physical and social context of Victorian England. I was surprisingly interested by the workings of the Victorian railway system, and intrigued by the elaborate rituals of mourning – for middle class Britons there were strict rules to be followed after a death, determining, for example, the type and colour of fabric worn, to the depth of the border on notepaper.

“Half an inch for the first three months of mourning certainly. After that the border decreases to one-third of an inch. At six months it decreases to a quarter of an inch, then in increments of a tenth of an inch over the succeeding six months depending on the nature of the loss and one’s relationship with the deceased”

I did struggle with the sombre and often bleak timbre of the narrative and the measured pace of the novel quickened only marginally near the end. The writing however is stylish and descriptive, and the portrayal of the period is vivid.

Half The World in Winter is a genteel historical drama,  but it was a little too slow and solemn for me to really enjoy

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Review: The Hawley Book of the Dead by Chrysler Szarlan

 

Title: The Hawley Book of the Dead

Author: Chrysler Szarlan

Published: Ballantine Books: Random House September 2014

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Status: Read from September 23 to 24, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

“On the day I killed my husband, the scent of lilacs startled me awake.”

When someone exchanges the blank in her prop gun for a real bullet, Revelation ‘Reve’ Dyer unwittingly shoots her beloved husband dead during the final act of their world renowned Las Vegas magic show. Reve is devastated and then terrified when she realises the murderer still has Reve and her three daughters in his sights. To protect her family, Reve flees Nevada and takes refuge at Hawley Five Corners, her family’s abandoned estate in the woods of Massachusetts. But Reve has something the killer wants and he won’t give up until he gets it.

With its blend of mystery, suspense and the supernatural, The Hawley Book of the Dead offers a complex story about family secrets, magic and revenge.

Told in the first person, it introduces Revelation and her intriguing family history. Reve is the descendant of a line of women who have always wielded great power. Her grandmother can transport people with a thought, her mother is a healer, Reve can disappear by stepping into the veil between worlds, a talent she was born with but has never fully explored, her ten year old daughter Caleigh can weave magic with string, but the abilities of Reve’s fifteen year old twins, Faith and Grace, have yet to manifest.

In general, I feel Szarlan created well rounded and interesting characters, I found Reve frustrating a lot of the time though. She has the ability to disappear, her family line is littered with women whom she has accepted have true magical abilities, yet she dismisses most other instances of magic out of hand. This ploy may serve the needs of the plot but I felt it damaged the credibility of her character.

I did enjoy the blend of magic and myth which Szarlan gives her own little twist. The true motivations of the ‘Fetch’ stalking the family turn out to be quite unique and his relentless pursuit of Reve provides plenty of tension. The romance element, involving childhood sweetheart, now Hawley chief of police, Jolon, is a little awkward though considering Reve’s husband has just died.

The setting is great, Szarlan’s description of Five Corners and the surrounding woods are evocative and atmospheric. I loved the stories of the vanishing townsfolk and the ghostly cowherd and could easily imagine the abandoned estate and the manor house that is home to Reve and her family.

Not so great is the uneven pacing and the author’s attempt to force suspense surrounding the disappearance of the twins when their fate is blindingly obvious.

I really like the concept of Hawley Book of the Dead and there are elements of the story and character I think are creative and well done, and while overall I am not excited by this book, I do think the series has potential.

 

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Review: Tumbledown Manor by Helen Brown

 

Title: Tumbledown Manor

Author: Helen Brown

Published: Arena: Allen & Unwin September 2014

Status: Read from September 16 to 17, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

New Zealand born columnist Helen Brown is probably best known for her bestselling memoirs, Cleo and After Cleo. Tumbledown Manor, set in Australia where the author now lives with her family, is the journalist’s first fiction novel.

Lisa Katz (nee Trumperton) would rather forget she is turning 50 but is delighted when her family gathers to celebrate in her Upper East Side apartment, her daughter Portia has flown in from the west coast, her son, Ted, and her sister, Maxine and her husband, from Australia. As Lisa’s husband of 20 plus years delivers a speech honouring her, an extravagant arrangement of roses is delivered and Lisa reaches for the card, only to learn the bouquet was intended for Jake’s mistress. With her life in shambles, Lisa decides to return to Australia and to reclaim her ancestral home in the Victorian countryside. Trumperton Manor, nicknamed Tumbledown Manor by the locals, isn’t in great shape but Lisa is eager to make it her home despite flood, fire, family secrets, a feral cat and an overly familiar landscaper.

The themes of Tumbledown Manor mainly focus on family, love, acceptance and moving on as the plot centers around Lisa’s desire to make a new life for herself by renovating Tumbledown Manor. There is plenty of humour, a surplus of family drama, a touch of romance and a hint of mystery surrounding a past death in the manor’s stables, which eventually exposes a dark family secret.

I have to admit I wasn’t particularly fond of Lisa. While I sympathised with her over her marriage collapse, I thought her to be a prickly and somewhat self absorbed character who didn’t demonstrate the personal change I was expecting. I think several characters (eg Portia, Zack and Aunt Caroline) could have been dispensed with to give Lisa more opportunity to grow, and their absence wouldn’t have been noticed. I did like the laconic charm of Scott, the local landscaper/handyman who serves as the romantic interest, and is a fount of patience where Lisa is concerned. I also liked Ted and his ‘flatmate’ James. My favourite characters though were Mojo (the feral cat) and Kiwi (the cockatoo) who steal the limelight in every scene they appear in.

I was a little disappointed that the bulk of the renovations to the manor take place in the background. There are brief mentions of uncovering flagstones, furniture shopping and the ‘Grey Army’ being up and down ladders in between eating egg sandwiches but there is no real sense of the house being bought back to life, though the grounds get some attention.

Despite the appealing premise and some engaging, well written scenes and characters unfortunately, Tumbledown Manor wasn’t much more than an okay read for me.

 

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Review: A Year After Henry by Cathie Pelletier

 

Title: A Year After Henry

Author: Cathie Pelletier

Published: Sourcebooks Landmark August 2014

Status:  Read from June 02 to 03, 2014 — I own a copy

My Thoughts:

It has been a year since forty one year old Henry Munroe unexpectedly passed away. While his mother arranges a a memorial service for her ‘golden boy’, Henry’s wife, Jeanie, is stalking his ex mistress, Evie, his teenage son Chad is drinking and smoking pot, and Henry’s brother, newly divorced and unemployed, is sleeping in the room they shared as children. A Year After Henry by Cathie Pelletier explores the process of grief, loss and letting go.

Each of Pelletier’s characters are struggling to come to terms with the emotional aftermath of Henry’s demise, as well as the changes it has has wrought in the direction of their lives. As the memorial service approaches they are forced to confront their angst and reconcile both their love and ambivalence for the son, husband, father, brother and lover they have lost.

Jeanie is the most conflicted character as her husband’s death occurred just as she had mustered the courage to confront him about his history of adultery. This complicates her mourning process and she develops a mild obsession with one his last lovers, Evie.

I was surprised by the paranormal aspect that Evie brings to this story. It is not really a significant element, but allows Pelletier to explore another facet of grief. Evie is a local bartender and Spiritual Portraitist whose brief fling with Henry haunts her, especially as she realises she is falling in love with his brother Larry.

Larry misses his brother despite having always lived in Henry’s shadow. Henry’s status as the family golden boy is only elevated by his sudden death, particularly in contrast to Larry’s messy personal crisis which includes being forced to move back in with his parents after his recent divorce, and being fired from job as a school teacher.

A low-key character driven novel, there are flashes of humor and pathos in this poignant story of grief, loss and letting go. A Year After Henry is Cathie Pelletier’s 11th book.

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Review: Mating For Life by Melissa Stapley

 

Title: Mating For Life

Author: Melissa Stapley

Published: Washington Square Press July 2014

Status: Read from June 29 to July 01, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

Mating For Life is an ambitious exploration of love, relationships and the search for happiness by debut author Marissa Stapley.

The narrative unfolds from multiple perspectives, primarily those of Helen and her three adult daughter’s, Liane, Ilsa and Fiona, who are all variously struggling with romantic entanglements. Helen, a former wild child who essentially raised her daughters, fathered by three different men, on her own, is in her mid sixties and after years of eschewing tradition is wary of her lover’s urging for commitment. Liane has been with Adam for three years, but while holed up in her family’s lake cabin trying to finish her PHd thesis and imagining her future, she realises that he is not who she wants or needs after all. Fiona has invested everything she is into her marriage and children and when cracks begin to appear in the facade of her perfect family, is left angry and floundering. Ilsa, an artist and mother of two is growing increasingly dissatisfied with her passionless marriage to her much old husband and becomes embroiled in an illicit affair.

As the story unfolds, each woman is forced to negotiate the complications of mother-daughter and sibling dynamics, confront the choices they have made and reevaluate their priorities. What becomes obvious is that to successfully mate for life, they must first learn what it is they honestly want and need as individuals.

Each chapter is prefaced by a snippet from the mating rituals of a Canadian animal or bird which relates directly to the content. I thought the writing style was lovely overall, the descriptions of both place and emotion evocative, though at times a little over detailed. I found I was distracted by the additional perspectives added to the narrative from several minor characters and while I think the author chose to do so in order to explore another facet of her theme, I didn’t think it necessary.

While I could relate to some aspects of the themes of Mating For Life, neither the story, nor the characters really resonated with me in the way it has seemed to with other reviewers. For me, Mating for Life was a pleasant read but not a memorable one.

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Review: Deadly Curiosities by Gail Z Martin

 

Title: Deadly Curiosities {Deadly Curiosities #1}

Author: Gail Z Martin

Published: Solaris Books June 2014

Status: Read from June 19 to 21, 2014 — I own a copy

My Thoughts:

Deadly Curiosities is the full length introduction to a new urban fantasy series by Gail Z. Martin, preceded by seven related short stories self published by the author.

Cassidy Kincaide is the owner of Trifles & Folly, an antique/curio store and high-end pawn shop in Charleston, South Carolina. Cassidy inherited the family business, in operation since 1670, upon her uncle’s death, finally learning of the family secret and the truth about her own unique skill with psychometry – the ability to know the history associated with an object by touch. Her gift allows Cassidy, with the help of her 500 year old business partner, Sorren, to assist The Alliance – a group of mortals and paranormal beings, in identifying and removing dangerous items harbouring supernatural power from public circulation. In Deadly Curiosities, antiques previously assessed as inert are suddenly creating problems for their new owners. It’s up to Cassidy, along with friend and colleague Teag, to determine the cause of the black magic igniting Charleston’ deadly history and put a stop to it.

I was excited by the premise of Deadly Curiosities, and I still think the concept is strong, but the style of the narrative didn’t quite work for me. I struggled with the incidences of repetition, not only in the information presented, but Martin’s tendency to state and then restate lines. I also felt the way in which Cassidy’s visions were presented, in the past tense with Cassidy as an observer, dampened the sense of immediacy and gave the narrative a somewhat disjointed feel.

I do think there is real potential in the characters for Martin to develop an interesting cast. Cassidy is likeable, and her talent is interesting though I didn’t feel like I learned much about her outside of what she is capable of. I was quite intrigued by Teag’s abilities as a ‘weaver’ that not only gives him in an infinity for traditional materials such as fabric and knots but also the world wide web. Sorren is a bit of an enigma however I’ve since learned that his character is established in the short stories prequels.

I really liked the atmospheric setting, Deadly Curiosities is set in Charleston, a town rich in history, which Martin exploits to good effect, though I have to admit I have no idea how much of what is presented is actually based on truth.

Overall I would have to judge Deadly Curiosities as an ‘okay’ read for me, though I can see, in the story and characters, the potential.

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Review: Temptation by K.M. Golland

 

Title: Temptation {Temptation #1}

Author: K.M. Golland

Published: MIRA: Harlequin Au April 2014

Status: Read from April 28 to 29, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

Australian writer K.M. Golland captured the imagination of erotic romance readers when she self-published Temptation, her first novel in a series to feature the sizzling relationship between Alexis Summers and sexy hotel billionaire, Bryce Clark. The buzz eventually caught the attention of Harlequin Australia, who are releasing the series under their MIRA imprint during 2014.

In Temptation, thirty-five-year-old happily married wife and mother of two, Alexis Summers, decides it’s time to return to the workforce but when, on her very first day as a Concierge Assistant at one of Melbourne’s most exclusive hotel complex, City Towers, Alexis spills her coffee all over billionaire owner Bryce Clark, she panics her career is over before it has begun. Surprisingly, instead of firing her, Bryce offers Alexis a Versace dress to replace her Target blouse, and a promotion to the role of his personal assistant. Alexis is stunned by her good fortune, the job is a dream come true but so is her charming, sexy and gorgeous boss, and when Bryce makes it clear he wants her to fulfill his more intimate needs, Alexis struggles with temptation.

Temptation is about sexual fantasy, which rarely conforms to real world standards, but I do wish Golland hadn’t chosen to place Alexis in a situation where to be with Bryce means she is cheating on her husband. Infidelity makes me uncomfortable, no matter the justification, and especially when children are involved, so I couldn’t really lose myself in the fantasy. That said, there are scenes that stir the umm… imagination, Alexis is a likeable character and Bryce is portrayed as a man who would tempt most women.

There is, as to be expected, plenty of sexual tension in Temptation but surprisingly little action. Golland teases the reader with loaded glances, thrilling touches and Alexis’s vivid daydreams, so the actual consummation of Alexis’s and Bryce’s attraction comes after a long period of heightened anticipation.

I was pleasantly surprised by the humour in Temptation, Alexis’s thoughts tend to be unfiltered by social graces. There are also some playful interactions between Alexis and Bryce, as well as funny conversations shared between Alexis and her girlfriends. Golland also makes an attempt to introduce suspense, having to do with Bryce’s cousin Gareth, but it doesn’t really go anywhere within the framework of this novel.

The writing could do with some more polish, as could some of the dialogue, both are, at times, clumsy and unsophisticated but in general its okay. Alexis’s crude language doesn’t bother me, though it may offend readers sensitivity to profanity.

Though Temptation has its weaknesses, the blistering chemistry between Alexis and Bryce is appealing and the overall, the story is entertaining. This is a novel, and a series, sure to tempt fans of erotic romance.

Get to know Alexis Summers with Golland’s character profile posted earlier today on Book’d Out

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Review: Guidebook To Murder by Lyn Cahoon

 

Title: Guidebook To Murder {A Tourist Trap Mystery #1}

Author: Lynn Cahoon

Published: Kensington Books April 2014

Status: Read from April 16 to 17, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

Set in the small coastal town of South Cove, California, Guidebook To Murder begins with the death of an elderly woman befriended by local bookstore/cafe owner, Jill Gardner. Detective Greg King, is of the opinion that Miss Emily’s passing was due to natural causes but Jill is suspicious and insists on an autopsy which reveals Miss Emily was murdered. Convinced that the sleazy developer that had been putting pressure on Miss Emily to sell her home could be responsible, when Jill discovers she has inherited Miss Emily’s house, she risks becoming his next victim.

The story of Guidebook To Murder is surprisingly busy despite only a single murder taking place. Jill finds herself juggling extensive home repairs in order to meet a council order with attempting to solve the murder of Miss Emily, locate some missing art and defend her reputation from Miss Emily’s scheming relatives, all while receiving regular death threats. And if that wasn’t enough, Jill is also trying to reign in her meddlesome, if well-meaning, aunt, search for her missing best friend, and fight her attraction to the handsome, but off-limits, Detective King. Though Cahoon manages to tie everything up neatly in the end, the story feels a little overcrowded and despite the plethora of suspects and motives, the plot of Guidebook to Murder is still fairly predictable.

I liked Jill well enough, once a city lawyer, Jill moved to South Cove on a whim after her divorce, investing her life savings into “Coffee, Books, and More”. We are told by Cahoon that Jill is a bit of pushover but I don’t really see evidence of that, she has no problem standing up to the developer, the council or even the detective when he writes off Miss Emily’s death as natural causes.
We don’t learn too much about the other characters, Amy, Jill’s best friend, is missing for much of the book, and her Aunt Jackie is busy running the store while the villains are little more than stereotypes. I never quite worked out the Mayor’s role in the story, nor why the developer was so desperate for Miss Emily’s land.

I did take issue with few small details within the story too, for example, probate usually takes two to three months (and generally longer) to complete, whereas Jill had control of her inheritance in days.

Guidebook To Murder is the first novel in Lynn Cahoon’s, ‘A Tourist Trap Mystery’ series. I found it to be a quick, and easy read but not a particularly exciting one.

 

Guidebook To Murder is available to purchase from

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Review: Betrayed by Jacqui Rose

 

Title:  Betrayed

Author: Jacqui Rose

Published: HarperCollins UK: Avon March 2014

Status: Read from March 24 to 26, 2014 — I own a copy  {Courtesy the publicist}

My Thoughts:

Betrayed is the fourth standalone novel by Jacqui Rose, who gained noticed as a self published author and then was picked up by Harper Colin’s Avon imprint.

Del Williams owns the streets of Soho, running drugs, prostitutes and protection rackets alongside his legitimate businesses. Rich, powerful and ruthless, few are willing to make an enemy of him but even hard men have their weaknesses. Del’s is his mistress, Bunny Barker, and their precious seven year old daughter, Star and when Del is betrayed by his allies it is they who will pay the price.

I found Betrayed interesting because I haven’t ever read anything quite like it before. It is set within London’s criminal underworld where everyone operates outside the normal rules of society. Betrayed is a gritty novel without the patina of glamour usually ascribed to the gangland lifestyle. Rose portrays a brutal underworld aided by corrupt cops, greedy lawyers, violent intimidation and well greased wheels.

Bunny didn’t quite play the leading role I expected and I thought Del was the stronger and better developed character of the two. There are no real hero’s, nor innocents in this novel. It is a little strange when you realise you are hoping the violent, drug dealing gangster will prevail, but in Betrayed the alternative is unimaginably worse.

The pace of the story is good, as is the writing. It is quite visual in style and could be described as Eastenders meets The Soprano’s. Some readers may struggle with the fairly graphic elements related to the victimisation of children, as well as the coarse language.

The gangland crime fiction sub genre doesn’t hold a lot of appeal for me in general but I liked Betrayal well enough. It was a fast read, and the plot and characters kept me interested for the length of the story.

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Review: The Grass Castle by Karen Viggers

Title: The Grass Castle

Author: Karen Viggers

Published: Allen  & Unwin February 2014

Status: Read from January 27 to 29, 2014 — I own a copy {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

The Grass Castle is a quiet, introspective novel exploring the themes of displacement and belonging, grief and healing.

Abby Hunter is a struggling PhD student who prefers the isolation of her fieldwork in the Brindabella mountain ranges to the bustling activity of the university lab. Wary of relationships since her mothers death, she is content with the company of the Kangaroo’s she is studying, but a chance meeting with elderly matriarch Daphne Norrington, and the gentle persistence of journalist Cameron Barlow, penetrates her reserve and Abby is finally forced to deal with her tragic past.

Unfortunately I found I didn’t particularly connect with Abby, she is too passive and reserved for my tastes, and while I had some sympathy for her difficult past I didn’t really understand the choices she had made since, nor some of her behaviour during the story. I did admire eighty five year old Daphne, who weathered so much tragedy in her life, including the compulsory acquisition of her home by the government, and the deaths of her son and husband. The friendship between the women develops from their connection to the land and their mutual need for both for a confessor of past trauma and support in the present.

The romance between Abby and Cameron is low key, part of Abby’s journey rather than a focal plot point. There are political elements in the novel in regards to the efficacy of kangaroo culling, indigenous land rights and media/political spin. I found them a little intrusive at times, even though I largely agreed with the sentiments.

This is a reflective novel that mediates on the need to accept and learn from the past and though The Grass Castle didn’t fully engage me, I could appreciate the way Viggers evoked the setting, in both the past and the present, and the emotions in her characters.

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