Review: Doctor Death by Lene Kaaberbøl

 

Title: Doctor Death {A Madeleine Karno Mystery #1}

Author: Lene Kaaberbøl

Published: Atria Books February 2015

Read an Excerpt

Status: Read from February 15 to 16, 2015 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

Set in provincial France during the late 1800’s, Doctor Death is the first book in a new historical mystery series from Lene Kaaberbøl, featuring Madeleine Karno.

“My father was reluctant to let me assist when he examined the dead. He said it could only hurt my reputation and my future – by which he meant my chances of marriage. For the most part, my father was a man of progress, absorbed by the newest ideas and the latest technology. But he was incomprehensibly old-fashioned on this particular point.”

The daughter of a widowed surgeon/coroner, Madeleine dreams of one day following in his footsteps but for now must be content with those rare times when her father allows her to assist him. Intelligent, rational and ambitious, Madeleine is an admirable character who chafes at the expectations of the era though rarely in an overt way. When her father is injured she seizes the opportunity to become more involved in his current case that begins with a dead girl, scarred with human bites, found on her snow covered doorstep.

Solving the complex mystery involves a combination of common investigation techniques led by Madeleine’s father’s colleague, the Commisioner, and the fledgling science of forensics utilised by Madeleine and her father. It is a strange case that involves an unidentified parasite, a missing boy, a pack of wolves, a murdered priest and it becomes increasingly unsettling as Madeleine gets closer to unmasking a killer. There are red herrings and twists that keep the reader guessing as Kaaberbøl explores the conflicts of human and beast, science and faith.

“Illness is not necessarily a punishment from God…. Sometimes it just comes to us. If we are lucky, it is a trial from which we can learn. Other times, we must just accept that we humans do not understand everything.”

The tone is quite dark overall and there are elements of the story which readers may find disturbing. There is a touch of unconventional romance which will be interesting to see develop in further installments. The pace is good but the narrative does feel a little dry and formal at times, perhaps a consequence of the translation as much as a reflection of the period.

I did enjoy Doctor Death, the mystery was intriguing and Madeleine is an interesting lead but I have to admit I wasn’t as engaged as I hoped to have been. I do hope to continue with the series though to see how it develops.

Available to Purchase From

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Review: Things Half in Shadow by Alan Finn

Title: Things Half in Shadow

Author: Alan Finn

Published: Gallery Books December 2014

Status: Read from December 28 to 30, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:

Things Half in Shadow is an entertaining mystery thriller with a paranormal twist, set in postbellum Philadelphia, in which author Alan Finn (the pen name of Todd Ritter) introduces an unusual crime solving duo – independently wealthy crime reporter, Edward Clark and brazen confidence trickster, Lucy Collins, who become unlikely allies when they are present at the death of Lenora Grimes Pastor, the city’s most highly regarded medium.

Edward tells the tale of Things Half in Shadow as an old man sharing the story with his granddaughter. The two lead characters are wonderfully drawn, interesting and believable with intriguing secrets.
Edward is a gentleman, a veteran of the civil war, independently wealthy and engaged to a young lady of society. Tasked by his editor to expose Philadelphia’s psychic fraudsters preying on the grieving families of those lost in the war, he is reluctant to do so, though he has a secret that makes him uniquely qualified for the feature.
Mrs. Lucy Collins claims to be a ‘spiritually gifted’ young widow, offering her services as a medium to the bereaved of Philadelphia and is Edward’s first target for his newspaper expose. In truth she is a ‘fallen’ woman, successfully scamming Philadelphia society with simple sleight of hand.

The plot sees Edward and Lucy forced to cooperate in the wake of Pastor’s murder to clear their names, despite their mutual antipathy. There are several suspects including the other man and women who were in attendance at the seance, Leonora’s husband and a mysterious man in black who seems to be shadowing Edward. The suspense is well crafted, and the mystery behind Leonora’s unusual death is much more complex than it seems, eventually exposing a startling conspiracy that stretches back into Edward’s past.

Historically atmospheric, with a surprise cameo from PT Barnum, Things Half in Shadow is a great mystery tale, and one of my favourite books for 2014. Finn hints that Edward and Lucy may return soon, I can’t wait.

Available to Purchase From

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Review: The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

 

Title: The Zig Zag Girl

Author: Elly Griffiths

Published: Quercus November 2014

Status: Read from December 13 to 14, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

Elly Griffiths popular Ruth Galloway series has been on my to-read list for sometime but I’ve been loathe to start a new series given my current reading commitments. I pounced then on the opportunity to read her first stand alone, The Zig Zag Girl.

When the head and legs of a young woman are discovered in two black cases at Brighton train station, Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens doesn’t have to wait long to discover the whereabouts of her torso when a third box is delivered to him at work. Curiously the box is addressed using his military rank, Captain, and the state of the woman’s body reminds Edgar of a magician’s trick, known as the Zig Zag Girl, performed by an old army buddy, Max Mephisto. Assuming the coincidence is unlikely, especially when the girl is identified as Max’s pre-war stage assistant, Edgar tracks down Max, a popular theater magician and then the rest of the men he served with, a group known as the ‘Magic Men’ – recruited for a top secret special assignment during World War II. After another death, another gruesome magic trick gone awry, Edgar realises that the Magic Men are being targeted and he must race to unmask the killer before they perform their final deadly trick.

The Zig Zag Girl is set largely in Brighton, England during the 1950’s and Griffiths skilfully evokes the post war era and the shabbiness of the neglected seaside town. Griffiths is said to have drawn on her own family history – her grandfather was a music hall comedian and her mother grew up ‘backstage’ – to authentically recreate the variety theater scene of the time.

Edgar is a likeable character, a little reserved and weary but thoughtful and steadfast. Max is more flamboyant, befitting a magician, and the two make a good team. The world of the theater allows Griffiths to introduce some additional colourful characters, and the ‘Magic Men’ are a quirky lot too.

The mystery is well thought out, using several red herrings to distract the reader from identifying the murderer too quickly. A little humour and a touch of romance lighten the more gruesome criminal elements of the story, and the background of the Magic Men provides added interest.

A clever, entertaining mystery, I really enjoyed The Zig Zag Girl, I think I need to make room in my schedule for The Crossing Places sooner, rather than later.

 

Available to Purchase From

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Giveaway: The King’s Sister by Anne O’Brien

 

 

Title: The King’s Sister

Author: Anne O’Brien

Published: Harlequin MIRA Australia Jan 2015

 

 

Elizabeth of Lancaster
Sister. Wife. Traitor.

One betrayal is all it takes to change history…

June, 1380: Elizabeth Plantagenet – seventeen years old, spoilt, headstrong, fun-loving and intelligent — is about to be married. The Earl of Pembroke is an advantageous choice for all concerned, except Elizabeth, as the Earl is only eight years old.

June, 1386: Scandalously pregnant by Sir John Holland, Duke of Exeter, whilst still married to the Earl, Elizabeth is hastily married again. As half-brother to King Richard II, Sir John is a man known to all for both his charm and self-interested scheming.

Soon Elizabeth is drawn into the heart of a dangerous rebellion with her brother, King Henry IV, on one side, and her husband on the other. As tensions become a matter of life or death, Elizabeth is presented with an impossible choice of where to give her loyalty…”

 

Courtesy of Harlequin Books, I have

3 print editions of

The King’s Sister by Anne O’Brien

to giveaway

to three lucky Australian residents.

CLICK HERE TO ENTER

Entries close December 21st, 2014

Review: Euphoria by Lily King

 

Title: Euphoria

Author: Lily King

Published: Pan Macmillan Au December 2014

Read an Extract

Status: Read from December 07 to 08, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

Euphoria by Lily King is a fascinating novel about three anthropologists studying native tribes in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s. American Nell Stone and her Australian husband, Fen, have decided to leave The Territory of New Guinea, abandoning their study of an uncooperative and violent tribe, when they meet Andrew Bankson the night before their planned departure. Bankson, lonely and frustrated after several isolated years studying the Kiona tribe, is desperate for Nell and Fen to remain in New Guinea and convinces them he can find a suitable tribe for them to integrate with. Eager to maintain contact with his colleagues, especially the enigmatic Nell, Bankson settles the pair with a nearby river tribe, the Tam.

The story is in part inspired by a real-life love triangle involving renowned anthropologists Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson, though it veers away from historical record. Bankson (based on Bateson) is the primary narrator looking back at the months he spent in the company of Nell and Fen, still trying to make sense of the intensely tumultuous period.

King explores the interpersonal themes of love, sex, desire, marriage and betrayal through the tense dynamics between her characters. While Nell is immediately excited by the new tribe, Fen is indifferent and ignores his responsibilities in favour of his own agenda. Nell, eager to share her findings, turns to Andrew, who is entranced by Nell’s intellect and passion, but Bankson unwittingly fans longstanding jealousies and resentments, igniting intellectual and romantic competitiveness.

“Personality depends on context, just like culture….Certain people bring out certain trains in each other… You don’t always see how much other people are shaping you.”

The intensity of the relationship plays out against the fascinating backdrop of Nell’s anthropological study of the Tam. King explores the issues related to field study, especially the unconscious, and conscious, ways in which researchers interpret what they observe, and the way in which they impact on the ‘purity’ of the tribe. Objectivity is a flimsy construct that shifts under the weight of even the briefest interaction, and collapses altogether with intimate contact.

The language and imagery of Euphoria is vivid, effortlessly evoking people and places. The pace and tension builds nicely to a rather understated, though shocking, end. There is a surprising subtlety to the text despite some explicit scenes of sex and violence. (view spoiler)

Euphoria is an intriguing story of personality and culture, darkly seductive and haunting.

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****

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Review: South of Darkness by John Marsden

Title: South of Darkness

Author: John Marsden

Published: Pan Macmillan AU November 2014

Read an Extract

Status: Read from November 19 to 21, 2014 — I own a copy {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

John Marsden is best known for ‘The Tomorrow Series’ though he has written and published at least a dozen more middle grade to young adult novels as well as a handful of non fiction works.

“Having been asked by the Rvd Mr Johnson to jot down a few notes about my upbringing and the manner of my arrival in the colony, I will attempt to do so, but I should say at the outset that I have little of interest to relate. I have not contributed much worth to the world, as will no doubt become obvious in the pages that follow…”

South of Darkness is Marsden’s first novel for adults and features a young man by the name of Barnaby Fletch. It begins in late 18th century London where Fletch is struggling to survive on the streets of ‘Hell’. Orphaned at the tender age of 5, or thereabouts, he sleeps under bridges, thieving food to survive, his only friend another street rat named Austin. Though he is a recipient of some kindness by a church priest and later a family who fishes him half drowned out of the Thames, Barnaby is a hapless sort of fellow who often finds himself in dire straits and on one occasion, aged about 12, he sees no way out of a terrible situation other than to get himself transported to New South Wales to start a new life in the land that promises space and sunshine.

I have to be honest and admit that though I enjoyed Barnaby’s adventures, my experience of the narrative was not unlike that of reading an extended account from a school textbook as part of a history lesson. South of Darkness is related in the first person past tense by the aforementioned Barnaby Fletch, with not much in the way of dialogue and a tendency to tell rather than show.

I have no doubt that the historical details of Barnaby’s experiences are authentic, though his life is fictional. Marsden deftly evokes the grim streets of London, the bobbing transport ship, and the landscape of the fledgling Australian colony. I’m fairly familiar with the experiences of British convicts from an obsession with the era when I was in my mid teens but Barnaby’s interactions with the Australian ‘Indians’ (indigenous) are not something I had read about before.

South of Darkness is a tale of survival, adventure, fortitude and hope. Though I feel it lacks some excitement it is still a fascinating account of the era and a young boys life. I assume there will be more to come from Marsden as the end of South of Darkness leaves room for a continuation of Barnaby Fletch’s tale through adolescence and beyond.

 

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Review: The Poppy Factory by Liz Trenow

 

Title: The Poppy Factory

Author: Liz Trenow

Published: Avon: HarperCollins UK November 2014

Read an extract

Status: Read from November 14 to 15, 2014 — I own a copy {Courtesy the LightBrigade}

My Thoughts:

Liz Trenow uses dual narratives to explore the themes of loss, love, war and post traumatic stress disorder in The Poppy Factory, a moving story of two women’s experiences of war.

Jess has just returned to London after spending six months as an army medic in Afghanistan. Haunted by both her experiences overseas and the events that drove her to volunteer her services, she is finding it difficult to readjust to civilian life but refuses to acknowledge it. Suffering from flashbacks, drinking too much and lashing out, Jess’s behaviour drives away her boyfriend and alienates her friends. It is not until her mother passes on a diary kept by Jess’s great grandmother in the aftermath of World War 1 that Jess begins to find the perspective she so badly needs.

A young war bride, Rose is happy to welcome home though her childhood sweetheart, despite his having lost a leg. Alfie however is changed by his wartime experiences and struggles on his return not only with his disability and PTSD but also the depressed economic environment. Rose’s written fears, frustrations and fortitude allows Jess to slowly recognise the similarities between Alfie’s behaviour and her own and a twist of fate unites Jess with the same organisation, The Poppy Factory, that Rose credits with saving her great grandfather.

The Poppy Factory is written with compassion and insight. It offers a moving exploration of PTSD and I liked the way in which Trenow drew parallels between the generational experiences. I thought perhaps the historical thread was stronger than Jess’s modern day narrative but the two stories are woven together seamlessly and present a cohesive narrative.

The Poppy Factory is a real organisation established over 90 years ago to help disabled ex-military men and women find meaningful, rewarding and sustainable employment. You can support the Poppy Factory by visiting www.poppyfactory.org

The Poppy Factory is available to purchase at

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Review: The Great Plains by Nicole Alexander

 

Title: The Great Plains

Author: Nicole Alexander

Published: Random House November 2014

Status: Read from November 09 to 11, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

A sweeping saga spanning three generations, and two continents, Nicole Alexander’s fifth novel, The Great Plains, is an absorbing tale of love, loss, betrayal, belonging and freedom.

The story begins in Dallas, Texas in 1886, before moving to the plains of Oklahoma, and then to the Queensland bush, nearly fifty years later. It follows the trials of three generations of beautiful and strong willed women, Philomena Wade, abducted and raised by Apache Indians, her granddaughter Serena, claimed by her wealthy uncle, successful Texan business man Aloysius Wade, and Serena’s eldest daughter, Abelena, whose fates are inextricably entwined with the obsessions of three generations of Wade men.

The Great Plains is a multi-layered novel with complex characters believable for both their virtues and their flaws. The major theme of the novel is the notion of belonging with Alexander exploring the bonds created by family, and within that the debate of ‘nature versus nurture’, the spiritual attachment to the land felt so deeply by the indigenous peoples in both North America and Australia, and finally the idea of belonging to oneself.

The story references some of the historical events of the time including the development of the Wild West, the abolition of slavery, the Great Depression and World War 1, as well as key figures, most notably the legendary Apache Indian, Geronimo. Alexander also explores several social issues and beliefs raised by both time and place.

The Great Plains is grand and involving fiction blending history and family drama, skillfully crafted by a consummate storyteller.

 

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Review: Frog by Mo Yan

 

Title: Frog

Author: Mo Yan

Published: Hamish Hamilton: Penguin October 2014

Read an excerpt

Status: Read from October 29 to November 01, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

Frog is the latest novel from contemporary Chinese novelist Mo Yan, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012.

The novel is presented in five parts, with each prefaced by a letter from our narrator, Wan Zu/Xiaopao/Tadpole, an aspiring playright, to his Japanese mentor. Set in a rural community in the Shangdong province of China, the events he relates spans several decades from 1960 to around 2000.

Frog deals largely with the controversial themes of China’s one child policy with Tadpole writing about his Aunt Gugu, a skilled and popular midwife who later, as a loyal communist, becomes a reviled militant enforcer of the country’s one-child policy. Wan Zu, who plans to write a play about her, relates his observations about the effect of the reform over time on his Aunt and the members of his rural community.

It is important to note that the author, as a Chinese citizen, is forced to skirt government censorship so there is no direct criticism of China’s one child policy, which he personally opposes, and some consequences of the law, such as infanticide – where girl baby’s were murdered in order for family’s to try for a boy- are never referred to. There are some harrowing and brutal scenes, including women dragged from their homes to undergo forced late term abortions and some general examples of draconian political practices including public shaming and punishment.

Surprisingly perhaps, there is also a generous amount of humour in the story, from Wang Gan’s crush on ‘Little Lion’ to a hand drawn watch, from the rivalry between Gugu and the traditional midwives, and later her supervisor, and the often farcial events and conversations at family gatherings.

I was interested to learn that the title ‘Frog’ has multiple meanings which underscore the themes of the novel. The obvious association stems from he narrator of the story who, when writing to his mentor, signs his name as Tadpole. Less obvious to readers unfamiliar with the Chinese language is that the Chinese character for frog is a homophone for a legendary Chinese goddess who created human beings and patched up the sky, and in English the pronunciation is similar to ‘wah’, as in a baby’s cry. Additionally, in some areas of rural China, frogs are revered as symbols of fertility.

I have to admit I struggled to keep the characters straight at times, hampered by unfamiliar and similar sounding names amongst a large cast. The first three parts of the novel held my interest but it begin to wane during the last two, which includes the play Tadpole has been promising his mentor.

Frog is is not an easy read but an illuminating one, essentially a tragicomedy, exploring the collision of China’s politics with the personal.

 

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Review: Nightingale by Fiona McIntosh

 

Title: Nightingale

Author: Fiona McIntosh

Published: Michael Joseph: Penguin October 2014

Read an Excerpt

Status: Read from October 23 to 25, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

As Australian Light Horseman Jamie Wren collapses under the weight of his badly injured mate slung over his shoulders onto the sands of Gallipoli, he imagines it is an angel he sees on the beach amongst the carnage of war. Claire Nightingale, briefly permitted on shore to assist with triaging patients, is stunned by the sight of the muddy and bloody man who, ignoring sniper fire and his own wounds, carried his friend down the treacherous escarpment in search of medical help. For the young South Australian farmer and lonely British nurse it is love at first sight, and though their time together is brief, they make promises they have every intention of keeping, if only they can survive the war.

From the trenches of Gallipoli to the bustling cities of Cairo, Istanbul and London, Fiona McIntosh takes us on a journey of love, faith, heartbreak and hope in her latest romantic historical fiction novel, Nightingale.

The opening chapters with their harrowing descriptions of life, and death, in Gallipoli are affecting, highlighting the everyday heroism and tragedy of the ANZAC assault. McIntosh captures the chaos of war, and the shocking circumstances in which soldiers, half starved, ill and injured, were forced to fight what was essentially a no-win battle, and reminds us of the brave work done by the nurses and doctors who volunteered to witness the carnage to save and care for the wounded.

“…she watched in silent horror as men, some of whose boots had barely left their print on damp Turkish sand fell, fatally injured. The mules were crazed with terror and the screams of injured animals joined the cacophony of explosions, gunfire… and the groaning, dying men…”

An integral part of storyline involves Jamie speaking with a young Turkish soldier, Açar Shahin, during the truce declared to clear No Man’s Land of the dead. During their brief meeting Shahin extracts a promise from Jamie to deliver a letter to his father when the war is over, convinced he won’t survive the trenches. This is a touching reminder that the ‘enemy’ were men just like ‘our boys’, and this is further underscored when Claire, honouring Jamie’s promise, meets Açar’s father.

“The momentousness of this hard-to-imagine truce after such cruel and vicious fighting began to tingle through his body as though forcing him to mark it. It would never come again, he was sure, and only the men experiencing this intimacy with the enemy would ever know this extraordinary sense of sharing and camaraderie.”

Jamie and Claire meet under horrific circumstances, when love is the furthermost thing from their minds, yet their instant bond is believable given the situation. Their separation is heartbreaking and when it seems likely these two lovers will never find each other again I felt a little breathless.

“And so he hadn’t been ready in this moment of hell- in this place of cruelty and blood, of sorrow and hurt – for an angel to materialise and touch him…”

The writing is of McIntosh’s usual high standard, though occasionally a little florid. The historical details and various settings feel authentic with vivid description evoking time and place. I was quickly invested in the emotion of this engaging novel, even though historical romance is not my favoured genre.

A captivating story of love and war from one of Australia’s best loved storytellers, Nightingale is wonderful read.

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