Review: The Moon, the Stars and Madame Burova by Ruth Hogan


Title: The Moon, the Stars and Madame Burova

Author: Ruth Hogan

Published: 21st September 2021, William Morrow

Status: Read September 2021 courtesy WilliamMorrow /Edelweiss



My Thoughts:


The Moon, the Stars and Madame Burova is an engaging novel from Ruth Hogan about family, friendship and identity.

Billie is shocked when a letter from her father, passed on by the family solicitor, informs her that she was not the biological child of her late parents, but a ‘foundling’ discovered on the Brighton promenade, whom they adopted when she was just weeks old. Reeling with unanswered questions, a second letter follows from a Imelda Burova, purporting to have information for her. Though she suspects the woman, a fortune-teller with a booth on the prom, is just touting for business, Billie agrees to a meeting.

After more than forty years telling fortunes from her booth on the Brighton prom, as did her mother and grandmother before her, Madame Burova has recently retired but still keeps many of her clients secrets, amongst them is a gift for the infant she found abandoned in front of her booth. Sworn to secrecy, she can’t tell Billie who her mother is, but is willing to support her in her search for her father.

The story is told through two timelines, the early 1970’s and the present. The earlier timeline centers around Imelda and the entertainment employees of a Brighton holiday park, Larkins, where Imelda spends part of her time giving readings for guests, while the latter has Billie searching for information about her biological parents.

Unfolding at a good pace, there is a pleasing balance of drama, romance, tragedy and humour in the story, along with just enough tension to encourage interest. While the mystery surrounding Billie’s parentage is the main focus of the novel, Hogan also touches on issues such as racism, workplace sexual harassment, grief, and prejudice.

I liked both of the main characters well enough. Imelda is lovely, proving to be kind, thoughtful and loyal in both timelines. Billie’s upset at discovering her adoption so late in life is understandable, as is her desire to know more. I’m not sure where her affection for bowler hats comes from though. The larger cast of the novel is quite varied, with a handful having role in both timelines. Dog lovers will also appreciate Imelda’s relationship with her loyal and much loved canines.

I found The Moon, the Stars and Madame Burova to be a pleasant, entertaining read with an uplifting ending.


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Review: Triflers Need Not Apply by Camilla Bruce


Title: Triflers Need Not Apply

Author: Camilla Bruce

Published: 5th August 2021, Michael Joseph

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy Penguin UK/NetgalleyUK



My Thoughts:


Blending fact with fiction, author Camilla Bruce has been inspired by the life of Belle Gunness, born Brynhild Paulsdatter Storset, who was a Norwegian-American serial killer active in Illinois and Indiana between 1884 and 1908, in Triflers Need Not Apply (released in the US with the title ‘In the Garden of Spite’).

Bruce, who herself was born in Norway near the small town that was home to Brynhild, gives voice to a woman who stands accused of killing as many as 40 people, including two husbands, children in her care, and men she lured to her farm with a promise of marriage before killing them for their money.

Much of the narrative is presented from the first person perspective of Belle, it reveals a childhood and adolescence marred by grinding poverty, abuse, and a horrendous event. Desperate to escape, Brynhild reinvents herself as Bella when she joins her older sister, Nellie, who has settled in America, and sets out to find a respectable, monied husband. Though marriage to a churchgoing hotel clerk with a comfortable living pacifies Belle for a short while, her avarice cannot be sated, and he eventually becomes her first American victim.

In a testament to Bruce’s skilled writing, it’s uncomfortable to be in the mind of Belle, who is petulant, manipulative, cold and often cruel, harbouring a seething rage beneath her public veneer. Fury and spite was the driving force behind her several of the earlier murders, but those committed later in La Porte, were calculated, motivated by an insatiable greed. Many of the details Bruce fictionalises tries to provide context for Belle’s motives and behaviour. The narrative suggests she is a sociopath, but questions if she was born or made that way, and there is the implication of mental illness, as Belle imagines dirt and rot clinging to walls and objects in homes where her mood has soured.

The intermittent perspective of Bella’s sister, Nellie, provides additional insight to her character, though I thought her contribution to the narrative was often repetitive and hindered the pace of the story. Nellie, a quiet, pious, hard working woman whose wants are modest, loves her sister and feels guilty when she suspects Belle of various misdeeds, but it’s many years before she is able to face the truth of what her sister is capable of.

I felt the settings in the novel, from a Norwegian hovel, to a Chicago tenement, and a farm in Idaho, were well rendered, and the historical period represented accurately. It’s clear, and confirmed by the Author’s Notes, that Bruce undertook a great deal of  research and while there is plenty of invention in this novel, it feels grounded in truth and plausibility. There are some pacing issues, but the writing is of a high standard.

Triflers Need Not Apply has the potential to appeal to a wide audience, including those who enjoy crime and historical fiction, and the true crime genre. A disturbing, and darkly enthralling read.


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Review: The Last of the Apple Blossom by Mary-Lou Stephens


Title: The Last of the Apple Blossom

Author: Mary-Lou Stephens

Published: 28th July 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read August 2021 courtesy Harlequin Australia



My Thoughts:


The Last of the Apple Blossom by Mary-Lou Stephens is a sweeping Australian tale that begins in 1967 as bushfires ravage southern Tasmania. Braving smoke and flames, school teacher Catherine Turner rushes from Hobart to her family’s apple orchard in the Huon Valley, devastated to find her younger brother has been killed and their crop razed. Despite her father’s objections to women working the land, Catherine is determined to contribute to reestablishing the orchard.

The dramatic start to The Last of the Apple Blossom immediately captured my attention, and it held as Catherine fought for the future she wanted in an era where women were allowed few options. All Catherine has ever wanted is to work alongside her father in the orchard, and eventually take over the running of it. That her dad denies her the opportunity is a continual source of frustration and sadness for Catherine which Stephens portrays well. I admired Catherine’s determination and resilience.

Stephens also gives voice to two other characters. Annie, Catherine’s neighbour and closest friend, is a loving wife and busy mother. After five boys, she finally has the daughter she’s always longed for but she harbours a secret she is terrified will tear her family apart. I guessed what Annie was hiding easily, but there was suspense involved in waiting for it to be discovered. Mark, and his young son Charlie, are guests of Annie’s husband. Mark has an interesting background, which throws up challenges when he and Catherine develop a romantic relationship.

I found the history, and operation, of the apple growing industry in Tasmania to be surprisingly interesting. Stephens deftly integrates fact gleaned from her meticulous research into the story, and honours the contribution of the industry to Australia.

Well-written, I felt the author captured the setting beautifully, vivid description led me through a landscape scarred by fire, and under shady trees laden with apples. Much of the story takes place during the 1960’s and 1970’s and the attitudes of the era are accurately represented.

A story of family, love, tragedy, and resilience, The Last of the Apple Blossom is an engaging, accomplished debut novel.


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Review: Yours Cheerfully by A.J. Pearce


Title: Yours, Cheerfully {The Emmeline Lake Chronicles #2}

Author: A.J.Pearce

Published: 29th June 2021, Picador

Status: Read June 2021 courtesy PanMacmillan Australia



My Thoughts:


Yours Cheerfully begins where it’s predecessor, Dear Mrs. Bird, left off, (though it’s not necessary to have read the former to enjoy the latter) as the small staff of Women’s Friend magazine adjust to recent arrivals and departures. Junior journalist, Emmeline (Emmy) Lake is happy to be assisting the new agony aunt, but is excited when editor, Guy Collins, invites her to attend a meeting at the Ministry of Information with him. There, the government asks that women’s magazines actively assist in recruiting for the war effort, and Emmy is delighted when Guy gives her permission to develop a feature on women beginning work at a munitions factory, inspired by a chance meeting on a train.

Set during WWII, Yours Cheerfully is focused on England’s homefront as women are encouraged to enter the workplace, particularly in industrial factory settings, to both fill vacancies left by the men joining the armed forces, and cater for the needed increase in production of essential resources like arms and munitions. In general, women were eager to ‘support the boys’, but as Pearce explores in Yours Cheerfully, little thought was given to the needs of working women with children. This presents Emmy with a dilemma as she can’t honestly report on the problem in her Women’s Friend feature, but she desperately wants to help her new friends, and women like them, resolve the stalemate caused by a lack of available childcare.

It’s not all work for Emmy though, there is romance as her beau, Captain Charles Mayhew continues to visit as often as he can while he is stationed in London, and her best friend and housemate Bunty is as sweet and supportive as ever, even as she continues to recover from injuries incurred in the bombing that killed her fiancé. The characters in Yours Cheerfully are almost universally appealing, including the staff at Women’s Friend and the group of women Emmy becomes involved with at the factory. I really enjoyed the way in which Pearce captured the spirit of camaraderie and friendship that typified wartime Britain..

Charming and warm hearted with just a touch of the era’s poignancy Yours Cheerfully is an engaging historical novel certain to leave you smiling.


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Review: The Bombay Prince by Sujata Massey


Title: The Bombay Prince {Perveen Mistry #3}

Author: Sujata Massey

Published: 1st June 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read June 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin


My Thoughts:

The Bombay Prince is the third book by Sujata Massey to feature Perveen Massey, India’s first female solicitor, working alongside her father, a respected lawyer. It’s not strictly necessary to have read the previous novels, A Murder on Malabar Hill and The Satapur Moonstone, to enjoy this though I believe the experience is better for it.

Taking place in November of 1921, Massey sets the story of The Bombay Prince against the unrest in India between British loyalists and those agitating for India’s independence as Edward VIII, Prince of Wales arrives to tour the sub-continent.

Perveen meets with a young university student worried that if she refuses the school principal’s directive to attend the parade welcoming Prince Edward that she could be expelled. Freny Cuttingmaster is anxious that she not disappoint her parents by jeopardising her education but staunchly opposes British Rule and wants Perveen’s assurance that her future will not be compromised by taking a stand. Perveen isn’t able to provide Freny with a definitive answer, suggesting she return with her college handbook, but she doesn’t see the young woman again until, on the day of the parade, Freny’s body is found in the courtyard of the school.

The Bombay Prince offers a well crafted mystery that plays out against the backdrop of protests which divides the city of Bombay along political and religious lines. Perveen is deeply distressed by the young woman’s death, especially when it becomes clear that Freny didn’t simply fall from the gallery as the scene was staged to suggest. Not able to trust that the death will be properly investigated for a number of reasons, including the college’s wish to avoid scandal, general dismissive attitudes towards women, and the escalating violence related to Prince Edward’s visit, Purveen insinuates herself into the case to ensure the killer is brought to justice. The challenge Purveen faces in navigating these issues is fascinating, probably more so than the mystery itself at times, especially when she is noticed by the men looking for collaborators in a plot to assassinate Prince Edward.

Purveen is a complex character, presenting an uneasy mix of progressive and conservative traits. Though she has defied societal expectations by becoming a solicitor, and in separating from her abusive husband, she is very conscious of the need to behave in ways that protect both her and her family’s reputation, and tends to be braver when acting on behalf of her clients than she is in than her defence of herself. This is particularly evident in her interactions with men, which makes her continued connection with Colin Sandringham, who was her government liaison in The Satapur Moonstone, an intriguing element of the story.

Rich in historical detail and cultural interest, offering a discerning mystery and a hint of romance, The Bombay Prince is an engaging novel, and I hope the series will continue.


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Review: Flash Jim by Kel Richards


Title: Flash Jim: The Astonishing Story of the Convict Fraudster Who Wrote Australia’s First Dictionary

Author: Kel Richards

Published: 5th May 2021, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read May 2021 courtesy HarperCollins Australia


My Thoughts:

Though English has been considered the language of our country since it was invaded/colonised by the British in 1788, did you know that legally Australia has no official language? Neither did I! While our language today continues to adhere to the conventions of British English with regards to spelling and grammar, from very early on, Australian English began to develop its own unique quirks.

Slang, also known as flash and cant, was a term originally used to refer to the language used mostly by criminals in 16th and 17th century England and so it’s no surprise that it thrived in Australia, and took on a life of its own as British, Irish, and Scottish convicts mixed in the British penal colony.

In 1812 an opportunistic convict, James Hardy Vaux, heard the grumblings of the colony’s police and magistrates who were at a loss to understand much of the slang used among criminals, and always eager to press any advantage, presented his supervisor with ‘A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language’ – Australia’s very first dictionary. Included as an Appendix in Flash Jim, browsing through the dictionary proves fascinating, revealing words and phrases both strange and familiar.

The bulk of Kel Richards Flash Jim however is a biography of James Vaux, drawing on several sources, mainly the man’s own published memoirs, ‘Memoirs of The First Thirty-Two Years of the Life Of James Hardy Vaux, A Swindler and Pickpocket; Now Transported, For The Second Time, And For Life, To New South Wales. Written By Himself.’

Flash Jim reveals a man who was an extraordinary character. Though born into a family able to provide him a good education and entry into a comfortable profession, James took his first step into a life of crime by embezzling from his employer at aged fourteen. Over the next few years, never satisfied with wages earned as a clerk, James indulged in a number of illegal activities from confidence scams to pick pocketing, with reasonable success, that is until inevitably, his luck ran out. Not that even being sentenced to transportation to New Holland on three separate occasions, seemed to deter his criminal impulses. Vaux, who used a number of aliases over his lifetime, seemed to have possessed an uncanny charm which often saw him turn even the most dire of circumstances to his advantage. I was absolutely fascinated by him, and his antics, marvelling at his ego and nerve, though as Richards regularly reminds us, Vaux’s own words can hardly be trusted.

It’s unclear just how much of Richards own creativity informs the retelling he has crafted, though I imagine he has taken some liberties. I thought it read well, though personally I would have preferred for the author to have found a way to integrate the story of the dictionary more fully into the narrative of Vaux’s biography.

James Hardy Vaux is the sort of incorrigible, dissolute character that Australians delight in claiming as part of our convict past so I’m surprised that I hadn’t heard of him before now, particularly given his twin achievements as the writer of Australia’s first dictionary, and the first true-crime memoir. I expect Flash Jim will be enjoyed by readers interested in Australian colonial history, the etymology of Australian English, or just a bang up yarn.


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Review: Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss

Title: Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray

Author: Anita Heiss

Published: 5th May 2021, Simon & Schuster

Status: Read May 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia


My Thoughts:

The first Australian novel to be released with a title in Wiradyuri language, Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray, which translates to River of Dreams, is a novel of historical fiction based on true events from Anita Heiss.

When the Murrumbidgee River breaks its banks in 1852 it devastates the fledgling town of Gundagai, built too close to the water’s edge despite the warnings of the local Wiradyuri tribe. Only two members of the Bradley family survive and in the wake of the flood, they decide to start again in Wagga Wagga. Wagadhaany (Wog-a-dine), who has been in the service of the Bradley’s for four years, assumes this means she can return to her family, especially when the eldest brother takes a new bride, but instead she is forced to leave her country, and her miyagan to accompany them.

While Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray explores the universal themes of family, loss, love and belonging, it does so from the unique viewpoint of Wagadhaany, a young Wiradyuri woman. With courage and resilience Wagadhaany endures the cruel separation from her family, and her country, and the dehumanising policies of British colonisation towards First Nations people, finding love with a young Aboriginal stockman, but always yearning to return home.

Herself a proud member of the Wiradjuri Nation of central New South Wales, Heiss writes beautifully of Wagadhaany’s connection to country and family, of her respect for tradition and her pride in her people. I appreciated the insight into the traditional way of life for the First Nations people, and I particularly liked being introduced to the Wiradyuri language, which is easily decipherable through context (though there is a glossary in back if needed).

Through the characters of the Bradley family, Heiss illustrates the ignorant and arrogant treatment of the colonialists toward both the land and the aboriginal people. Their folly is laid bare by the floods, and their insistence on shaping the land to fit their needs. Heiss shows how even those who considered themselves well-intentioned, like James Bradley’s Quaker bride, Louise, advocated paternalism rather than genuine self-determinism.

If I’m honest I feel the writing is a little repetitive at times. Though it’s understandable Wagadhaany’s thoughts dwell on what she has lost and her unhappiness, the middle third of the book doesn’t really have much momentum. I found the love story between Wagadhaany and Yindyamarra engaging, and Wagadhaany’s journey home moving and poignant.

Stirring and edifying, Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray is a book that will speak to the hearts and minds of readers.


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Review: Cunning Women by Elizabeth Lee

Title: Cunning Women

Author: Elizabeth Lee

Published: 22nd April 2021, Windmill Books

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy Windmill Books/ Netgalley UK


My Thoughts:

“Observe your womenfolk for wantonness above their usual failing, watch for the meeting of covens without a man to give spiritual strength. You must keep an attentive eye for secret knowledge of herbuse, the mark of the Devil upon the skin, for these are the signs of Wickedness”

Set in Lancashire, England during the 1620’s, Cunning Women is a debut historical fiction novel of love, loss, superstition and fate from Elizabeth Lee.

Sarah Haworth remembers a time before her father was swallowed by the sea, when her mother was looked upon kindly by her neighbours, and sought out for her healing tinctures and potions, but now, each morning, Sarah wakes and frantically searches her younger sister’s body for a sign that the devil has marked her as a witch during the night, as she and her mother are marked by the red stains on their skin. Sarah’s greatest wish is that Annie be spared her own inevitable fate, and one day escape their tiny, derelict home on Plague hill to lead a normal life, like the villagers below who shun them.

During the reign of King James, a cunning woman, one with knowledge of cures and medicines, as well as charms and curses, was condemned as a witch, though in small villages, they were still often secretly called upon for aid. Lee sets her story amongst this climate of fear and superstition, in which Ruth Haworth, left destitute and vulnerable by her husband’s death, attempts to eke out a living for herself and her three children.

When she was twelve, Sarah learnt from her mother that she too is a cunning woman and as such an ordinary life as a wife and a mother is not hers to have. It’s a destiny Sarah does not want, actively rejecting her mother’s lessons, focusing on the wellbeing of Annie, the sister gifted to them by the woods. Sarah is a sympathetic character, barely fourteen her life is one of deprivation and humiliation, yet she clings tightly to a slender thread of hope that things can change.

Lee introduces romance into the story when Sarah encounters the local farmers son. Daniel is inexplicably drawn to Sarah despite the Haworth’s reputation, and the grudge held against her family by his father. I think Lee develops the relationship quite well within the demands of the story. As love blooms between the couple, Sarah begins to imagine that a new life is with her grasp, until tragedy threatens to rip it away.

It takes a little while for the narrative to gain momentum, but suspense is woven into several threads, and when one snaps it increases the tension among the others. There were a few elements in the plot that I didn’t expect, and the ending was somewhat of a surprise too.

I’ve read a few books set in this period with similar themes recently, and I think this story compares well. Cunning Women is a bewitching and atmospheric tale.


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Review: The Plague Letters by V.L. Valentine

Title: The Plague Letters

Author: V.L. Valentine

Published: 1st April 2021, Viper

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy Viper/Netgalley



My Thoughts:


The Plague Letters is a debut historical mystery from V.L. Valentine set in 1665 as the Bubonic Plague sweeps through London.

I came perilously close to DNF-ing The Plague Letters at about the 10% mark, though I can’t really articulate why, however since I make a point of reading at least 100 pages before giving up on a book, I persevered. It’s wasn’t a decision I regretted exactly but in the end I thought the story as a whole was lacking.

The premise of the mystery is strong. Among the victims bought to Reverend Symon Patrick’s churchyard for mass burial as the Plague spreads through his parish, is a young girl whose body is marked by more than the weeping buboes characteristic of the Black Death. Fresh bruises, cuts, inked lines, and strange circular burns mar her skin, while twine is wound tightly around her wrists and ankles. The Reverend notes the horror, but it’s not until more similarly violated body’s are discovered, that something is considered seriously amiss.

Suspicion falls on the members of the Society for the Prevention and Cure of Plague with which the Reverend is associated – physician Dr Alexander Burnett, surgeon Lodowick Mincy, apothecary William Boghurst, and Valentine Greatrakes, a mystic healer. Any of the men seems capable of the crime, every one a buffoon, occasionally a source for horrifying hilarity, they are uniformly arrogant, ambitious, and essentially amoral, all of whom display the casual indifference to human life common to medical men of the 17th century, (except where it may reflect on their status within society). This, however, is where the issue lies with the plot for me, though there are at least five suspects proved capable of committing these crimes, I believe there is an absence of specific clues that suggests a single guilty party. It’s certainly possible I overlooked something, but I experienced no feeling of vindication or surprise when the guilty party was revealed, one or the other of which I personally find necessary for a mystery novel.

Sadly few of the characters did little to engage me either. Symon seems to have very little agency in the novel. He is a weak man, who spends most of his time trying to be invisible, largely ignoring the plague and his parishioners, distracted by daydreams about the attentions of a married woman. Having little inner strength or courage, Symon is easily led, which is just as well for Penelope, who has rather more than you’d expect from a 17th century, young, orphaned, homeless girl.

Penelope is really the catalyst and driving force for the development of the plot. Though she’s rather an improbable character for the times, her remarkable intelligence, determination, and bravery ensures that the dead girls aren’t ignored. She wedges herself into Symon’s life, refusing to allow him to shirk his responsibility, and relentlessly pushes for someone to be held account. With her brazen attitude and surprise gifts, I found Penelope to be the strongest and most appealing character.

Where I think the author excels in The Plague Letters is in their vivid descriptions of London under siege from the plague. The imagery is at times disturbing, though accurate, of victims tormented by the deadly progression of the disease, and the desperate acts of the medical men to stop it, of bodies piled in ‘dead carts’ chased by hungry dogs down the street, of pits dug in churchyards, tended to by young boys, filling with layers of the dead sprinkled with caustic lime as the overburdened ground begins to rise. Between each chapter a map shows the spread of the disease through the city and the mounting death toll. All of this also invites comparisons to the current pandemic, which may be uncomfortable for some.

In the end, I’m not sure the strengths and weaknesses of The Plague Letters quite balance each other out, as historical fiction I might recommend it, as a mystery I’d not, so overall sadly, somewhat disappointing.


Available from Serpent’s Tail

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Review: The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions by Kerry Greenwood

Title: The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions: The Ultimate Miss Phryne Fisher Collection

Author: Kerry Greenwood

Published: 30th March 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read March courtesy Allen & Unwin


My Thoughts:

If you are not yet familiar with the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher, then this collection of short stories is a wonderful introduction to the elegant, sensual, and sassy lady private detective, while established fans will enjoy the opportunity to again accompany the intrepid investigator on her adventures in 1920’s Melbourne, and occasionally further afield.

In her introduction to The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions, Kerry Greenwood shares a little about how she developed Phryne, and her writing process. Greenwood also reminds readers that there are several significant differences between the world of the book series and that of the television series – Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. That said, anyone familiar with only the show will recognise Phryne’s companions, as well as several settings and scenes.

I was a little disappointed to find that of the seventeen short stories offered in The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions, there are only four new tales, set around the same time as the 21st book in the series, Death in Daylesford which was published earlier this year. The bulk have been published previously in a 2008 collection, A Question of Death, though Greenwood comments that some of these have since been edited to fit better with the chronology of the series.

Regardless, whether Phryne is searching for a missing husband, or a hat, outsmarting a blackmailer, or a cheat, or identifying a murderer, I found all of the story’s in The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions to be engaging. As always, I love Phryne’s dry observations and quick wit, her disinclination for suffering fools and her bent for natural justice.

Clever, entertaining, and charming, I found The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions to be a delight to read,.


Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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