Review: A Time of Secrets by Deborah Burrows

 

Title: A Time of Secrets

Author: Deborah Burrows

Published: Pan Macmillan March 2015

Status: Read from March 18 to 19, 2015 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

A Time of Secrets is Deborah Burrows’ third wonderful novel blending Australia’s wartime history with mystery and romance.

While Burrows previous novels take place in Perth, A Time of Secrets is set in Melbourne in 1943. Australian Women’s Army sergeant Stella Aldridge is out shopping with her roommate and colleague, Dolly, when she overhears a whispered conversation in Malay between a group of Australian soldiers. Concerned with the implications she alerts her boss at the APLO, The Australian Pacific Liason Office, only to be drawn into a covert investigation headed by her superior officer, Lieutenant Nick Ross.

As Stella and her colleagues work to uncover the identity of the traitor sabotaging the Australian war effort they have to negotiate the politics of the APLO. I enjoyed the intrigue of the storyline and learning a little more about the war effort. In this, as in both of Burrows previous novels, A Stranger in My Street and Taking a Chance, Burrows’ brings to life the experiences and contribution of women during wartime in Australia.

A minor subplot focuses on Stella’s roommate Dolly, and the secrets she is keeping both from her fiance and Stella, while a second involves an axe wielding murderer stalking women in Melbourne. The theme of domestic violence is prominent in the novel. as is violence on the home front in general.

There is romance for Stella with the enigmatic soldier Staff Sergeant Eric Lund. A special operative, his life is at risk if the rumours of a traitor imbedded within the APLO are true. Stella’s attraction to Lund is complicated by his capability for violence, her first husband who was killed in action physically abused her, and she is wary. A sort of love triangle also develops as Ross, an unapologetic ladies man, makes his interest in Stella clear.

Burrow’s is a talented storyteller who brings wartime Australia to life. Offering an interesting mystery combined with strong characterisation and a well crafted plot, A Time of Secrets is an engaging historical fiction novel.

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Review: Razorhurst by Justine Larbalaestier

 

Title: Razorhurst

Author: Justine Larbalaestier

Published: Soho Teen March 2015

Read an Excerpt

Status: Read from March 07 to 9, 2015 — I own a copy  {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

Justine Larbalaestier’s Razorhurst is gritty, intriguing novel blending history and the paranormal to create an interesting and exciting story with crossover appeal for both young adult and adult audiences.

It’s 1932 and the tentative truce between Sydney’s rival underworld gangs, headed by Gloriana Nelson and Mr Davidson, is on the verge of collapse when Gloriana’s right hand man, Jimmy Palmer is murdered in his bed.
For Dymphna, Gloria’s ‘best girl’ and Jimmy’s girlfriend, Jimmy’s death is a problem. Was he murdered by Mr Davidson in a calculated move against Glory, or was he killed because Glory learned of his and Dymphna’s plans to oust her?
Climbing into the Surrey Hills dosshouse housing Gloriana’s men in search of food, street urchin Kelpie is shocked to find Dymphna standing over the body of her murdered lover.
Both are forced to flee as the police close in, with Dymphna insisting Kelpie remains with her for protection, but safety is hard to come by on the streets of ‘Razorhurst’.

Razorhurst is told from the alternating perspectives of Kelpie and Dymphna, interspersed with brief omniscient vignettes. Both girls are feisty, brave, and smart, but most importantly they are survivors.
Kelpie is an appealing character. When her mother died in childbirth, she was taken in by ‘Old Ma’ who raised her as best she could. Upon Old Ma’s death, desperate to escape the Welfare, Kelpie took to the streets, surviving with the occasional kindness of local hard man, Snowy, and the ghosts that she can both see and hear that haunt the streets.
Dymphna was born to privilege but tragedy left her orphaned twice and she was forced to find a way to survive. As Glory’s ‘best girl’, she has earned status among the underworld, but she wants more. She too can see and hear ghosts but hiding her ability has become second nature.

Larbalaestier’s gangland characters are inspired by infamous Sydney identities (most notably Tilly Divine and Kate Leigh), and the author’s research into the ‘razor’ gangs of Sydney, so named because straight edge razors were the weapon of choice during the 1930’s.
I loved the historical elements that evoke inner city Sydney during the period. Grounded firmly in fact, the setting is fascinating and vividly drawn, from the slum of Frog Hollow to the seedy streets of Surry ‘Sorrow’ Hills lined with bordello’s, opium dens and gambling houses.

Unfolding over the course of a single day the pacing of the novel is well managed, the action is non stop as Dymphna and Kelpie scramble to survive. There are explicit, though not gratuitous, references to violence and the occasional use of language. A touch of humour and romance tempers the ever present sense of menace and danger.

Entertaining, thrilling and original, Razorhurst is a great read I’d widely recommend and I’m really hoping Larbalestier has plans for a sequel.

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International Women’s Day: Cranky Ladies of History by Tehani Wessley (Ed.)

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In honour of International Womens Day 2015, I am pleased to introduce Cranky Ladies of History, an anthology launched today from Fablecroft Publishing.

Title: Cranky Ladies of History

Author: Tehani Wessley (Editor)

Published: Fablecroft Publishing March 2015

Status: Read from March 07 to 08, 2015 — I own a copy   {Courtsey the publisher)

My Thoughts:

Cranky Ladies of History is an anthology conceived and developed by Tehani Wessley of Fablecroft Publishing and author, Tansy Rayner Roberts. Crowdfunded through Pozible during Womens History Month in 2014, the concept attracted many supporters eager to be a part of project.

Twenty two authors have contributed to Cranky Ladies of History, including award winner’s Thoraiya Dyer, Juliet Marillier, Jane Yolen and Garth Nix.

Each short story in Cranky Ladies of History features a real female historical figure. I’m not familiar enough with history to separate fact from fiction in these pieces but these strong, often fierce women are those who challenged society’s rules and ideas about how women should behave, though not always in heroic or noble ways. While Garth Nix honours Lady Godiva in ‘The Company of Women’, ‘Look How Cold My Hands Are’ by Deborah Biancotti features Countess Bathory, an insane serial killer.

The women featured include an Ancient Egyptian ruler (‘Neter Nefer’ by Amanda Pillar), a Chinese Empress (‘Charmed Life’ by Joyce Chng), a British women’s rights campaigner (“Mary, Mary” by Kirstyn McDermott) and an Australia doctor (‘Due Care And Attention’ by Sylvia Kelso. Some of the protagonists represent well known figures such as Queen Elizabeth 1 (‘Glorious’ by Faith Mudge) while others feature woman whose lives have all but been forgotten, such as the Icelandic Viking warrior, Hallgerðr Höskuldsdóttir (‘For So Great A Misdeed’ by Lisa L. Hannett)

An entertaining and interesting anthology, Cranky Ladies of History is an important collection of fiction that gives voice to an extraordinary selection of women from a broad range of backgrounds, era’s and cultures. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

 

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Review: The Reluctant Midwife by Patricia Harman

 

Title: The Reluctant Midwife { A Hope River Novel #2}

Author: Patricia Harman

Published: William Morrow: HarperCollins March 2015

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Status: Read from March 02 to 04, 2015 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/Edelwiess}

My Thoughts:

The Reluctant Midwife is a heartwarming and engaging novel by Patricia Harman, set in the same location and era as her fiction debut, The Midwife of Hope River.

Penniless, homeless and the sole carer of her inexplicably catatonic ex-employer, Dr Isaac Blum, nurse Becky Myers is in desperate straits by the time she arrives in Hope River, rural West Virgina. It is the 1930’s, times are tough for everyone, and with few options, Becky is forced to figure out a way to support herself and Blum.

Harman effortlessly evokes the era in which The Reluctant Midwife is set. The focus is on the challenges of the Great Depression, in rural areas unemployment rose to around 80% leaving hundreds of thousands of people struggling to survive.

With a little luck and hard work, Becky finds a way to eke out a living as the Depression ravages the country. Though initially forced to rely on the generosity of friends and neighbours, she delivers groceries, reluctantly assists the local midwife Patience Murphy, and becomes a part time staff nurse at a nearby Civilian Conservation Corps camp.

Characterisation is a real strength of Harman’s writing. Becky is not a saint, she can be uptight and prideful, she is often frustrated by Blum’s non responsiveness and resents having to work as a midwife when the whole notion of childbirth horrifies her, however it is difficult to fault her drive to better her circumstances. I really enjoyed the way her hard edges softened over the course of the novel.
Readers familiar with The Midwife of Hope River may remember Dr Blum as an arrogant and cold man. His unexplained catatonia was precipitated by the death of his wife, and he is now a pitiful man but his silence also hides a secret.
I loved reconnecting with Patience Murphy, Hope River’s sole midwife, now married to the ‘new’ vet, Daniel Hester and the mother of a young son, but even more minor characters, like Nico and Captain Wolfe are well drawn and believable.

The Reluctant Midwife is a captivating story of hardship, loss, friendship, and hope. Though its not necessary to have read The Midwife of Hope River to enjoy The Reluctant Midwife, I would recommend it, simply because it too is a wonderful story.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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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