Review: The Paris Affair by Pip Drysdale

Title: The Paris Affair

Author: Pip Drysdale

Published: 3rd February 2021, Simon & Schuster

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster

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My Thoughts:

“Well, it began like any anti-love story. With Chapitre Un.”

Having landed a dream job as an arts and culture journalist for The Paris Observer, Harper Brown is enjoying her new life in the City of Love, though love is last thing she’s interested in. Still nursing a broken heart after the demise of an eight year relationship, Harper doesn’t want normal – she just wants to impress her new boss, work her way onto the features desk, and has just one rule- do no harm.

It’s rare that I’m surprised by the direction a story takes, but Drysdale managed to do so in The Paris Affair. The first quarter or so of the novel reads more like a romcom, so I wasn’t really expecting the twists in this tale that sees Harper caught up in an art world scandal, and become the target of a serial killer. While not a strong thriller, there are certainly moments of tension, and the pace is persuasive.

Harper Brown is a very appealing protagonist. Though not without her flaws, with her generally pragmatic and confident attitude, she stands out from the more typical insecure, capricious, aged 20-something protagonist in contemporary fiction. Though her cynicism about love is a little intense, it’s also understandable, and her obsession with true crime podcasts is a fun trait.

The Parisian setting will likely charm readers (personally I don’t care much for the place), as will the chapters headed in French, though Drysdale does provide a glimpse of the city’s shadows. The story is firmly grounded in the here and now as Harper scrolls through Instagram, browses though Tinder, texts with friends, and makes her way around the city via Uber.

I found The Paris Affair to be a quick, entertaining and satisfying read.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Review: The Silent Listener by Lyn Yeowart

 


Title: The Silent Listener

Author: Lyn Yeowart

Published: February 2021, Viking

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

The Silent Listener is a disquieting tale of a dysfunctional family, draped in tension and dread, from debut novelist, Lyn Yeowart.

Unfolding primarily from three perspectives over three time periods, The Silent Listener tells the story of the Henderson family. In 1943, Gwen is swept of her feet by George Henderson, who courts her with a singleminded determination. In 1960, their eleven-year-old daughter, Joy, is terrified of her father’s rages that regularly culminate in brutal beatings. In 1983, George is dying and Joy has returned to the family farm in rural Victoria with the goal of unmasking her father’s secrets.

Themes such as domestic violence, trauma, religious hypocrisy, mental illness, and poverty, makes for heartbreaking reading as George terrorises his family. Gwen’s dreams of a happy new life are quashed within days of her wedding. Her new husband’s charm is reserved for the townspeople who consider him an upright pillar of the community, ignoring the thick foundation Gwen applies to her face, arms and legs. Their children cower under their father’s control, their innocence slowly stripped with every brutal strike of the belt that leaves their bodies, and minds, bleeding and scarred.

Yeowart’s characters, both major and minor, are carefully crafted, though it is Joy who is the most compelling. Joy is a sensitive child, who seeks solace in God as she is instructed to, in her sister, Ruth, and words. A synesthete, words conjure vivid images for Joy, offering her an escape of sorts from the reality of her daily drudgery. It’s the disappearance of a young neighbour, nine-year-old Wendy Bascombe, and her older brother, Mark, that finally strips Joy completely of her innocence, and she finds secret ways to rebel.

With Joy’s return to Blackhunt, and George’s passing soon after, Yeowart creates another mystery that gives rise to some surprising twists and a shocking, pitiless conclusion. I’m not sure how I feel about the ending still, while it absolutely fits with the story, it’s sad and dispiriting.

Skilfully plotted, with vivid characters, and evocative writing, The Silent Listener is poignant, confronting, and gripping.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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Review: Sargasso by Kathy George

Title: Sargasso

Author: Kathy George

Published: 3rd February 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Harlequin/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

“The last thing I remember is the screaming. I remember that because I wasn’t the one doing it…. It was the house. Sargasso. The house was screaming,….”

Inspired by her love of classic gothic fiction, Sargasso is an entrancing, eerie tale of mystery and passion from debut Australian novelist, Kathy George.

Upon her grandmother’s death, Hannah Prendergast inherits Sargasso, the impressive house of glass and stone designed by her late father, built on a headland just outside Shepherd Cove, a holiday town two hours’ drive down the west coast of Melbourne. It’s been twenty years since Helen last crossed the threshold of her childhood home, the family having abandoned it when she was twelve after her father’s body washed up on the beach below.

The narrative shifts smoothly between the past and the present. ‘Then’ Hannah is a bright and imaginative child who delights in the eccentric aspects of Sargasso, one of which is the inscrutable boy who becomes her best and only friend, Flint. ‘Now’, Hannah plans to rejuvenate the house while she decides what to do with it, and is stunned when Flint reappears, a grown man, as enigmatic as ever.

It is the relationship between Hannah and Flint that is at the heart of this story, an obsessive, possessive, all consuming love forged in childhood and reignited with their reunion as adults. Hannah barely hesitates before ending her three year relationship when Flint demands it, and grows ever more reluctant to even leave his side, as Flint has a habit of disappearing for hours, days, even weeks, particularly when she displeases him. The sense of uncertainty and dread steadily escalates as the secrets of Sargasso, both past and present, begins to unravel.

George develops an extraordinary atmosphere that blurs the line between what may be real and what may be imagined. The initial impression of Sargasso is one of light and strength, but slowly, particularly in the present timeline, the atmosphere of the house becomes oppressive and sinister. Rather than protect Hannah, it seems to trap her in a space between waking and sleeping.

The influence of novels such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Rebecca are obvious in terms of both plot and character but I think George provides her own modern Australian twist. Sargasso is an enthralling, haunting, gothic tale.

++++++

Available from Harlequin Australia

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Review: Crackenback by Lee Christine

Title: Crackenback

Author: Lee Christine

Published: 1st February 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

+++++++

My Thoughts:

Crakenback follows Lee Christine’s bestselling debut, Charlotte’s Pass, featuring NSW Homicide Squad Detective Sergeant Pierce Ryder. It’s not necessary to have read the former however, as I found this story works very well as a stand-alone.

With the start of the ski season still a few weeks away, Golden Wattle Lodge proprietor Eva Bell is alone with her three year old, Poppy, when Jack Walker, bruised and bleeding, bursts through the door. Eva is terrified as he strips her of her phone and keys, irrationally convinced he has come for his daughter. Learning that Jack has instead come to protect them from a killer bent on revenge gives her only the smallest sense of relief.

Meanwhile DS Ryder and his small task force are searching for a new lead in the hunt for Gavin Hutton who is suspected of beating two men to death. Joined by Detective ‘Daisy’ Flowers, and new team member, Nerida Sterling, the investigation takes them from Sydney, south to Jervis Bay, north to the Central Coast and west to the Snowy Mountains, where their quarry is finally in sight.

Christine immediately captures the reader’s attention in Crackenback with a dramatic prologue, the relevance of which is revealed later in the story, but there’s plenty of action and tension to follow in this tightly plotted, exciting story.

I was as interested in the progress Ryder and his team were making in the search for their fugitive, as I was in Jack and Eva’s nervous wait for their attacker, though it quickly becomes clear they are one and the same. Both perspectives advance the plot and are neatly complimentary while building suspense. I thought the pacing of the story was very good, and I read it easily in one sitting.

Both Eva and Jack were appealing characters. I admired Eva’s determination to protect her daughter and her practical, sensible way of coping with the frightening situation she was thrust into. Jack has an interesting background, and he is obviously capable and resourceful. Though their relationship, which resulted in Poppy, was not much more than a one night stand, it’s obvious the pair are still attracted to each other, though Christine plays down the romance angle in favour of the action.

Unfortunately I hadn’t the opportunity to read Charlotte’s Pass so I’m not terribly familiar with Ryder, but I liked what I saw of him. It was his girlfriend Vanessa, who is also Eva’s sister, who had a larger role in that story. It seems likely to me that the third book will feature one of Ryder’s team.

While the main action takes place at the Lodge in Thredbo, and the deepening snow plays beautifully into the action, one of things I liked was the way in which Christine’s characters moved within the state of NSW. I was particularly delighted that my town of Taree even got a mention (though it wasn’t very flattering and, as far as I know, not true, given the Officer in Charge of our station is a woman).

With an intriguing storyline, fast paced action, and strong characterisation, I thought Crackenback was a great book, and I’ll definitely be reading Christine Lee’s next.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

 



Title: The Shape of Darkness

Author: Laura Purcell

Published: February 2nd 2021, Raven Books

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Bloomsbury/Netgalley

+++++++

My Thoughts:

Set in Bath in 1854, The Shape of Darkness is a atmospheric historical novel from Laura Purcell.

Agnes Darken supports her ailing mother and orphaned nephew with her work as a silhouette artist, but with the growing popularity of the daguerreotypes, she’s finding it harder to attract clients. She is shocked when the local Sergeant calls on her to ask questions about a recent sitter who was brutally murdered shortly after their appointment, and worried that notoriety might attach to her business. Her physician and brother in law, Simon, is quick to assure her that all is fine, but when a second and then third client dies, Agnes fears she may somehow be connected to their deaths. Desperate for answers to both the current circumstances and a past tragedy, Agnes reaches out to a mesmerist Myrtle West and her young half sister, Pearl, known as ‘The White Sylph’ who is said to communicate with the dead.

The Shape of Darkness embraces all the elements of a Victorian gothic tale – a physically and emotionally frail heroine, high emotion, a bleak, wintry setting, murder, and the supernatural. Purcell deftly builds suspense and dread as she develops the plot, revealing dark secrets and making good use of misdirect to ensure the final twist is a surprise.

Fragile and high strung, Agnes has an nervous energy that plays into the narrative. Her suspicions about the connection between the dead and her silhouettes seems fanciful, but her panic is almost contagious as she becomes more certain she, and her family are in danger from an unknown foe. With hints of a tragic background, involving a doomed romance, and a grievous accident, she is exactly what you’d expect as a gothic heroine, except for perhaps her age.

Pearl is a desperately sympathetic character, used terribly by her her half sister, Myrtle. Blamed for her mother’s death during her birth, her father now lays dying gruesomely, a victim of phosphorus poisoning. An albino, eleven year old Pearl is easily envisioned as a medium, but there is an ambiguity to her ability that Purcell exploits, so that you’re never quite sure where the line between this world and the next lies.

Though overall I found it a touch melodramatic for my taste, The Shape of Darkness is evocative, haunting and enthralling.

+++++++

Available from Bloomsbury

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Review: The Push by Ashley Audrain

 


Title: The Push

Author: Ashley Audrain

Published: 7th January 2021, Michael Joseph

Status, Read January 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Au

++++++

My Thoughts:

“I would be different. I would be like other women for whom it all came so easily. I would be everything my own mother was not.”

Blythe is anxious about impending motherhood but determined to break the cycle of indifference and neglect that characterised her own relationship with her mother, and her mother’s before that. Violet’s arrival leaves Blythe awestruck, but within a week of the birth of her daughter, in pain and exhausted from lack of sleep, she is convinced she is doing everything wrong, that she cannot be a good mother, and that Violet knows it.

Exploring the question of nature vs nurture, the experience of motherhood, inter-generational trauma and mental health, The Push is a compulsive, chilling debut from Ashley Audrain.

“This is my side of the story.”

Unfolding from Blythe’s first person perspective, I think parents in particular will find something to relate to in Blythe’s early experiences of motherhood, whether it be a fleeting thought, or something more profound. For me those early weeks and months with a newborn are now mostly a blur, but I do remember the concern (that never really leaves you) about my ability to be good mother. Blythe’s initial anxiety therefore seems reasonable, especially as information about her own tragic background is revealed, but as Blythe begins to view Violet, barely a toddler, as an active agent of her angst, empathy slowly begins to drain away.

“I couldn’t tell you the truth: that I believed there was something wrong with our daughter. You thought the problem was me.”

Blythe’s husband, Fox, is at first largely supportive of his wife’s anxiety but he is certainly not willing to entertain Blythe’s idea that Violet is anything but a sweet, blameless child. Audrain capitalises on the ambiguity and as Blythe’s credibility wavers, the tension thickens. The uncertainty is a feature of the plot, it’s unsettling to not know if Blythe can be trusted, and the alternative, to believe her, is just as, if not more disquieting.

The Push has quite an impact, this is a disturbing, poignant, and gripping novel.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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Review: My Best Friend’s Murder by Polly Phillips

Title: My Best Friend’s Murder

Author: Polly Phillips

Published: 6th January 2021, Simon & Schuster Australia

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

My Best Friend’s Murder is an entertaining domestic thriller from UK journalist Polly Phillips, who currently calls Australia home.

“You’re lying, sprawled at the bottom of the stairs, legs bent, arms wide.”

Bec and Izzy have been the best of friends since they met, aged eleven. In the years since, Bec has mostly been content to let Izzy set the terms for their relationship, but recently she’s begun to sense that contempt lurks behind Izzy’s backhand compliments and seemingly solicitous advice. Hurt and angry, Bec is determined to confront her best friend, but could she really be responsible for her murder?

My Best Friend’s Murder is told from Bec’s perspective, beginning with her standing over a broken and bloodied Izzy, before moving back three months previously as Bec and her new fiancé, Ed, celebrate their engagement at home of Izzy and her husband, Rich. The occasion is not the first time that Bec senses something awry between herself and Izzy, but she is surprised by her best friend’s cool behaviour.

Well-paced, this is a suspenseful novel as Phillips reveals the history of the friendship between the two women and it’s increasing toxicity. To Bec, Izzy’s behaviour is inexplicable- beautiful, married to her handsome highschool sweetheart with an adorable child, wealthy and ambitious, Izzy has everything, yet she seems to resent Bec’s recent small successes – her engagement, and a potentially career altering opportunity. Phillips skilfully explores the complex dynamic of their friendship, the role each of them play in maintaining the status quo, and how difficult it is for them to let go. With Izzy’s death, Bec is left to grapple with her grief, and her guilt.

I admired Phillips subtle, and not so subtle twists, in the plot, and though I wasn’t so enamoured with an element of the ending, it’s a minor flaw in what is otherwise a well told tale. My Best Friend’s Murder is an absorbing read and an accomplished debut.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster Australia

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Review: Shelter by Catherine Jinks

Title: Shelter

Author: Catherine Jinks

Published: 5th January 2020, Text Publishing

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Text/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

Shelter is a tense, twisty domestic thriller, from Australian author Catherine Jinks.

Meg knows all too well what it’s like to suffer at the hands of an abusive husband so she is willing to accept the risks of providing temporary shelter to a young mother and her two daughters on the run. Meg’s home, ‘The Bolthole’, is an isolated property in country NSW, and great care has been taken to ensure the family are impossible to trace, yet Nerine remains terrified that her husband will find them. Though Meg does her best to allay Nerine’s fears, and reassure five year old Ana and 22 month old Collette they are safe, some minor incidents stoke’s Meg’s own anxieties. She thinks it is more likely her own ex-husband has returned to intimidate her with regards to a recent inheritance, than Nerine’s husband having found her, but the real threat is closer to home than Meg can ever imagine.

Shelter isn’t an easy read, the themes and issues central to the novel, which includes generational trauma, domestic violence, psychological manipulation, and narcissism, are uncomfortable to explore, however I got caught up in this taut, well paced thriller which cleverly subverts reader’s expectations. Though the primary plot twist is not entirely unexpected, it shocks nevertheless, and Jinks left me feeling breathless as the level of menace and violence accelerated in its wake. In regards to the conclusion though I am somewhat torn, it’s reasonably realistic and as such fitting, but not very satisfying.

At times I found Meg to be a frustrating character, however her behaviour really is in keeping with someone who has been a long term victim of psychological abuse by a narcissistic partner. Even though she is physically free of her ex husband, Meg’s first instinct is always to appease someone who exhibits high emotion, or makes demands of her, so she reacts, rather than makes decisions. Nerine is convincing as a mother paranoid about the safety of herself and her children, and though she’s not particularly likeable, she is sympathetic in light of the story she presents. Jinks’s portrayal of the children, especially Ana, deserves special mention, as they are accurately represented with regards to age and circumstance.

I found Shelter to be dark and disturbing, yet utterly engrossing, but fair warning, it may be too much for readers sensitive to its themes.

++++++

Available from Text Publishing

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Review: Hideout by Jack Heath

Title: Hideout {Timothy Blake #3}

Author: Jack Heath

Published: 1st December 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

“Is it bad to kill people who kill people who only kill bad people?”

Regrettably, I didn’t have the opportunity to read Hangman or Hunter so Hideout is my first introduction to Jack Heath’s series featuring FBI consultant and cannibal, Timothy Blake.

Being unfamiliar with the protagonist’s back story didn’t seem to matter as such, Heath establishes Timothy’s state of mind as he stands with a hammer hidden in his back pocket ready to kill, and eat, the man who answers the door. Unfortunately, his target, Fred, is not alone and Timothy is forced to think fast when he finds himself in a nest full of psychopaths. The house, in rural Texas, hosts the members of the ‘Guard’, a group that abducts ‘deserving’ people (abusers, paedophiles, racists, terrorists, thieves etc) and then tortures them to death to entertain a dark web audience. Taking on the identity of a valuable contributor, Timothy needs to pretend he is one of them until he can figure out how kill them all.

Blake is one of the more unusual protagonists I’ve encountered, his desire for eating human flesh is undoubtedly repugnant, and yet he has a conscience and even a moral code that is respectable. Though he is intelligent, resourceful, and even brave, Blake is convinced he is a monster. Heath raises some interesting ethical questions when he compares Blake’s brand of monster with the monstrous behaviour of Fred and his cohorts.

There are some clever and intriguing twists that raises the stakes for Blake as the novel progresses. While struggling to maintain his cover, he has the captives in the barn to protect, the identity of an intruder to uncover, the puzzle of a murdered Guard to solve, and his lover to save. Be aware there are some unpleasantly explicit moments in the book, not unexpected, but which serve to enhance the tension and underscore the action.

Despite the violence and suspense, Hideout is also entertaining, studded with sly, dark humour, and quirky riddles which head each chapter. I really enjoyed this well paced, unique crime thriller, and hope to read more.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: The Valley of Lost Stories by Vanessa McCausland

Title: The Valley of Lost Stories

Author: Vanessa McCausland

Published: 2nd December 2020, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy HarperCollins Au/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

‘There’s something about this place. This whole valley….I feel like anything could happen. I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad….”

When Emmie wins a week’s holiday on the coast from a school raffle, she impulsively invites new friends Nathalie, Alexandra, Pen, and their children, to join her and her daughter. Each woman has a different reason to look forward to a break from their hectic lives so when the accomodation falls through and a client of Alexandra’s generously offers an alternative they leap at the chance. Considered the jewel of Capertee Valley when the area was home to a thriving shale oil mining operation, the Valley Hotel now sits isolated on the outskirts of an abandoned town. The women, and their children, are initially charmed by the hotel’s faded Art Deco elegance, and ready to embrace a week of relaxation, but the Valley is a place of secrets, and when Pen vanishes without a trace one morning, the third woman to disappear in mysterious circumstances in the hotel’s history, they are all forced to confront some uncomfortable truths.

Unfolding from multiple perspectives, across two timelines, The Valley of Lost Stories by Vanessa McCausland is a captivating women’s fiction novel with a thrilling edge of suspense.

McCausland deftly explores the complexities of self, motherhood, friendship, love and loss in The Valley of Lost Stories. Her four main protagonists are struggling with a variety of challenges associated primarily with marriage and motherhood, which also affects how they see themselves, and each other. Several of these issues are forced into the open during their stay in Valley Hotel, straining their friendships with one other. The characters are richly developed, and there is an honesty to their thoughts and behaviours which women, and mothers in particular, will recognise.

There is a growing sense of unease that McCausland carefully cultivates even before Pen’s inexplicable disappearance. In part this comes from the storyline that takes place in 1946 and explores the fate of a woman named Clara Black who walked into the night and vanished during a dance at the hotel. In the present timeline, Pen’s son claims to see a ghostly apparition on their very first day, Macie, their hostess, begins to behave oddly soon after, and tension develops between the friends. When these elements are combined with an understanding of the tragic history of the area (involving the horrific massacre of an Aboriginal tribe), the gothic impression of the hotel, and the author’s vivid descriptions of the abandoned mines and town surrounded by the dense bush of the Blue Mountains, there is a feeling of dream-like anxiety that snaps sharply into focus when the women realise Pen is gone.

Brilliant and beguiling, The Valley of Lost Stories is an absorbing and atmospheric tale, beautifully told, I’m happy to recommend.

+++++++++

Available from HarperCollins Australia

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