Review: The Cold Vanish by Jon Billman


Title: The Cold Vanish: Seeking the Missing in North America’s Wildlands

Author: Jon Billman

Published: July 7th 2020, Grand Central Publishing

Status: Read July 2020 courtesy Grand Central Publishing/Netgalley


My Thoughts:


“A person isn’t missing until they’re reported missing. Even then, if you’re over eighteen years old, going missing isn’t a crime or even an emergency.”

Conservative estimates put the number of missing persons whose last known location was somewhere in the wildlands of the United States at 1,600. I was astonished to learn that no one really keeps track of how many people have disappeared in the mountains, parks, forests, scrub or deserts across the country, and as such the real number is likely quite higher.

Some of the people reported missing may eventually found alive, perhaps disorientated, injured, or even living a new life elsewhere. Others may be recovered deceased days, weeks, months, even years after they disappeared, having met with some kind of misadventure. Some are never seen nor heard of again. Of particular interest to Billman are those cases where someone disappears under circumstances that suggest they should be easily found, like Jacob Gray, or conversely those that are found, alive or dead, after an improbable period or in unlikely locations, like Casey Hathaway.

Billman details a number of cases in The Cold Vanish, gathering information from relatives and/or friends, law enforcement officials, search and rescue personnel, and other interested parties. One of these is the case of Jacob Gray which the author repeatedly returns to throughout the narrative.

For seventeen months after Jacob Gray went missing in 2017, his red bicycle and hiking gear found by a river near the Olympic National Park in Washington, his father searched, traversing miles of river, trails, and streets both near and far from where he was last seen. Left in an agony of limbo, he was willing to consider every possible fate for his son from a mundane slip and fall, to abduction by a cult or a serial killer, to an encounter with a Bigfoot, if it meant he would find some answers. He followed up on every clue from vague sightings to psychic predictions.

Billman examines the factors that influence searches, not only delays in reporting but also, unsurprisingly, terrain and weather, as well as search personnel experience, bureaucracy, funding, and jurisdictional conflicts. The average official search period for a missing person in wild areas is five days, and the resources available vary widely between locations. Billman interviews expert trackers, search dog handlers, divers and advocates, and writes of his own participation in searches for the missing, accompanying both officials and volunteers.

With a well organised, well researched, and accessible narrative, Billman effectively communicates the facts, but also ensures the humanity of his subjects is never forgotten. I found The Cold Vanish to be both a fascinating and frightening read.


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Review: The Farm at Peppertree Crossing by Leonie Kelsall

Title: The Farm at Peppertree Crossing

Author: Leonie Kelsall

Published: July 2nd 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read July 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin


My Thoughts:

Told with heart, humour and candour, The Farm at Peppertree Crossing is Leonie Kelsall’s first contemporary rural romance novel.

When Veronica is told she is to inherit an 800-acre farm in South Australia she is at first convinced it is a scam, and then certain it’s a mistake. Growing up within the foster care system she learnt the hard way to trust no one, and believing in the generosity of an aunt she never knew is difficult, so Roni is not surprised when she learns there is a catch. In a series of letters, her late aunt explains that to freely inherit the Peppertree Crossing Roni must complete a number of tasks. Single, pregnant and with few other options, Roni, with her beloved cat Scritches in tow, decides to accept the challenge, and perhaps find the home she’s always yearned for.

Kelsall explores familiar themes such as family, friendship, and love in The Farm at Peppertree Crossing. The themes of forgiveness and redemption are also strongly represented in a way I particularly appreciated. Several sensitive issues are also raised in the novel, among them sexual assault, addiction, suicide, and pregnancy loss, in a manner that feels genuine rather than contrived. These subjects add depth to the story, pushing it a little beyond the borders of the genre.

Romance is still a key element in The Farm at Peppertree Crossing though, with a twist on the ‘enemies to lovers’ trope between Roni and share-farmer, Matt. Roni’s first instinct, particularly around men, is to be wary and defensive and she misconstrues Matt’s genuine offer of advice, help and friendship as manipulative and devious. I appreciated that Matt is not cast as her saviour, Roni must reach the conclusion that she is worthy of love on her own before their relationship can progress.

Roni is a prickly character to begin with, nursing a deep hurt she is closed off, mistrustful, and stubborn. I really liked Kelsall’s development of her character, which is somewhat slow, but authentic. She’s destined to learn lessons the hard way it seems, but she does learn and grow. Her journey is supported by several charming characters, most notably her late aunt’s dearest friend/partner, Tracey, and Matt, but also of the four-legged variety which includes her cat, a sheep named Goat, and a calf named Baby.

Well written, thoughtful and engaging with an ideal balance of romance and drama, I am impressed by The Farm at Peppertree Crossing and look forward to more from the author.


Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: The Silk House by Kayte Nunn

Title: The Silk House

Author: Kayte Nunn

Published: June 30th 2020, Hachette Australia

Status: Read July 2020 courtesy Hachette Australia


My Thoughts:


The Silk House is an entrancing novel from Kayte Nunn, unfolding over two timelines from the perspectives of three women.

The novel begins in the present as Thea Rust reports for work at her father’s alma mater, Oxleigh College. The exclusive English boarding school has accepted its first ever class of girls, and Thea, a history teacher, is to live in with them at their campus residence, known as Silk House.

In 1768, Rowan Caswell is an orphan employed as a maid-of-all-work by the owners of Silk House, silk merchant Patrick, and his wife Caroline Hollander. The home is not a happy one, for the master’s moods are mercurial and the mistress longs for a child.

Mary-Louise Stephenson is a spinster facing penury with her widowed sister. She believes she is capable of creating unique silk designs that will assure her a fortune, but the male dominated industry is uninterested until silk merchant Patrick Hollander offers her a commission.

Nunn weaves links between the past and present as Thea bears witness to the echoes of tragedy. Troubled by her experience of mysterious occurrences in Silk House, Thea investigates the building’s history discovering it’s reputation for being haunted due to a series of deaths, beginning with that of Caroline Hollander.

The story of Caroline’s haunting demise is revealed primarily through Rowan, who is an unwitting contributor to her mistress’s fate when her knowledge of herbal medicines, passed down to her by her late mother, is ill-used. A suggestion of witchcraft, an omen of bad luck, and a doomed love affair all contribute to the inevitable tragedy that stains Silk House.

To be honest I felt the third perspective of Mary-Louise introduced by Nunn was the only real flaw in the novel, as I thought it superfluous, even though Mary-Louise’s silk fabric design is of some significance in the story. Thea and Rowan are definitely the more compelling characters.

Nevertheless, part ghost story, part mystery the pacing is excellent as the story unravels. Nunn skilfully develops a sense of foreboding and unease as she weaves in and out of the past and present. The story is enriched by historical detail, enhanced by its feminist themes, and enlivened by interesting characters.

Atmospheric and intriguing, with gothic sensibilities, The Silk House is a finely written, spellbinding tale.



Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: The First Time He Hit Her by Heidi Lemon

Title: The First Time He Hit Her: The shocking true story of the murder of Tara Costigan, the woman next door.

Author: Heidi Lemon

Published: June 30th 2020, Hachette Australia

Status: Read July 2020 courtesy Hachette Australia


My Thoughts:

Twenty-eight-year-old Tara Costigan was one of 103 women who died violently as a result of family violence–related homicide* in Australia during 2015. The hardworking, loving, mother was holding her newborn daughter in her arms when her ex-partner swung an axe at her neck, her two young sons looking on in horror.

Author Heidi Lemon was shocked by the bare details of the murder reported in the news and made contact with Tara’s uncle, Michael Costigan, a few months later. She spent two and a half years writing The First Time He Hit Her in the hope of understanding the tragedy, and bringing awareness to the relationship between verbal abuse and intimate partner homicide.

“He’ll go ballistic,” [Tara] conceded, “but he won’t hurt me. He’s never hit me.”

Marcus Rappel had never posed a physical threat to Tara until that fateful day. In recent months Marcus had become paranoid, most likely due to anabolic steroid and Ice use, and grown increasingly emotionally and verbally abusive, berating her for hours over imagined infidelities and slights. Tara held on to the hope that the man she fell in love with would reappear until at eight months pregnant she could no longer endure Marcus’s behaviour and asked him to leave. Despite already being embroiled in a new relationship with an ex-girlfriend (the mother of his first child who was also now pregnant), Marcus continued to harass Tara. A few days after Tara gave birth to Ayla she successfully applied for a DVO, and on the day it was served Marcus used an axe to break down Tara’s front door.

During her own experience in a verbally abusive relationship, Lemon failed to recognise it as a form of domestic violence, because she never felt that she was physically at risk. She was shocked to learn during her research for this book that in an estimated quarter of cases of intimate partner homicide there had been no physical violence before the murder. It’s a startling find that contradicts our misconceptions about the danger emotional and verbal abusers pose to their victim.

“Control, then, is the link between all forms of abuse, including murder. The very same appetite for control lies beneath the invisible forms of violence and the single act of violence that will result in someone’s death.”

The First Time He Hit Her is a thought-provoking examination of domestic violence in Australia, a devastating tale of murder, and a moving portrait of a life taken too soon.

If you or someone you know (in Australia) has experienced any kind of abuse, sexual assault, domestic or family violence, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visit their website to chat online.

If you’re concerned about your own behaviour and would like support or information (in Australia), please call MensLine on 1300 78 99 78 or visit their website.



Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: Love & Other Crimes by Sara Paretsky


Title: Love & Other Crimes

Author: Sara Paretsky

Published: June 30th 2020, HarperLuxe

Status: Read July 2020 courtesy HarperCollins/Edelweiss


My Thoughts:

Paretsky is credited with transforming the role and image of women in the crime novel with her female private investigator, V.I. Warshawski. I ‘discovered’ the series in the early nineties and instantly became a fan. The first book, Indemnity Only, was published in 1982, the latest instalment, titled Dead Land (book #20) was released earlier this year.

Love & Other Crimes is a collection of fourteen short stories, eight of which feature Warshawski, including one original story. Written over a period of about twenty years, the common thread is love.

“….we kill out of love—love of money, but also love of family, a desire to protect those for whom we feel responsible.”

If you aren’t familiar with Warshawski, this short story collection is a good introduction to her character. Vic was raised, lives and works in Chicago. Specialising in investigating white-collar crimes, she is often drawn into cases involving her friends, family or vulnerable persons who are victimised by corrupt politicians or greedy businessmen. She is smart, capable and dogged with a strong belief in justice and all these traits are on display in the stories in this collection.

Most of the other six short stories have appeared elsewhere, often in themed anthology’s or magazines, though I was familiar with none. Two of the stories pay homage to Paretsky’s own literary hero’s – Race Williams, who was the first of the hardboiled detectives, created by Carroll John Daly in 1923, Amelia Butterworth, an amateur detective created by American crime novelist Anna Katharine Green. I like that Paretsky includes a note for each story in the collection that reveals the purpose of, or motivation, for the title, it’s a welcome glimpse into her authorial process.

Somewhat surprisingly I enjoyed every story in this collection, though I remain partial to those which involved V.I. Warshawski, reminded of how what a great series it is, and to move Dead Land up my TBR list.


Available from HarperCollins

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Review: The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

Title: The Weekend

Author: Charlotte Wood

Published: June 25th 2020, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Status: Read July 2020 courtesy Orion/Netgalley


My Thoughts:

“Adele and Wendy and Jude did not fit properly anymore, without Sylvie.”

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood is a searing and insightful portrait of friendship, ageing and grief.

“Because what was friendship, after forty years? What would it be after fifty, or sixty? It was a mystery. It was immutable, a force as deep and inevitable as the vibration of the ocean coming to her through the sand. Wasn’t it?”

Less than a year after the death of Sylvie, her lifelong closest friends -Jude, Wendy and Adele, are spending Christmas weekend emptying her holiday home in Bittoes on the NSW Central Coast. It’s a chore each of them have been dreading, and in the sweltering summer heat, the task threatens to tear them apart.

“‘This was something nobody talked about: how death could make you petty. And how you had to find a new arrangement among your friends, shuffling around the gap of the lost one, all of you suddenly mystified by how to be with one another.’”

Shifting perspectives reveal the complex inner lives of these women as they grieve, and bicker and reminisce. Wood explores the fragility and resilience of their friendship as old hurts resurface, resentments simmer, and secrets are laid bare.

“It was true that time had gradually taken on a different cast. It didn’t seem to go forwards or backwards now, but up and down. The past was striated through you, through your body, leaching into the present and the future. The striations were evident, these streaky layers of memory, of experience— but you were one being, you contained all of it. If you looked behind or ahead of you, all was emptiness.”

Aged in their seventies, the women keenly feel the passage of time, reflecting on their pasts, and contemplating their futures as they attend to their tasks. Having enjoyed successful careers, and relationships, they struggle with their losses, and what they have yet to lose. Ageing is an uncomfortable process for them all, though in different ways for different reasons. Wendy’s old and feeble dog, Finn, is a clear metaphor for its indignities.

“And each of the three let go, plunged down and felt herself carried, lifted up in the great sweep of the water’s force, and then—astonishingly gently—set down on her feet again. They breathed, and wiped their eyes, reached for each other again, waited for the next wave.”

Yet there is plenty of life left in these women, none are quite ready to submit to mortality. Told with wit, tenderness and brutal honesty, The Weekend explores the mundane to expose the extraordinary.


Available from Orion Books UK

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Also by Charlotte Wood featured at Book’d Out 


Review: The Cake Maker’s Wish by Josephine Moon


Title: The Cake Maker’s Wish

Author: Josephine Moon

Published: June 2nd 2020, Michael Joseph

Status: Read July 2020 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia


My Thoughts:

The Cake Maker’s Wish is a delicious treat from bestselling author Josephine Moon.

After the loss of her beloved Ma, Olivia Kent’s curiousity about her grandmother’s early life leads her to successfully apply for a project offering the descendants of Stoneden villagers in England’s Cotswold region a subsidised opportunity to relocate. Leaving Tasmania behind, Olivia is excited to launch her business, Rambling Rose Fine Cakes on the village High Street, and give her young son, Darcy, a fresh start, as well as the chance to finally meet his Norwegian father in person.

The Renaissance Project is a fantastic concept and a wonderful element of the story, which also provides a backdrop for some minor intrigue. The initiative is designed to revitalise the community of Stoneden but unfortunately not everyone is happy about it with at least one resident actively trying to sabotage the scheme (and I was surprised to finally learn who, and why).

Nevertheless Olivia and Darcy quickly begin to feel at home in the village, befriending both other ‘imports’ and locals alike. As the story unfolds, Olivia is able to learn more about her grandmother’s past, which leads to a surprise revelation. There is also romance for Olivia with local dairyman Grayson, and Darcy’s visiting father, who is newly separated from his wife, and eager to build a relationship with both his son and Olivia, both vying for her affection. Olivia’s business thrives, particularly after a celebrity couple voice their support. Foodies will appreciate Moon’s delicious descriptions of Olivia’s creations, and delight in the included recipe for her Persian Love Cake.

With a serve of appealing characters, a sprinkle of mystery and a generous dollop of heart, The Cake Maker’s Wish is a delectable story about community, friendship, family and food.


Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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Also by Josephine Moon reviewed at Book’d Out 


Review: Better Luck Next Time by Kate Hilton


Title: Better Luck Next Time

Author: Kate Hilton

Published: June 16th 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read June 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin


My Thoughts:

Better Luck Next Time is an entertaining and engaging contemporary family dramedy from Kate Hilton.

The story primarily features the women of the Hennessy family -feminist icon Lydia, daughters Mariana, Beata, and Nina, and cousins Zoe and Zack. It begins on Christmas Day as the family gathers to celebrate revealing its own special brand of chaos. Lydia is frantically preparing the perfect Christmas dinner, Zoe is reluctant to admit her marriage is over, Mariana is furious with her husband, Beata is exasperated with her teenage son, Nina is uncharacteristically quiet, and newly sober Zach is looking to make amends.

Unfolding from multiple perspectives, each family member negotiates a series of disappointments, surprises, joys, secrets, and mistakes over a period of a year. The characters have distinct personalities and are easy to relate to as Hilton explores a variety of issues common to midlife including marriage, divorce, motherhood, addiction, and dating.

Hilton’s observations are often incisive, sometimes witty and occasionally poignant. The story moves at a good pace and I liked the balance between the humour and serious themes.

A fabulously funny, feel-good novel.


Available from Allen & Unwin. RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: I Was Told It Would Get Easier by Abbi Waxman

Title: I Was Told It Would Get Easier

Author: Abbi Waxman

Published: June 16th 2020, Berkley Books

Status: Read June 2020 courtesy Penguin/Edelweiss


My Thoughts:

In just a few months my daughter will graduate high school and we are in the process of choosing which university she will attend, so the premise of I Was Told It Would Get Easier by Abbi Waxman appealed to me immediately.

Busy corporate lawyer Jessica Bernstein is hoping a week long college tour with her daughter will be a way for them to reconnect before Emily leaves the nest. Emily isn’t sure she even wants to go to college, but the timing is perfect given the situation at school.

The story unfolds from the first person viewpoints of Jessica and Emily, and I loved the way Waxman exploited the technique to provide a dual perspective of the same events, especially when it involved interactions between mother and daughter. The dynamic between Jessica and Emily felt very familiar to me as both the mother of teenage daughters, and as a former teenager daughter who was convinced her mother understood nothing.

The group college tour is a great vehicle for the story. Jessica and Emily have no choice but to spend time together, trapped on the bus and sharing a motel room. It gives them the opportunity to reconnect and consider their expectations of and for themselves, and each other.

The tour also traps them with a collection of characters that include a perky guide, a handful of earnest parents and their offspring, potential romantic interests, and a pair of frenemies. While Jessica is eager for Emily to attend a good college, she is taken aback by the intensity of some of the parents on the tour who seem to have been planning their child’s path to college since birth. One parent in particular makes it clear that she will do anything to ensure her daughter has the future she envisions. Emily envies the certainty of her tour companions when she isn’t even sure if she wants to go to college at all.

The humour in the novel particularly appealed to me, both Jessica and Emily have a dry, snarky wit. Waxman’s observations across the generational divide are relatable, and some cut deep, like this one from Emily…

“And why do they all have phone cases that open like little books and make it difficult to take photos in the first place? They created the monster and don’t even know how to use it properly.”

An entertaining, astute and easy read, I really enjoyed I Was Told It Would Get Easier.


Available from PenguinRandomHouse

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Review: Sticks and Stones by Katherine Firkin


Title: Sticks and Stones

Author: Katherine Firkin

Published: June 2nd 2020, Bantam Australia

Status: Read June 2020 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia


My Thoughts:

Sticks and Stones is a debut crime novel from Melbourne journalist Katherine Firkin, inspired by the many criminal trials she has covered.

Recently promoted to the head of the Missing Persons Unit, Detective Senior Constable Emmet Corban is finding the job frustrating. The hours are long, the paperwork is a grind, and more often than not, the missing simply don’t want to be found.

Corban’s most recent cases involve a single woman who didn’t to turn up for her invalid brother’s birthday party, and a young wife and mother who failed to collect her two children from vacation care. Corban is fairly certain the former, Rosemary Norman, simply ditched the event for another adventure, but he is concerned for Natale Gibson, whose parents are frantic, and whose husband is angry.

When the mutilated body of a female is found and identified as one of the missing women, Corban finds himself unexpectedly leading a homicide investigation into the activities of a serial killer. Firkin develops plenty of red herrings as Corban and his unit attempt to trace the movements of the missing women to determine how they crossed paths with their killer. The plot is interesting and complex but to me also felt a little unwieldy, unfolding from multiple perspectives and involving a large cast of characters.

To be honest I had a difficult time keeping the many characters straight initially, especially as the links between some of them aren’t immediately obvious, and the transitions between scenes are quite rapid. The case itself introduces Corban and his staff, as well as suspects, victims and their families. Another thread explores Corban’s personal life, featuring his wife and her slightly inappropriate relationship with her Svengali-like employer, while a third person narrative reveals the past of the killer.

I did enjoy Sticks and Stones, it’s a promising debut, and I can see the potential for an ongoing series featuring Emmett Corban and the Missing Person Unit.


Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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