Review: House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland


Title: House of Hollow

Author: Krystal Sutherland

Published: 30th March 2021, Penguin

Status: Read May 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

“Dark, dangerous things happened around the Hollow sisters.”

 

House of Hollow is a beguiling story of sisters, secrets, and shadows by Krystal Sutherland.

Iris Hollow has no memory of what happened during the month after she and her sisters disappeared from a suburban street in Scotland as children, but there is no doubt that they were changed by their experience. Not only did their brown hair turn white, their blue eyes darken to black, and each bear a half moon scar at the base of their necks, they also possessed an inexplicable sway over anyone who gets too close.

Ten years after they were found, 21 year old Grey is a celebrity supermodel turned fashion designer, and nineteen year old Vivi tours European cities with her punk band, while 17 year old Iris remains at home with their mother, finishing her last year at school, and dreaming of attending a University where no one recognises her. With the anniversary of their abduction nearing, the three sisters arrange to meet but Grey never shows.

Drawing on faerie folklore enhanced by her own creative twists, Sutherland weaves a haunting tale of mystery and magic as Vivi and Iris search for their missing sister. Following a strange trail of destruction and death flowers with a dangerous man in a horned mask stalking their every move, it’s a quest that will eventually expose the terrible truth of what happened to them as children.

I loved the grim, urban fairytale quality of this novel. Sutherland invites us to slip beneath a veneer of beauty, exposing a dark heart of rot. It’s a tale of contrasts – love and loyalty countered by lust and deception. It explores tragedy, grief, the base instinct for survival, and the spaces between life and death.

The writing is lyrical, with a rhythm that leaves you slightly off-balance as you’re drawn deeper into the story. Sutherland’s vivid imagery appeals to all the senses, evoking a visceral reaction of unease that occasionally tips into horror. There is a touch of humour too, flaring briefly in the dark.

Imaginative, atmospheric and intense, House of Hollow is a compelling read.

++++++

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Review: The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary


Title: The Road Trip

Author: Beth O’Leary

Published: 29th April 2021, Quercus

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

The Road Trip is Beth O’Leary’s third entertaining romcom novel, following her success with The Flatshare and The Switch.

Addie, her sister Deb and rideshare passenger, Rodney, have just begun the eight hour drive from Chichester to Scotland to attend a close friend’s wedding when they are rear ended by a Mercedes. The driver is Addie’s ex-boyfriend, Dylan, accompanied by his best friend, Marcus, heading to the same event. With the Mercedes out of action, Addie reluctantly offers the pair a ride in Deb’s Mini Cooper.

Unfolding from the alternating perspectives of Addie and Dylan in the ‘Now’ and the ‘Then’, the physically uncomfortable conditions created by five adults crammed into Deb’s car are almost secondary to the emotionally fraught atmosphere caused by the tumultuous history between Addie and Dylan in particular. I thought the narrative structure worked well to reveal to what happened between them in the past, and their current status with one another.

The road trip itself is beset by a chain of mishaps, from endless traffic (it’s a Bank Holiday weekend) to a breakdown, punctuated by Deb’s need to pump breastmilk, country music singalongs, and Marcus’s less obnoxious tantrums, providing plenty of humour. There’s always an edge of tension though as Addie and Dylan try to navigate their unexpected reunion, complicated by the presence of Marcus who played a significant role in their breakup.

O’Leary’s characters are interesting, all with their own lighthearted quirks, but many of them also struggle with serious issues such as clinical depression, alcoholism, addiction, sexual assault, and difficult family dynamics, making this story a little darker than her previous novels. And while there is a happy ever after for Addie and Dylan, as befitting the romance genre, it’s more mature than a fairytale ending.

Funny and engaging with a bit of edge, I enjoyed The Road Trip.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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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

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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.

++++++

Available from Windmill Books

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Review: The Jam Queens by Josephine Moon


Title: The Jam Queens

Author: Josephine Moon

Published: 13th April 2021, Michael Joseph

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

A sweet novel to savour, The Jam Queens is the seventh charming contemporary fiction novel from Australian author Josephine Moon.

A year after the collapse of her marriage following a devastating loss, Agatha has decided to focus on growing her business, a cafe in the Barossa Valley which features the prizewinning jams Aggie, and the women in her family, are known for. The news that her Great Aunt Myrtle has sold Agatha the building in which Strawberry Sonnets operates is likely to upset Aggie’s mother, Valeria, and in order to both soften the blow, and celebrate Valeria’s seventieth birthday in the wake of a health scare, Myrtle has decided that the three women, along with Aggie’s adult daughter Holly, home on vacation from the US where she works as a teacher, and Myrtle’s best friend and erstwhile traveling companion, Dolce, will take a trip on The Ghan.

Unfolding primarily from the perspectives of Aggie, Myrtle and Valeria, Moon tells a story of family, regret, friendship, loss, and love as the group of women travel from Darwin to Adelaide aboard the famous overland train.

Aggie serves as the central character of the story. She has had a very difficult year and she’s hoping the trip will give her clarity on how to move forward with her life. She’s a very likeable character, who exhibits fortitude and kindness in the face of very trying circumstances. Myrtle is a delight, spirited and generous, if a little bit meddlesome. Both Aggie and her Great Aunt Myrtle hope the journey will help heal their fraught relationship with the uncompromising Valeria, but the complicated history between the trio is not easy to reconcile.

The story is quite busy, as in addition to the secrets and burdens the individual characters carry, and the fraught dynamics of their old, and new, relationships, there are also other important elements. One naturally involves the actual journey on The Ghan and the side excursions enjoyed by the group to places like Uluru and Katherine (Nitmiluk) George, all well described by Moon. Another centres around the role of jam-making in the family, and Aggie’s hopes of winning first place at the Adelaide Royal Show. Foodies will love the delicious recipes contained in the book, including one for Moon’s own blue ribbon winning strawberry jam.

Ripe with drama, romance, travel and food, The Jam Queens is a treat not to be missed.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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Review: Girl, 11 by Amy Suiter Clarke


Title: Girl, 11

Author: Amy Suiter Clarke

Published: 20th April 2021, HMH Books

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy HMH/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

“The cases have gone cold. The perpetrators think they’re safe. But with your help, I’ll make sure that even though justice has been delayed, it will no longer be denied. I’m Elle Castillo, and this is Justice Delayed.”

A former children’s social worker, Elle Castillo now hosts a popular podcast focusing on cold cases involving missing or murdered children. After four successful seasons where Elle proved instrumental in solving several crimes, she has opted to take on her most challenging case – identifying the elusive ‘Countdown Killer’, responsible for the ritualistic abduction and deaths of at least nine women and girls, each a year younger than the other, before disappearing when his 11 year old quarry escaped.

Girl, 11 unfolds through transcripts of Elle’s podcast, and a third person narrative. It’s an effective presentation, because it allows Clarke to share details from multiple perspectives, and both the past and present, in an organic way. It also supports an immediacy that contributes to the momentum of the narrative and the build up of suspense.

Elle is a few episodes into her examination of TCK when she is contacted by a man claiming to have information and evidence that will expose the serial killer, but before they can meet, he is shot dead in his apartment. Shortly after an eleven year old girl is brazenly abducted, and as details emerge and suspects are discounted, Elle begins to suspect that the Countdown Killer has returned.

Clarke’s portrayal of Elle, as her crusade tips into obsession, is done well. While her drive to close the case is admirable, Elle can be quite alienating at times, especially as her decisions grow more reckless and it’s not clear if she’s motivated by altruistic or selfish reasons. It’s hinted at early on that Elle has a personal connection to the case, but when her secret is revealed, it invites both sympathy and pity, simultaneously weakening, and strengthening her credibility.

There’s also some interesting commentary on society’s obsession with serial killers and they way in which their victims are overshadowed, as well as how that interest may play into the behaviour of a budding, or active murderer, who craves similar notoriety.

The Countdown Killer is a chilling adversary, and I think Clarke crafts a clever game of cat and mouse. I had some inkling of what to expect as the story unfolded, and correctly guessed the two big reveals, but I was surprised by other twists. And as the stakes rose personally for Elle, the tension had me in its thrall.

An impressive debut novel, Girl, 11 is a gripping psychological thriller with a premise that I think will particularly appeal to the many fans of true crime podcasts.

++++++

Available from HMH Books

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Review: The Rose Daughter by Maria Lewis

 

Title: The Rose Daughter {Supernatural Sisters #7}

Author: Maria Lewis

Published: 13th April 2021, Piatkus

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

The Rose Daughter is the seventh book in the Supernatural Sisters urban fantasy series from award-winning Australian author, Maria Lewis, but don’t be afraid to jump right in, it works perfectly well as a stand-alone. Just be prepared as you’ll want to add the rest of the series on your TBR list as I did.

The daughter of a forbidden union between an earth elemental and a selkie, Dreckly Jones was born the prisoner of the Trieze, raised by her father in a cell buried under a hill in Scotland. Since her escape she has largely heeded her father’s advice -to be careful; to hide who she is; to not be a hero. For the last eight years or so, she has made her home on a boat in Sydney Harbour, shucking oysters at the Fish Markets when she’s not putting her artistic skills to work forging identification papers for those in need.

Though she looks as if she is in her early 40’s, Dreckly is more than a century older, and the narrative alternates between her past and present. Dreckly is an appealing, well-crafted character. I liked her wit, and found her to be smart and resourceful, though not without her flaws. As a sprite, her ability gives her powerful control over air which she wields in unusual ways.

I was intrigued by her backstory, which has Dreckly travelling the world from Scotland to Hollywood, from behind enemy lines in wartime France to Africa, where she finds family, adventure and love. The ‘past’ narrative skilfully builds Dreckly’s character so that the decisions she makes in the present, make sense.

In the present, there are rumours that the Trieze, who govern the supernatural world, are abducting other supernaturals. Mindful of her past experiences, and her promises to her father, Dreckly battles with her conscience when she is asked for her help. Lewis builds the tension as the Trieze’s nefarious plans are revealed, and provides exciting action when the supernaturals take a stand.

I liked the world in which the story is set with an interesting mix of supernaturals who live alongside, but hidden, from most of humanity. Lewis succinctly explains the history and politics, and while it’s obvious there are links to story and characters from previous books, they don’t have any notable impact on this story.

Offering interesting characters, exciting action, and romance, I found The Rose Daughter to be an entertaining read. I’m delighted to have discovered Maria Lewis and I hope to be introduced to the other ‘sisters’ before the next book in the series is released.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: Second First Impressions by Sally Thorne

 


Title: Second First Impressions

Author: Sally Thorne

Published: 13th April 2021, William Morrow Paperbacks

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy William Morrow/Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

Second First Impressions is a charming romantic comedy from USA Today bestselling, Australian author, Sally Thorne.

Ruthie Midona is twenty-five years old but is more at ease among her fellow residents at the Providence Luxury Retirement Village, where she has lived and worked for six years, than among her peers. When her boss takes a vacation, leaving Ruthie in charge, she is determined to prove herself worthy of the responsibility. She doesn’t have the wherewithal to indulge the too-personal questions of the young and pretty temp, Melanie, or the attentions of the property owner’s vainglorious son, Teddy, who on their first meeting mistook her for an elderly woman, but both are determined to impress Ruthie with the need to lighten up and live a little.

It’s a case of opposites attract for the staid, straight-laced Ruthie and the carefree, charismatic Teddy. I enjoyed the chemistry between them as their inevitable romantic relationship developed, providing moments of both tenderness and passion. Their connection sparks change in one another, but I like that Thorne is clear that the changes they want to make are in pursuit of their own life goals, not about pleasing the other.

Ruthie has been stuck in a rut ever since a shadowy incident in her past. Encouraged by Melanie and her Sasaki Method* (*patent pending), Ruthie recognises she needs to step out of her comfort zone. The friendship that forms between the two women is lovely, and important to Ruthie’s personal growth.

Teddy has his own issues that he needs to deal with, including a rocky relationship with his father and older-half sister. His goal is to earn enough money to buy into a tattoo business, but commitment is something he’s been avoiding for much of his life.

The cheeky, imperious Parloni ‘sisters’ are a wonderful addition to the story. Aged 91 and 89 respectively, Renata and Agatha are enjoying growing old disgracefully, and delight in tormenting Teddy (in a very un-PC manner) in his role as their personal assistant.

Old age residences seem to have become a popular setting in fiction recently. I liked how Thorne linked it to both Ruthie’s past and Teddy’s future. And the turtles that roam the grounds are a cute additional element.

With appealing characters, a sweet romance, and plenty of well-timed humour, I found Second First Impressions to be a delightful, feel-good read.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins 

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Review: Autopsy by Ryan Blumenthal


Title: Autopsy:  Life In The Trenches With A Forensic Pathologist In Africa

Author: Dr. Ryan Blumenthal

Published: 13th April 2021, Jonathan Ball Publishers

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy Jonathan Ball Publishers/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

“These stories were gleaned from the trenches, amidst the blood and the guts of it all. I offer stories from my life and my ‘case book’.

I’ve read a number of memoirs written by forensic pathologists/coroners/medical examiners and the like who practice in the UK, USA and Australia, and I was curious as to how the experience might differ in a country like Africa. Ryan Blumenthal has been a forensic pathologist, working primarily in South Africa, for over twenty years. There are approximately 70,000 unnatural deaths per year in South Africa, and as one of only 56 certified forensic pathologists in the country, Blumenthal performs up to 500 autopsies a year, but the role of the profession extends beyond the physical act of completing an autopsy, forensic pathologists are also crime scene investigators, and legal witnesses who are required to give testimony in court. It is a job that requires physical and mental stamina to withstand the long hours of work, the constant exposure to death, and the need to adapt to scientific, technological and sociocultural changes.

“[Forensic medicine is] The application of medical knowledge and methodology for the resolution of legal questions and problems for individuals and societies.”

The general philosophy and practice of a forensic pathologist in South Africa is not too far removed from that of his (or her) colleagues in other countries, however they do face challenges unique to the country’s status as a developing nation, which means basic resources such as labour, electricity, running water and insect spray (vital due to the prevalence of flies) can be limited, or even absent, particularly in rural areas of the country, and in other third world areas of the African continent. Blumenthal describes what a typical autopsy and investigation entails for him, and while he is pragmatic about the lack of television’s CSI ‘fancyshmancy’ equipment, certain that the knowledge and ability of the forensic pathologist matters more, he does emphasise the importance of proper resourcing as a benefit society.

“As the Latin expression goes, ex Africa semper aliquid novi – always something new out of Africa.”

Forensic pathologists in Africa also face trauma that is unique to the culture and environment. This not only includes deaths caused by native wildlife like hippopotami, lions, elephants and kudu, as well as poisonings related to the misuse of traditional medicines, but also methods of murder such as ‘necklacing’, where a person’s torso and arms are trapped in a rubber tyre filled with gasoline and set alight. Deaths related to lightning strikes are more common in Africa than almost anywhere else. Blumenthal relates his experiences with these type of cases, as well as those from more common causes of unnatural death, such as car accidents, drug overdoses, gunshots and stabbing. I found both Blumenthal’s general observations and the details of the individual cases he shared to be fascinating.

“My wish is that this book will help to make you more aware and more mindful.”

Blumenthal’s writing is accessible with a minimal use of jargon but I do think the material could have been better organised as there is some repetition in both the information and prose. I wasn’t particularly keen on the moralising either, even though his observations and advice were generally reasonable, there were a few statements that belied Blumenthal’s claim of impartiality to the deceased.

“We close the eyes of the dead, but the dead open the eyes of the living.”

Elucidating the unique experiences and challenges faced by forensic pathologists, particularly in South Africa, overall I found Autopsy to be an interesting, informative and satisfying read.

++++++

Available from Jonathan Ball Publishers

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Review: All We Have Is Now by Kaneana May

 


Title: All We Have Is Now

Author: Kaneana May

Published: 7th April 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy HarperCollins

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My Thoughts:

All We Have Is Now is Kaneana May’s second novel following her well-received debut, The One in 2019.

All We Have Is Now unfolds from the perspectives of Bree, Elsie and Olive, colleagues and best friends who run a wellness centre, ‘Healing Hands’. The success of their business has allowed them to relocate to larger premises where Bree, the life of any party, is a Pilates instructor; Elsie, happily married and newly pregnant, provides counselling services; and pragmatic Olive, a dietician, runs cooking classes.

While the centre is thriving, Bree, Elsie and Olive come under increasing personal stress and I quickly found myself invested in their stories. May skilfully develops complex, distinct characters whose behaviours and attitudes feel authentic. With her concealed past, I found Olive to be the most intriguing figure, while Elsie was the most sympathetic given her circumstances. It took me a little longer to warm to Bree, but I loved the depiction of the close, but not uncomplicated, friendship between the three.

May addresses a number of themes in the novel, such as friendship, family, love and romance, but it’s her exploration of grief that is especially thoughtful and sensitive. Each of her main characters are forced to find the courage to confront some difficult realities about loss in order to move forward with their lives. Though bereavement is not something that can be, nor should be, compared, Elsie’s is particularly heartrending given its immediacy.

There is a special sort of thrill in being familiar with the setting of a story. All We Have Is Now is primarily set in Wingham, which adjoins my own town of Taree, so I could easily envisage both the house in which the centre operates and the characters movements around their environs (the author herself is a local).

Thoughtfully crafted, heartfelt and poignant, All We Have Is Now is a pleasure to read.

++++++

Available from Harlequin/HarperCollins Australia

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Review: You Need To Know by Nicola Moriarty

 


Title: You Need To Know

Author: Nicola Moriarty

Published: 7th April 2021, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy HarperCollins Au

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My Thoughts:

Nicola Moriarty’s newest title, You Need To Know, is a gripping domestic drama centred around the members of a single family, Jill, her three sons – Pete, Tony and Darren; her two daughter in-laws – Mimi and Andrea; and her grandchildren – Callie, Tara, and infant twins, Elliot and James.

There’s more than one smashing twist in this dramatic story of a family on a collision course with secrets that threaten to shatter their bonds forever. The main action takes place over a period of about a month in the lead up to Christmas, interspersed with flashes which hint at the tragedy to come. Moriarty builds the tension slowly, with various dramatic plot elements that are both self contained, and play into the larger crisis, several of which unfold in unexpected ways.

Told from the perspectives of Jill, Mimi, Andrea, and Darren, Moriarty slowly reveals the varied stressors the family are experiencing, and secrets they are keeping, some of which are fairly mundane, others more explosive. I thought the author captured the dynamics of both the individual family groupings, and between the extended family very well. Despite the large cast, each character is distinctive, and there is no confusion as the narrative moves between them. I quickly became invested in the family members, eager to learn their fate.

You Need to Know offers a tense, well-crafted storyline, interesting, multifaceted characters, and a sensational climax. I think Nicola Moriarty has found her niche in the Aussie domestic thriller genre.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins Australia

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