Review: Searching for Charlotte by Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell

Title: Searching for Charlotte

Author: Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell

Published: 1st November 2020, National Library of Australia

Status: Read November 2020 courtesy Quikmark Media

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My Thoughts:

“We come from a family of marvellous storytellers….Our lives were enriched by their stories…”

In 1841, the first Australian children’s book titled ‘A Mother’s Offering To Her Children’ was published, its author, ‘A Lady Long Resident in NSW’. It wasn’t until 1980 that the book was correctly attributed to Charlotte Waring Atkinson (Barton), the great-great-great-great grandmother of bestselling authors Kate Forsyth, and her sister, Belinda Murrell.

For Kate and Belinda, who grew up listening to the stories of their ancestors adventures, both before and after their arrival in Australia, Charlotte was already a figure of fascination. To discover she was Australia’s first children’s author only increased their admiration for her, and inspired the sisters two year search for the truth of the life she lived.

Searching for Charlotte is a hybrid narrative, a historical biography but one that is inextricably blended with the folklore of the sisters family history, and their own journey of discovery. Only so many questions can be answered definitively with what remains of the past…records, letters, diary entries, all of which Kate and Belinda draw on, but to fill in the gaps the sisters take some liberties, some of which comes from the stories passed down through generations, some from the informed speculation of the two women.

I enjoyed the process of learning of Charlotte’s life, and her legacy, which includes a daughter who earned the distinction of being the first Australian born woman to have a novel published. It’s unsurprising then that Kate and Belinda take such pride in their relationship to Charlotte, who seems to have been an intelligent, spirited, and courageous woman who faced many challenges, particularly in the latter half of her life as the wife, and then widow, of James Atkinson in the NSW colony.

A narrative that reveals adventure, tragedy and triumph, country and culture, folklore and family, I found Searching For Charlotte to be an engaging and enlightening read.

++++++

Available from NLA Publishing

Or your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia

Also by Kate Forsyth reviewed at Book’d Out

Review: The Shearer’s Wife by Fleur McDonald

Title: The Shearer’s Wife {Detective Dave Burrows}

Author: Fleur McDonald

Published: 3rd November, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read November 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++

My Thoughts:

The Shearer’s Wife is the fourth Australian rural mystery novel by Fleur McDonald to feature Detective Dave Burrows, and the seventh in which he appears, but can nevertheless be read as a stand-alone.

The Shearer’s Wife is divided between two timelines, the first of which is set in the present day. When the Australian Federal Police arrive in Barker to arrest an elderly resident for drug distribution, Dave and his colleague Senior Constable Jack Higgins are convinced that Essie must be acting under duress. Warned off from interfering in the case, Dave asks Jack’s girlfriend, journalist Zara Ellison, to investigate.

Zara, while trying to ignore her symptoms of PTSD, throws herself into the case, looking for a reason Essie would risk the well-being of her young granddaughter by dealing drugs, and in doing so also uncovers a forty year old secret.

The second timeline tells the story of itinerant shearer, Ian Kelly and his very pregnant wife, Rose, who are heading to a station outside of Barker in 1980. When Rose goes into labour prematurely and gives birth to twins, she insists the new family remain in town but, unwilling to settle down, Ian chooses to leave them behind.

I enjoyed the pacing of both timelines, though Essie’s situation is the more compelling of the two storylines. The clues are provided early on to unravel the mystery of Essie’s motive, which is not unexpected, but does result in some moments of suspense, and a twist that endangers the lives of several of the characters is filled with tension. The fate of Rose and her family ties in at the end, providing a moving and uplifting conclusion.

I really like the character of Dave, an ethical, empathetic man who has a wonderful relationship with his wife, Kim. As a police officer in a small rural South Australian town, Dave occasionally finds himself walking a fine line between the professional and personal, but he is incensed when accused by the AFP of being myopic. He’s willing to risk his career in order to see justice is done, but not break the law.

One of the main issues explored in The Shearer’s Wife is the effects of PTSD. After the trauma of losing her father in a horrific car accident, and then her brother from a brief battle with cancer just six months previously (in Starting From Now) Zara is struggling, but unwilling to admit it. McDonald’s portrayal of Zara’s emotional state is thoughtful and sensitive, and addresses the general reluctance of people to seek help.

An engaging and entertaining novel, I spent an afternoon pleasantly immersed in The Shearer’s Wife, and I look forward to the next book to feature Dave Burrows and the community of Barker.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Also by Fleur McDonald reviewed at Book’d Out 

Review: Flying the Nest by Rachael Johns


Title: Flying The Nest

Author: Rachael Johns

Published: 29th October 2020, HQ Fiction Australia

Status: Read November 2020 courtesy Harlequin Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

Flying The Nest is a wonderfully engaging women’s fiction novel from bestselling Australian author Rachael Johns.

Ashling Wood is blindsided when her husband of twenty years casually suggests they try nest parenting while she’s busy preparing the oranges for their daughter’s soccer game. Her first instinct is to believe Adrian doesn’t understand what the term means, but he’s clear, he wants a trial separation and feels nest parenting, where the children remain in the house and the parents move in and out on an alternate schedule, is the best solution for them all.

The adjustment is difficult for a heartbroken Ashling who misses her children, ten year old Payton and fourteen year old Saxon, when she’s not with them. Taking on the renovation of a friends seaside cottage in Ragged Point during her ‘off’ weeks is a welcome distraction, and though she is certain the arrangement will not be anything but temporary, as the house undergoes a transformation, so too does Ashling.

I can’t imagine what it would be like should my husband so casually and carelessly announce one ordinary morning that he wanted a separation (touch wood). My sympathy was definitely reserved for Ashling from the start, and even though she seemed stuck in the denial phase for slightly too long, I think Johns portrayal of her character’s emotional state was sensitive and believable. There was a brutal scene in the marriage counselor’s office in particular where I really felt Ashling’s pain, and I was glad she finally got angry at Adrian, and found the impetus to take charge of her life.

The community of Ragged Point is a delightful haven for Ashling. Johns deftly creates the character of a small coastal community, and it’s there that she rediscovers, and is able to nurture, the parts of herself that have been dormant while helping her husband build their podiatry business, and raising their children. I liked the development of Ashling’s relationships with Jedda and Dan, who are great supports, but also have interesting stories of their own that add depth to the story.

Written with heart, humour, and warmth, Flying the Nest is sure to resonate with women who need to redefine their lives, whether because of a relationship breakdown, children leaving home, or other change of circumstances. Ashling’s journey is not without its challenges, but it is ultimately rewarding and inspiring, as is this novel.

++++++

Available from Harlequin Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository

Also by Rachael Johns reviewed at Book’d Out

Review: The Book Collectors of Daraya by Delphine Minoui

Title: The Book Collectors of Daraya

Author: Delphine Minoui (Translated by Lara Vergnaud)

Published: 27th October 2020, Picador

Status: Read November 2020 courtesy PanMacmillan Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

It was a caption under the photograph of two young Syrian men browsing the shelves of a library that piqued the interest of Delphine Minoui, an award winning French journalist – ‘The Secret Library of Daraya’.

Curious as to how a library could operate in a place like Daraya, but unable to travel to Syria due to the region’s instability, Delphine reached out and made contact with one of the young men in the photo via Skype. Twenty three year old Ahmed was born in Daraya, and remained even after his family fled, determined to document the devastation and support the rebels. One afternoon he was called to help a group carrying books from a deserted, bombed out home, an idea that first struck him as absurd in the middle of a war zone. Yet from the moment he picked up his first book he was struck by what it represented – freedom. As the collection of scavenged tomes grew, a room was found for them in a basement, and the Secret Library of Daraya was born.

Daraya is a suburb on the outskirts of Damascus. Declared a hotbed of terrorists by Syria’s ruler Bashar al-Assad for daring to peacefully protest his dictatorship, it was placed under siege and ringed with with his forces in 2011. I have to admit to having very little understanding of the conflict in Syria, so I appreciated that Minoui explains the events that led to Daraya’s position and the steady escalation that saw the suburb attacked with missiles, bombs, and even chemical weapons, including sarin and Napalm.

Delphine has written The Book Collectors of Daraya by speaking with Ahmed, and his friends through an unreliable internet connection via Skype and WhatsApp. Initially her focus is on the library; how it came to be, which books are popular, and what it means to the residents of Daraya. It’s a delight to hear how the library and its books provides a refuge and haven from the devastation on their doorstep, how it provides a respite of normalcy, and brings people together. Non-readers become readers, free to choose something other than propaganda, soldiers take books with them to the frontline to read, trade, and discuss, in between wielding their Kalashnikovs.

Unsurprisingly the miracle of the library does take somewhat of a backseat as Delphine learns of the daily hardships and horrors faced by the suburb’s residents. It’s a harrowing tale of danger, deprivation, and starvation as the siege drags on for more than five years. Not content to reduce Daraya to rubble, the Syrian dictator stops any attempts to provide food or essentials, determined to quash the rebels.

There is a little repetition in the narrative of The Book Collectors of Daraya, but I found it well written and readable. Minoui adds a personal perspective, sharing her experience of terror attacks in her home of Istanbul, and in Paris, and freely admits her bias. I think she treats those she speaks with sensitively, and it’s clear she believes that it’s important their story is told. I particularly appreciated the inclusion of photographs that show the library, the men whom Delphine introduces us to, and the streets of Daraya.

The Book Collectors of Daraya is as much about the Syrian civil war, and particularly the experience of the young men who established the library, as it is the library itself. Simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting, this book speaks of grief, and courage, of resilience, of humanity, and the power of books.

++++++

Available from PanMacmillan Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I HiveUK

Review: House of Correction by Nicci French


Title: House of Correction

Author: Nicci French

Published: 27th October 2029, William Morrow

Status: Read October 2020 courtesy William Morrow/Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

House of Correction is the latest standalone thriller from husband and wife writing team, Nicci French.

“She wanted to say: this isn’t real. I’m not one of you. I don’t belong here.”

Accused of murder and remanded to prison when the body of a man is found in her garden shed, Tabitha Hardy is certain the authorities will quickly realise their mistake and let her go. When her court-appointed lawyer explains that the police believe they have the evidence to convict her and advises Tabitha to plead to manslaughter with diminished responsibility, Tabitha fires her, determined to prove her own innocence.

Proving her case seems impossible, Tabitha has a history with the dead man that ostensibly gives her a motive, and no real alibi, her memories of the day are indistinct, lost to the fog of her depression. Impulsive, with few interpersonal skills, Tabitha is her own worst enemy as she tries to make sense of the evidence, and search for witnesses to help her.

French has a talent for devising complex characters, and Tabitha is a complicated young woman. Not particularly likeable or trustworthy initially, she is the sort of character that grows on you. She’s a loner, not very self-aware, and instinctively aggressive but also determined, and forthright and I could not help but admire her by the end.

There in fact few likeable characters among the cast. Several of the villagers are wholly unpleasant, others are revealed as opportunistic or weak. Tabitha’s only real support comes from her monosyllabic cellmate, who is released before Tabitha’s trial begins, and plays a surprising role in court.

The mystery is certainly compelling, cleverly plotted this one is not easily guessed. The claustrophobic settings of the prison and courthouse, and the ‘ticking clock’ heighten the suspense, though the start is a little slow. The story is quite grim at times, but also darkly funny, especially during the latter half of the story.

I found House of Correction to be a gripping and entertaining read, though I think it will have both its fans and detractors,

++++++

Available from William Morrow

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I HiveUK I Indiebound

Also by Nicci French reviewed at Book’d Out 

Review: An Unusual Boy by Fiona Higgins


Title: An Unusual Boy

Author: Fiona Higgins

Published: 20th October 2020, Boldwood Books

Status: Read October 2020 courtesy Boldwood Books/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

‘Everyone’s unusual. Just you remember that. No one’s bloody normal.’

Unfolding from the alternate perspectives of music therapist, Julia Curtis, and her son, eleven-year-old Jackson, An Unusual Boy by Fiona Higgins is an emotive family drama about an atypical child and his typical family.

Both a source of joy and frustration for his parents and siblings, 9-year-old Ruby and 14-year-old Milla, Jackson is smart, honest, and sweet but also has several behavioural tics, and difficulties with the nuances of communication, which mark him as neurodiverse. Having recently relocated from the inner city to a coastal suburb, Julia is delighted when Jackson is invited to a schoolmate’s home, but the friendship is short lived when the boys are accused of a reprehensible act. With her workaholic husband largely absent, a shell-shocked Julia struggles to deal with the fall-out from the incident, and advocate for her unusual boy.

Higgins portrayal of her characters is authentic and sensitive. It’s easy to sympathise with Julia, a harried mother juggling the challenges of caring for her three children while working part time with little support from anyone, including her often absent husband. Carrying the ‘emotional load’ of a family is exhausting at the best of times, but is even more so when your child has additional needs, and Julia’s struggles and mistakes feel realistic as she tries to do the best she can.

Jackson’s unusual thought processes and behaviour are communicated well. He is both literal and linear in his thinking, and has obsessive-compulsive traits. Often overwhelmed by his thoughts and the workings of his prodigious memory, his behaviours are sometimes bizarre, and relating to others is a daily challenge. Jackson is an appealing character who evokes empathy in the reader, but in reality would likely frustrate and annoy adults who lack such insight, as shown by the impatience of his teacher, and the reactions to his headstands in a cafe. While society in general is more accepting of diversity these days, issues remain, particularly when those differences are not physically evident, and labels fail to neatly summarise a condition.

The incident (TW: sexual assault) which sparks a crisis for the Curtis family is dealt with sensitively by Higgins. The fall out highlights the common failings of adults when dealing with a neurodiverse child. It’s also a reminder that compassion, not judgement, should be our default when dealing with children, there is more than one victim here.

The only thing I thought was out of place in the novel was the use of currently nonexistent VR technology used to underscore the vulnerability of children online. There are possibilities aplenty for the exploitation of children via the internet without the need for a ‘sci-fi’ element, and unsupervised access is not the only condition for risk.

Beautifully written with grace and humour, An Unusual Boy is a thought-provoking, tender and moving novel that explores diversity, family, and humanity.

++++++

Available from Boldwood Books

In Australia from Booktopia or your preferred bookstore

Or your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I HiveUK I Indiebound

Also by Fiona Higgins reviewed at Book’d Out

Review: Black Cloud by Sandi Wallace

 


Title: Black Cloud {Georgie Harvey and John Franklin #4}

Author: Sandi Wallace

Published: 22nd July 2020, Gumshoe Press

Status: Read October 2020 courtesy the author

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My Thoughts:

Black Cloud is the fourth book in Sandi Wallace’s crime fiction series featuring journalist Georgie Harvey and police officer John Franklin.

Wallace has been on my radar for quite some time, so I welcomed the invitation to read and review Black Cloud. Had I the time, I would have read the previous novels in the series as I think familiarity with the characters would have enhanced my reading experience, nevertheless the plot of this book works as a standalone.

Set around Daylesford in rural Victoria, Black Cloud begins with a bang, literally, as a family home explodes. Among the first responders is John Franklin who is horrified to discover two of his colleagues, and friends, were caught in the blast while carrying out a routine welfare check. One is dead, and the other badly injured, so too is a community nurse and when the blaze if finally brought under control, the bodies of all four members of the Murray family are discovered inside the home.

From its dramatic opening scenes, Black Cloud unfolds at a fast pace as the investigation into the explosion begins in earnest. Franklin exhausts himself, physically and emotionally, as he interviews the family, neighbours, and friends of the deceased, searching for evidence that may explain the tragedy.

Georgie is equally distressed by the disaster, and though distracted somewhat by her ongoing investigation related to the accidental drowning of a local farmer she considers suspicious, she makes some inquiries of her own. Unexpectedly she uncovers a link between both incidents, but she needs Franklin’s help to determine if it’s simply more than a coincidence.

Franklin and Georgie are romantic partners, but this incident places strain on their relationship with Franklin avoiding Georgie as a way of avoiding his own emotions. Wallace’s portrayal of Franklin’s grief is nuanced and authentic, as is Georgie’s concern for his well-being, and hurt feelings from being shut out. The lack of communication also affects how the case plays out, as it’s only by exchanging information that the tragedy can be solved.

With its intriguing storyline and appealing characters, Black Cloud is a great read. I’m determined to get my hands on Sandi Wallace’s backlist, and I’d recommend those who enjoy rural Australian crime fiction do the same.

+++++++

Available from your Amazon store AU I US I UK or Book Depository 

Or purchase a signed paperback from Sandi Wallace

Review: Home Stretch by Graham Norton

Title: Home Stretch

Author: Graham Norton

Published: 29th September 2020, Coronet

Status: Read October 2020 courtesy Hachette Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

Home Stretch is a compelling and poignant novel from Graham Norton.

When a tragic single car accident takes the life of three young adults in the small Irish village, the lives of the three survivors, and their family’s, are forever changed.

“None of us are just the worst thing we ever did.”

With sensitivity and compassion, Norton explores the themes of loss, stigma, longing, betrayal, and self discovery as his characters lives unfold. The narrative is shared by several characters but the focus is on Connor, the admitted driver. Crushed by the community’s grief and anger, and his own shameful secrets, Connor leaves home for a fresh start. Cutting himself off from his family, Connor’s journey takes him to England and then America, but he remains haunted by the tragedy.

“This is what homecoming meant. Arriving in a place to discover you’re fluent in a language you’d forgotten you ever knew.”

The plot is multilayered and thoughtful, shifting between past and present, it begins in 1987 and ends in the present. It’s decades before Connor finds the emotional strength to confront the past, spurred on by a chance meeting with a nephew he never even knew he had. As he reconnects with all that he left behind, assumptions are challenged and secrets are outed.

Not at all what I expected from what I know of Norton’s public persona, with its profound themes, authentic characters, and engaging prose, Home Stretch is an absorbing and beautifully nuanced story.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I HiveUK

Review: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Title: A Deadly Education {Scholomance #1}

Author: Naomi Novik

Published: 29th September 2020, Del Rey

Status: Read September 2020 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

In its simplest terms A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik could be described as a cross between Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, but this imaginative, darkly funny fantasy has a magic all of its own.

Galadriel ‘El’ Higgins is in her last term of her second last year at Scholomance, a sentient school built in the void to educate the children of the magical community’, an education only one in four survive thanks in part to its gruelling and competitive nature, and the maleficaria who roam the halls. To make it to and through the school’s most deadly test, Graduation Day, the students need to make alliances, something which is proving difficult for El whose very being, not to mention her snarky and abrasive attitude, seems to repel her classmates. That is until the class hero Orion Lake saves her life for the third time.

In this first book of the Scholomance series, Novik has created an imaginative and complex world full of magic and monsters. I’m not going to even try to explain the details of how the school operates because discovering them for yourself is part of the fun. Suffice it to say, navigating every activity within the Scholomance from bathroom visits to classroom assignments is a matter of life and death. Such an intricate setup does result in a bit of info-dumping, but I think Novik tempers it by using the first person perspective.

It took me a little while to warm up to El, in the initial introduction she’s complaining about her life being saved and appears ungrateful and abrasive, she never really loses that edge, but it didn’t take long til I developed some empathy for her, and even grew to like to her quite a lot. El has some pretty good reasons for being who she is, not the least of which is being in possession of a magical strength that could level the entire school and everyone it.

El’s fellow classmates are a mixed bunch, as in any highschool there is a clear social hierarchy with groups, namely the children born in magical enclaves (communities), that have distinct cache and advantages, and ‘independents’, whose best chance to survive Scholomance is to gain an invitation to join an enclave, or form a strong alliance with other independent students. El is essentially friendless when A Deadly Education begins despite her best efforts so she’s shocked by the notice of Orion Lake, the hero of the much sought after New York enclave. Orion’s attention indirectly helps El to connect with several other students, most importantly Liu and Aadhya.

There is plenty of action in A Deadly Education given that a large number, and variety of, mal’s lurk everywhere eager for a tasty meal in the form of a careless or inattentive student. And as if monsters aren’t enough to worry about, the teens aren’t above sabotaging, or even killing, each other, and Scholomance itself is wholly indifferent to its charges survival.

Exciting, creative and fun, I found A Deadly Education to be an entertaining YA read, and I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

Or your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I HiveUK I Indiebound

Review: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix

Title: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London

Author: Garth Nix

Published: 29th September 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read September 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++++

My Thoughts:

In Garth Nix’s new fantasy title, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, eighteen year old Susan Arkshaw moves to the city in search of her unknown father. With almost nothing to go on she begins by seeking out a man she knows only as Uncle Frank, but before she can question him she witnesses a young man turn him to dust with the touch of a silver pin. Susan has every intention of calling the police but when a giant louse, and then a malevolent black smoke attacks, she instinctively follows the man, who introduces himself as Merlin, out of the window.

Susan soon discovers Merlin St Jacques is a left-handed bookseller, as opposed to a right-handed bookseller like his sister Vivian, one of many agents who are tasked with keeping the Old World from unduly affecting the New. Nix has created an unique setting in an alternate timeline, the details of which unfold as the story progresses, combining archaic myths and magics, and exasperated police, a devious Ancient Sovereign with a swag of mind-controlled minions, and, of course, booksellers who are more than they seem.

Just like the booksellers, Susan too is more than she seems, though nobody is exactly sure what that is. It is clear she is being targeted by someone with inimical intent, and Susan, Merlin and Vivian find themselves fleeing a series of attacks providing plenty of fast paced action and excitement as they dodge, amongst other things, magical creatures, zombiefied kidnappers, and the odd bullet. There’s both humour, and a little gore, to amuse, and increase tension.

I really liked the main protagonists. Though Susan’s acceptance of the existence of the Old World seemed a mite too easy, I was quite happy to that Nix avoided the usual drama of denial and self doubt. As a left-handed bookseller, the androgynous Merlin is the brawn, wielding swords and guns, while his sister, being right-handed is the brains, and capable of basic magic that is useful in a tight spot. The three of them develop an easy rapport, and there’s even a little romance.

Imaginative and entertaining, though The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is aimed at a young adult audience, it will also appeal to adults who enjoy light fantasy. While the story is complete, there’s obvious potential for a series I’d be happy to continue with.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$24.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository i HiveUK

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