Review: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

Title: The Book of Speculation

Author: Erika Swyler

Published: St Martins Press June 2015

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Status: Read from June 27 to July 01, 2015 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

In Erika Swyler’s gorgeous debut novel, The Book of Speculation, Simon Watson receives an old ledger that once belonged to a traveling carnival in the mail, along with a note mentioning a connection to his late mother’s family. Struggling with his recent redundancy, the inevitable crumbling of his family home into the sea, and the return of his sister, Simon develops an obsession with the book which reveals a troubling history. For generations, the women of his family, all with a talent for holding their breath, including his mother, have drowned on the same date.

Dual narratives reveal Simon’s growing concern for his fragile sister as July 24th approaches, and the truth of the tragic curse that has haunted their family since the early 1800’s beginning with Evangeline, ‘The Atlantis Mermaid’. Similar themes are reflected in both tales – lust, guilt, love, betrayal, loss, and magic, and tangible connections are drawn with a tattered deck of tarot cards and the appearance of horseshoe crabs.

“At the corner of a page, just above a quickly jotted note about oppressive heat and fog, is a delicate brown illustration of a horseshoe crab. I shut the book and leave the house as quickly as my ankle allows. I need to get into the water, to clear my head….On the sand, crabs scramble around my feet and over each other. The tide has come up since the afternoon, hiding the thousands more horseshoes that lurk beneath.”

I loved reading about Peabody’s spectacular traveling carnival. The characters of The Wild Boy, the Seer, the Mermaid and Peabody himself are vividly drawn, their dark secrets are haunting and tragic.

“Heralded by a glorious voice, a troupe of traveling entertainers arrived. A mismatched collection of jugglers, acrobats, fortune-tellers, contortionists, and animals, the band was presided over by Hermelius H. Peabody, self-proclaimed visionary in entertainment and education, who thought the performers and animals (a counting pig deemed learned, a horse of miniature proportions, and a spitting llama) were instruments for improving minds and fattening his purse.”

The pace of the novel is measured, reflecting the melancholic, often close, atmosphere of the novel. The tension builds slowly in both timelines, as the truth of the curse is unraveled. The prose is often beautiful and enhanced by the illustrations that accompany it.

The Book of Speculation an enchanting tale.

“She knows that her name will find its way into his speculations. So will his. Because there are things you do for people you’ve known your whole life. You let them save you, you put them in your books, and you let each other begin again, clean.”

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Review: Limbo by Amy Andrews

 

Title: Limbo {Joy Valentine Mysteries #1}

Author: Amy Andrews

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Published: Escape Publishing May 2015

Status: Read on May 31, 2015 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:

Amy Andrews is an award-winning, best-selling Australian author who has written more than forty contemporary and medical romances. Limbo, with its blend of romance, suspense, humour and touch of the paranormal is quite a departure from her usual fare.

When the ghost of a murdered mother begs for her help to save her kidnapped daughter, Joy Valentine, country singer and funeral home makeup artist, knows the police won’t take her seriously so she reluctantly turns to the one person who might believe her, disgraced ex-cop turned private investigator Dash Dent. The police think baby Isabelle is probably dead but Joy and Dash are convinced Joy’s ghostly vision was genuine and set out to find the missing infant.

Though still a romance novel at its core, Andrews establishes an intriguing mystery surrounding the disappearance of the murdered woman, and her missing daughter. Dash and Joy slowly piece together the scant evidence available to determine exactly what happened on the day Hailey and Isabelle went missing, and where the pair have been for the six months prior to the discovery of Hailey’s body.

The characterisation is wonderful, I really liked both Dash and Joy, who are well rounded protagonists with interesting back stories. I loved their chemistry, the sexual tension between the mismatched pair is palpable and there are a couple of intimate scenes that really sizzle.
The cast of quirky supporting characters including an unconventional clergyman, a brothel madam and two horny goldfish, are equally delightful.

There is lots of humour, often found in unexpected places and while there is a little in the way of action, there is plenty of tension and suspense. The inner city setting gives the story a modern urban feel.

I finished the book in one sitting and I’m hoping Amy Andrews will follow up Limbo with another soon. Loved it!

 

Limbo is available to purchase from

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Review: The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

 

Title: The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness

Author: Sy Montgomery

Published: Atria Books May 2015

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Status: Read from May 21 to 23, 2015 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:

I would probably not have given this book a second glance except that just days before it was offered to me for review I had read Turtle Reef, an Australian contemporary romance novel, in which the heroine, working at a marine park, befriended an octopus. I was intrigued by the relationship and was delighted by the opportunity to learn more.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, is written by Sy Montgomery, an author, naturalist, documentary scriptwriter, and radio commentator. It offers a very readable and rather unique blend of personal experience, scientific knowledge and philosophical opinion about what is understood, and unknown, about the nature of octopuses.

I knew little about octopuses—not even that the scientifically correct plural is not octopi, as I had always believed (it turns out you can’t put a Latin ending—i—on a word derived from Greek, such as octopus). But what I did know intrigued me. Here is an animal with venom like a snake, a beak like a parrot, and ink like an old-fashioned pen. It can weigh as much as a man and stretch as long as a car, yet it can pour its baggy, boneless body through an opening the size of an orange. It can change color and shape. It can taste with its skin. Most fascinating of all, I had read that octopuses are smart.”

What Montogomery is able to show in The Soul of an Octopus is that octopuses are complex creatures who exhibit personality, intelligence and emotion, despite having neural systems completely alien to our own. During her time spent at the New England Aquarium she befriended several individual octopuses including Athena, who was the subject of a popular 2011 Orion magazine piece, “Deep Intellect” which went viral and was the inspiration for this book, Octavia, Kali and Karma. Through her study of, and interaction with, these extraordinary creatures she shares what she learns from both science and her experiences, while musing on the mystery of the ‘inner lives’ of the octopus, who grow from the size of a grain of rice and live for, on average, just four short years.

The Soul of an Octopus is as smart, playful, curious and surprising as the creature it features. A fascinating read I’d highly recommend.

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Review: Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova

 

Title: Inside the O’Briens

Author: Lisa Genova

Published: Simon & Schuster April 2015

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Status: Read on April 11, 2015   {I own a copy – Courtesy Simon & Schuster}

My Thoughts:

A moving story exposing a family’s struggle when patriarch Joe O’Brien, a police officer in his mid forties, is diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease, an incurable and untreatable condition , and his four children must decide if they will be tested and face their fate.

Emotive, thought provoking and affecting, Lisa Genova has written a novel that raises awareness about Huntington’s but also celebrates family, love and life.

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Review: Whiskey and Charlie by Annabel Smith

 

Title: Whiskey and Charlie

Author: Annabel Smith

Published: Sourcebooks Landmark April 2015

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Status: Read on April 02, 2015 — I own a copy {Courtesy the publisher/Netgalley)

My Thoughts:

First published in Australia as ‘Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot’ in 2012, Whiskey and Charlie is a moving and poignant novel, the story of identical twin brothers, Charlie and William (aka Whiskey) Ferns. Inseparable as children, rivals as teenagers and estranged as adults, their relationship is unresolved when William is badly injured in a freak accident. As Whiskey lies comatose, Charlie struggles to deal with all the things that remain unsaid between them.

“He must not die.He must not die because he, Charlie, needs more time….He had always thought there would be time”

The narrative shifts between present events and Charlie’s memories of the past, gradually unraveling the reasons for the discord between the brothers. Each chapter is headed with a call sign from the International Phonetic Alphabet, with the designation woven cleverly into the story.

WHISKEY5Charlie is both a sympathetic and frustrating character. Having always felt inferior to his much more outgoing and confident twin, Charlie has allowed his envy and resentment to sour many aspects of his life. It isn’t until Whiskey’s accident that Charlie examines his own conscience and is forced to confront the ways in which he has failed not only his brother, but himself.

“Charlie had spent all those months trying to find evidence that Whiskey was to blame for their estrangement, looking for justifications for his refusal to forgive Whiskey, excavating the last twentyfive years of their lives in order to come to some sort of definitive conclusion – which of the them was guilty, which of them was not. At last he saw the truth was somewhere between those things, that it wasn’t all Whiskey’s fault or all his own, that at times they had both done the right thing by each other, and at other times the wrong thing, that they’d both made mistakes and both come come good in their own ways…”

Smith’s observations of the complicated relationships in her novel are astute and honest. her characters are believable, complex and vividly drawn. Emotion runs high as the characters sit vigil by Whiskey’s bedside, with the author capturing the dizzying eddy of hope, grief, guilt and fear.

A heartfelt, compelling story about love, redemption and family, the last pages brought a tear to my eye.

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Review: Normal by Graeme Cameron

Title: Normal

Author: Graeme Cameron

Published: Harlequin MIRA March 2015

Status: Read from March 31 to April 01, 2015 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:

Normal by Graeme Cameron is told in the first person, by an unnamed man who lives in a lovely English farmhouse with a separate garage, drives a white Transit van, and enjoys cooking.

The novel opens as our mystery man is cleaning up after the murder and dismemberment of his latest victim, and is interrupted by an unsuspecting young woman whom he abducts. With Erica safely caged in his purpose built, underground games room our protagonist goes grocery shopping.

“I know exactly when it all started to go wrong for me. It was April 5 at 19:23:17, and it started with a pair of eyes.”

It is there that he meets Rachel and his life begins to unravel.

Cameron has created a rather startling antihero, a serial killer who falls in love with a checkout girl. For years he has happily stalked, kidnapped, murdered and even eaten young women, but meeting Rachel throws him off his game.

“I stared down at my feeble prey lying cock-eagled on the floor, and I felt all of the craving, all of the desperate, clawing need simply evaporate. Abruptly, everything in my head was Rachael, everything in my gust was regret and everything at my feet was a ridiculous, unfathomable error of judgement.”

The question is what to do with his most recent captive, who turns out to be quite an unusual young woman, and the police detectives who are persistently curious about his house guest. The killer is clever and resourceful but slowly he begins to lose control of his carefully constructed, ‘normal’ life, and shockingly elicits some sympathy for his predicament.

The best surprise is in the black humour, which is often sly and offbeat. Ordinary scenes are injected with a dark twist that provoke a startled snicker.

“In Fruit & Veg I selected a peach. Small, rosy and perfectly rounded, she set my mouth watering the moment she caught my eye. Her burly, bruised companion, however, swiftly killed my appetite.”

Disturbing and whimsical in equal measure, Normal has its flaws, but overall is an entertaining, provocative and sharply written novel.

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Available in Australia  July 2015

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Review: The Road To Hope by Rachael Johns

 

Title: The Road to Hope

Author: Rachael Johns

Published: Harlequin MIRA AU March 2015

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Status: Read on March 31, 2015 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

In The Road to Hope, Rachael Johns revisits the small Western Australian town of Hope Springs featured in her debut novel, Jilted.

The Road to Hope opens at Flynn and Ellie’s marriage ceremony with Lauren Simpson watching jealously from the pews. Still bitter about losing the love of her life, and tired of being fodder for the town gossips, Lauren decides it’s time to start afresh, but the temptation of the locum doctor, Dr Tom Lewis, may be just too good for a bad girl to resist.

Lauren was cast as somewhat of a villain in Jilted, painted as petty and promiscuous, but Johns does an admirable job of redeeming her in The Road To Hope. We learn that Lauren’s behaviour in large part stemmed from her unrequited crush on Flynn, and her promiscuity has been driven by a real desire for true love. As a nurse, Lauren proves she is also kind, capable and dedicated and it’s these qualities that Johns draws out so that we find Lauren both a sympathetic and likeable heroine.

Tom Lewis is easy to like – a hot, surfing doctor traveling Australia in a vintage ute as a locum – but he has a devastating secret that complicates his life. He’s attracted to Lauren, but he feels he can’t consider anything more serious than a fling given his situation. Johns handles Lewis’s dilemma well without minimising the reality of the situation.

I really enjoyed the chemistry and slow burn romance between Lauren and Tom. Despite their immediate sexual attraction, both have good reasons for refusing to acknowledge it. They develop a friendship which is really sweet, even with the undercurrent of heat and I was delighted by the way their relationship worked itself out.

It’s not necessary to have read Jilted to read The Road to Hope but I enjoyed revisiting the town and people of Hope Springs. I read this in a matter of hours, enjoying the warmth, humour and romance of a this well written story.

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Also by Rachael Johns

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Review: Life or Death by Michael Robotham

 

Title: Life or Death

Author: Michael Robotham

Published: Mulholland Books March 2015

Status: Read on March 20, 2015 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:

Life or Death is Michael Robotham’s tenth novel, a rare stand alone from one of Australia’s favourite crime fiction author’s, best known for his O’Loughlin/Ruiz series.

Inspired by a real life news report, Robotham has built his story around the character of Audie Palmer who, after serving ten years in prison, escapes the day before his scheduled release. No one understands why Audie would run when he risks an extended sentence if caught, but it’s assumed that it has something to do with the unrecovered $7 million dollars stolen during the robbery he was convicted of committing.

It soon becomes obvious however that Audie isn’t motivated by money, hunted by the authorities and criminals alike, he is on a mission to save a life. Despite what Audie stands accused of, he quickly becomes such a likeable character, a victim of bad luck and worse luck, he demonstrates an enviable strength of character to rise above it all. He is the ultimate underdog, battling to do the right thing in the face of overwhelming odds.

Flashbacks provide the details of Audie’s back story, explaining his present predicament. The twists and turns of the plot are well executed, even if a touch predictable. I read Life or Death in a matter of hours, Robotham’s fluid writing, and tight pacing ensures this is a page turner.

An entertaining read with a great premise, appealing characters and a strong and satisfying ending, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Life or Death.

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Review: The Secret Life of Luke Livingston by Charity Norman

 

Title: The Secret Life of Luke Livingston

Author: Charity Norman

Published: Allen and Unwin March 2015

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Status: Read from March 15 to 17, 2015 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the author}

My Thoughts:

The Secret Life of Luke Livingstone is an emotionally powerful story of a family in crisis from Charity Norman.

A respected solicitor and beloved husband, father and grandfather, Luke Livingston seems to have it all, but he has a secret with the potential to destroy it all.

With thought provoking insight and sensitivity, Norman tells the story from four different points of view – Luke’s, his wife’s Eilish’s, and their children’s Simon’s and Kate’s.

I couldn’t help but admire Luke for his courage in finally following his heart. His despair and heartbreak is very affecting as he struggles with the realities of his situation. I rejoiced in each tentative step he took towards reconciling with his own truth.

“Because I’ve come to the end of the road, Eilish. The very end. I can’t go on, I was facing a choice last night: to end my life, or to accept what I’ve always really been.”

I sympathised with Eilish’s shock and feelings of betrayal, and the initial reactions of Luke’s adult children, Kate and Simon, when Luke’s secret is revealed. Norman portrays their confusion, anger and grief with believability as their comfortable world is turned upside down. I was furious with Simon’s extreme reaction, tempered only slightly when Norman revealed the awful memories Luke’s announcement stirred in him.

“Perhaps we never really understand our families at all, any of us. Perhaps those we love the most are really a bunch of strangers, with secret thoughts and inner lives.”

I was hugely angered by the bigotry displayed by many of the characters. It appalls me that such a level of ignorance and hatred still exists in today’s society. The author does a wonderful job of educating the reader about gender and sexual identity without lecturing.

The novel is well written, drawing the reader into the characters lives, but I did feel as if the story stalled somewhat in the middle and its progression was somewhat predictable.

A sensitive and thought-provoking story The Secret Life of Luke Livingstone is a wonderful novel and deserves to be read widely.

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Review: Razorhurst by Justine Larbalaestier

 

Title: Razorhurst

Author: Justine Larbalaestier

Published: Soho Teen March 2015

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

My Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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