Review: When Grace Went Away by Meredith Appleyard


Title: When Grace Went Away

Author: Meredith Appleyard

Published: May 18th 2020, HQ Fiction

Status: Read May 2020, courtesy Harlequin Au


My Thoughts:

A thoughtful, well-crafted story of a mother and daughter at a crossroads, When Grace Went Away by Meredith Appleyard explores the themes of family, love, grief, regret, and forgiveness.

While financial analyst Grace Fairley is excited about her new posting to London, leaving behind her mother Sarah is difficult. Estranged from Grace’s father and siblings in the wake of tragedy, Sarah will be on her own in Adelaide, and Grace fears she’ll be needed and unable to help.

Sarah is happy about her daughter’s well-deserved promotion but once Grace is gone, the only link to her son, daughter and grandchildren is lost. With nothing keeping her in Adelaide she decides to return to Miners Ridge, the small rural town where her family still lives, and attempt to rebuild her relationship with her children.

Told from the perspectives of Grace and her mother, Sarah, one woman is faced with making decisions about her future, while the other is looking to reconcile her past. This is an emotional, layered story that explores a wide variety of issues including the process of grief, family dysfunction, addiction, illness, and long distance romance, as well as challenges related to farming, FIFO, career ambition, and small communities.

I think one of the reasons I enjoyed this so much is because the two main characters are of a ‘mature’ age – Grace is in her early 40’s and Sarah in her late 60’s – and even though I have little in common with either of them, I found it refreshing to have the focus on familiar contemporary themes and issues from the perspective of those closer to my age group. There is a sincerity and realism to the actions and emotions of the characters which meant I became invested in their journey.

I found When Grace Went Away to be an engaging, poignant, and satisfying read, and I enthusiastically recommend it to readers who enjoy contemporary women’s fiction.


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Review: The Long Shadow by Anne Buist

Title: The Long Shadow

Author: Anne Buist

Published: April 28th 2020, Text Publishing

Status: Read May 2020 courtesy Text Publishing


My Thoughts:

The Long Shadow is an atmospheric, tense psychological thriller from Australian author Anne Buist.

While her husband, Dean, is contracted to investigate the financial viability of the community hospital in Riley, a small town in NSW’s far west, psychologist Isabel Harris has arranged to run a therapy group for struggling new mothers. At the end of her first session one of the women anonymously submits a note: The baby killer is going to strike again. Soon.

Tensions rise as Isabel attempts to make sense of the warning. She quickly learns the missive refers to the unsolved abduction and murder of a newborn from the community hospital twenty five years earlier, a tragedy that casts a long shadow over the town. But is the note a warning aimed at one of the women in her group, or a threat to the safety of her own toddler son?

As this well crafted mystery slowly unravels, Buist explores a number of themes including family dysfunction, motherhood, racial and class tension, corruption, and addiction. I was easily ensnared by the anxiety and tension the author generated with skilful plotting, interesting characters and a close, evocative atmosphere.

The novel is populated with an array of complex characters, the most notable being Isabel and the diverse group of five women in her care, which includes the sister of the murdered infant, a police officer, an immigrant recovering from postnatal psychosis, the daughter of the local union organiser, and the wife of the town’s wealthiest family, all of whom reflect the tension that simmers within the small community. Isabel hopes that by developing an understanding of the group dynamic, she will be able to prevent another tragedy.

The rural setting of The Long Shadow, several hours from the nearest regional city, gives rise to feelings of claustrophobia. Riley is not a town that welcomes outsiders, and there are locals who resent Dean’s investigation who are not above using petty harassment and veiled threats as intimidation tactics. The sense of isolation is particularly heightened for Isabel who needs to be mindful of professional distance and is unable to seek solace in her strained marriage.

With a timely twist few would be able to guess, the story concludes with a burst of heart stopping violence and a deadly secret revealed. The Long Shadow is a gripping, entertaining and smart thriller.


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Review: Fake Law by The Secret Barrister

Title: Fake Law: The Truth About Justice in the Age of Lies

Author: The Secret Barrister

Published: April 28th 2020, Picador

Status: Read April 2020 courtesy Pan Macmillan Au/Netgalley


My Thoughts:


I like to think I’m a critical thinker, I don’t just rely on the first page of google results for information, I never take Facebook posts or tweets at face value, and I’m sceptical of media headlines. In this day and age with information so freely available it should follow that the truth has no where to hide, but instead it increasingly feels as if truth is getting harder to find. It’s simplified to the point of meaninglessness by traditional media, ignored as inconvenient by politicians, twisted in favour of click bait tiles, and buried under social media pile-ons.

Nowhere is this more an issue than in the reporting on the law. “Fake Law”, the Secret Barrister writes, “[is the] distortion[s] of legal cases and judgments, spun and reformed for mass consumption.” Bias is implicit in communication, for which some allowances can be made, but a deliberate campaign to present misinformation as truth erodes society.

“Society only functions if we all abide by common, agreed rules. If we don’t understand our justice system, and if our comprehension is corrupted by misinformation, we can’t properly engage with arguments over its functioning. We can’t critically evaluate its performance, identify its flaws, propose sensible reform or even participate meaningfully in everyday conversation about the stories in the news. Our unfamiliarity also makes us vulnerable to those who would exploit the gaps in our knowledge to push ulterior agendas.”

The Secret Barrister supports his/her argument with examples from several different areas of law including Civil Compensation, Human Rights Law and Criminal Justice. He/she examines high profile cases to show how the media, politicians and/or special interest groups misunderstand or misinterpret the nuance of law. Sometimes this could be blamed on ignorance, the law is complicated and at times convoluted, but too often it is deliberately reframed in order to manipulate or inflame debate to suit an agenda, from oversimplifying the medical issues pertaining to a dying child, to selectively reporting the facts of a home invasion, or promoting ‘exceptional’ cases as the norm to justify capping insurance claim amounts or cutting the budget of Legal Aid.

“It is bizarre that, for a nation so clearly susceptible to suspicion of ulterior motive, we disengage our critical faculties and swallow blindly the propaganda of billion-pound insurance companies. We lie back and allow ourselves to be enveloped in misinformed resentment towards our suffering neighbours receiving restitution, viewing it as a sore on, rather than a credit to, a civilised society.”

I found the range of examples fascinating to read about, some of which I was familiar with, some not. The cases are specific to the UK and its legal system (which is similar enough to the Australia’s that I understand the generalities) but ‘fake law’ is not a phenomenon unique to the UK. It is evident everywhere, under every regime, and has already had an impact on the integrity of legal process, which is particularly noticeable in country’s where the judicial system is unduly influenced by political stakeholders. The law is not perfect, something The Secret Barrister willingly admits, but its principals are worth defending.

“If we lose judicial independence, we lose the rule of law. The day a judge makes a binding decision affecting the rights and liberties of one of us, not on the legal and factual merits, but with a nervous glance to the press and public galleries, or with a beady eye on political favour or punishment, is the day that the decay in our democracy turns terminal.”

I found The Secret Barrister’s narrative to be very readable, the tone personable and the information is presented in a logical and accessible manner. There is a lot to explore, examine, and debate in Fake Law, and I’m happy to recommend you do.



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Review: Sheerwater by Leah Swann


Title: Sheerwater

Author: Leah Swann

Published: March 20th 2020, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read March 2020 courtesy HarperCollins/Netgalley


My Thoughts:

When a light plane crashes by the side of Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, Ava, a former emergency rescue worker, feels compelled to stop and render assistance. Leaving her two young sons, Max and Teddy, safely locked in the car with strict instructions to remain, she and and another passerby bravely pull the pilot and two frightened children from the wreckage moments before it explodes. When emergency services arrives Ava makes her way back to the car only to find it empty.

Alternating primarily between the perspectives of Ava, her estranged husband Laurence, and their oldest son, 9 year old Max, Sheerwater is a harrowing tale, skillfully executed by Leah Swann.

Ava’s fear for her missing sons is visceral, her confusion and anxiety building as the police question her every word. Laurence’s attempts to reframe the narrative are infuriating, and an all too familiar reflection of recent current events. Max’s courage is heartbreaking as he tries to care for and protect his four year old brother, Teddy.

The prose is lyrical and evocative, portraying nuanced character and emotion. Vivid imagery conjures a sense of place, no matter the setting.

Though there are a few elements I felt were perhaps out of place, they didn’t detract from my interest. Unfolding over a period of three days, the pace is intense, and the increasing tension utterly gripping. I was left shattered by the ending.

Both beautiful and brutal, Sheerwater is a compelling read.


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Review: Just An Ordinary Family by Fiona Lowe

Title: Just An Ordinary Family

Author: Fiona Lowe

Published: March 3rd 2020, HQ Fiction

Status: Read March 2020 courtesy Harlequin


My Thoughts:

Just An Ordinary Family is a fantastic contemporary drama from Fiona Lowe.

Life in Kurnai Bay may not be perfect for sisters, Alice – who is nursing a broken heart, and Libby = mourning a recent loss, but neither are prepared for the shocking secrets that are about to tear their worlds apart.

Exploring several sensitive issues including, stillbirth, infertility, adultery and child abuse, as well as broader themes including friendship, loss, love, betrayal, and forgiveness, this a compelling family drama.

I found myself totally caught up in this character driven story that focuses on the relationships of four women, twins Alice and Libby, their mother Karen, and Libby’s best friend, Jess. Portrayed with complexity and authenticity, even after I turned the last page, I found myself thinking about the characters, the decisions they were faced with, and the choices they made.

For me, Just An Ordinary Family was an excellent read, stirring and thought-provoking.


Available from Harlequin Australia

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Review: The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan

Title: The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission that Changed our Understanding of Madness

Author: Susannah Cahalan

Published: February 2020, A&U Canongate

Status: Read February 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin


My Thoughts:

“No one can improve without the bare minimum—shelter, clothing, and food—but they also need care: intelligent medical intervention, personal contact, community, and meaning.”

If you ever developed a passing interest in psychology, you have likely learned about David Rosenhan’s watershed study published in 1973 “On Being Sane in Insane Places”. Rosenhan, a psychology (and law) professor at Stanford University, and eight other ordinary, well adjusted people faked symptoms of mental illness in order to be committed to mental asylums across America. Rosenhan was essentially looking to prove that psychiatry had no reliable way to tell the sane from the insane, and the results of the experiment appeared to confirm his theory.

The eight subjects (one having been excluded from the results), including Rosenhan, told the same story -they were hearing voices- and, all but one who was labelled with manic depression, were committed with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The eight pseudopatients were then required to stay until they were medically released. The length of hospitalization, Rosenhan reported, ranged from seven to fifty-two days, with an average stay of nineteen days.

Rosenhan’s paper appeared to be a damning indictment of the psychiatric field, not only were these pseudopatients incorrectly diagnosed they were, by and large, subject to ill-treatment while in the ‘care’ of these institutions. “On Being Sane in Insane Places” became a major factor in changes to the psychiatric discipline going forward, contributing to public distrust of the field, the widespread closure of hospitals for the mentally insane, and the 1974 update of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The author of The Great Pretender, Susannah Cahalan has herself made a major contribution to the discipline of psychiatry. At the age of 24 Susannah, a journalist, suddenly began exhibiting signs of acute mental illness, and was variously diagnosed with bipolar and schizoaffective disorders until a neurologist discovered that Susannah’s brain was under attack from a rare autoimmune disease resulting in her psychotic behaviours. Treatment of the disease resolved any sign of mental illness. Cahalan wrote about her ordeal in Brain on Fire (later adapted by Netflix as a feature film).

Cahalan’s experience of being wrongly diagnosed with a mental illness is what prompted her interest in Rosenhan’s study. Cahalan’s investigation and research appears meticulous and exhaustive but the results are disturbing. It seems likely that Rosenhan, was a ‘Great Pretender’ in that he manipulated and/or fabricated much of the data, and therefore the conclusions he presented in “On Being Sane in Insane Places”. I was convinced by Cahalan’s discoveries, and shocked by the implications of Rosenhan’s fraud.

“That’s where David Rosenhan and his paper come in. Rosenhan’s study, though only a sliver of the pie, fed into our worst instincts: For psychiatry, it bred embarrassment, which forced the embattled field to double down on certainty where none existed, misdirecting years of research, treatment, and care. For the rest of us, it gave us a narrative that sounded good, but had appalling effects on the day-to-day lives of people living with serious mental illness.”

While I remained absorbed in the story of The Great Pretender, I did think that Cahalan’s occasional sidestep into related, but not perhaps not particularly relevant, areas drew focus from the main narrative, though I did find them interesting in their own right.

I found The Great Pretender to be an accessible and compelling read. I imagine that the psychiatry field will not be pleased to learn that yet another ‘breakthrough’ thesis is probably fraudulent, and I’ll be curious to learn what, if any, effect this may have on the future of mental health care (and if Rosenhan’s study will be removed from textbooks).

“And this fraud, played out every day in our academic journals and our newspapers (or more likely our social media feeds), breeds an anti-science backlash born of distrust.”


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Review: Losing You by Nicci French

Title: Losing You

Author: Nicci French

Published: January 28th 2020, William Morrow

Status: Read January 2020 courtesy William Morrow/Edelweiss


My Thoughts:

On the morning of Nina Landry’s fortieth birthday, just hours before she and her children are due to fly out to Florida for a vacation, fifteen year old Charlie disappears. At first Nina is simply irritated that her daughter is nowhere to be found on the tiny island off the coast of England on which they live, but as time runs on she becomes increasingly convinced that something has happened to Charlie …something terrible.

While the story takes place over less than a day, I devoured Losing You by Nicci French in about two hours, breathlessly accompanying Nina in her search for her missing teenage daughter. What begins as an ordinary, if chaotic, day as Nina’s car plays up, as she’s trying to finish packing for their trip, as her depressed cousin/dog sitter arrives, as she unexpectedly hosts a few dozen people for a surprise party organised by her daughter, as she fields calls from her belligerent ex-husband, turns surreal when Nina realises Charlie is not simply late, but missing.

One of the most difficult things I have found about being a mother to teens is that they have areas of their lives that no longer include me, and even those that they deliberately exclude me from. I’m not always confident that I have taught them enough to independently make good choices and to protect themselves from situations, or people, that could threaten their well-being. Charlie, who Nina describes as ‘recalcitrant, volatile, emotional, romantic and intense’, seems more likely than most teenagers to keep secrets, especially when you factor in the issues with her father, who has recently abandoned the family, and her mother’s new relationship. As it happens, none of what Charlie has kept hidden is particularly earth shattering, but her secrets, and the secrets of others, do play a part in unraveling the mystery.

I empathised with Nina’s frustration with the police who are initially content to dismiss Charlie as a runaway, and are incredibly patronising as they do so. Objectively I understand the need of the police to gather the facts and plan the investigation, but in Nina’s shoes I think I too would disregard their orders and do what I could to unearth anything that could provide answers.

Losing You is not perfect, there was for example, the odd character I thought was superfluous, but Nina is relatable and convincing as a panicked mother, and the pacing is superb. A quick thrilling, read.


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Also by Nicci French at Book’d Out


Review: Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Title: Daisy Jones & the Six

Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid

Published: March 5th 2020, Hutchinson

Status: Read January 2020


My Thoughts:

Despite the praise heaped upon Daisy Jones & The Six by many, I really wasn’t all that interested in the premise. I picked it up to read over Christmas mainly because it was selected as the prompt for January’s Six Degrees of Separation meme, and it happened to be on my local library’s ‘highlight’ shelf when I was picking up other titles I’d reserved.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Daisy Jones & The Six is the story of the rise and fall of a FICTIONAL (I feel must stress the point because it seems to be an area of confusion for some) 1970’s era rock band.

Reid presents Daisy Jones & The Six as a manuscript written by an initially unidentified author compiled primarily from transcripts of interviews and conversations with current and former members of the band, as well as family, friends, and industry elite who surrounded them at the time. I sincerely doubted that this would be an effective means of telling a story, but I was wrong. It works brilliantly for this subject, giving the story an extraordinary sense of authenticity that pulled me right in.

The story begins by alternately chronicling the journey of The Six, fronted by Billy Dunne, from an unknown blues-rock group gigging throughout their hometown of Pittsburgh to a band with an album climbing up the charts, in their own words, and Daisy’s recollections of sneaking into clubs on the Sunset Strip as a teenager where she discovered sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, dreaming of becoming a singer/songwriter. Eventually Billy and Daisy are brought together by a savvy music producer, and Daisy Jones & The Six rocket up the charts.

Daisy and The Six is about more than just sex, drugs and rock n roll. The characterisation is superb, as each relates their unique perspective of their rise to fame. They tell us about their hopes and dreams, their resentments and jealousies, their triumphs and tragedies. Not everyone remembers things the same way, and there are secrets that these conversations reveal for the first time, including why, at the height of their fame, the band dissolved, and what happened after (I loved the ‘twist’).

Creative and compelling, I’m not at all surprised that Daisy Jones & The Six won the 2019 Goodreads Choice Award for Historical Fiction (except I resent that the 1970’s is now considered historical). This was a hit for me.

*Incidentally, as I loved reading Daisy Jones and The Six, I also decided to give it a try as an audiobook. It’s not a format I’ve had success with but I figured this may be the book to convince me otherwise. Sadly that was not the case, though I did like the multi actor voicing, audiobooks are simply just not for me.


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Review: The Daughter of Victory Lights by Kerri Turner


Title: The Daughter of Victory Lights

Author: Kerri Turner

Published: January 20th 2020, HQ Fiction

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Status: Read January 2020 courtesy HQ Fiction


My Thoughts:

The Daughter of Victory Lights is a captivating historical fiction novel from Kerri Turner.

When World War II ends, Evelyn Bell is reluctant to return to civilian life having served in the country’s only all- female searchlight regiment protecting London from German bombers. A chance encounter at a fair introduces her to Victory, a unique floating cabaret show, and she accepts the owner’s invitation to join them to work with the performance lights, despite the vehement protests of her family.

Evie delights in her new role, and the friendships she forms, but working and living in such close quarters leads to unexpected complications, and devastating consequences.

Evelyn proved to be an appealing protagonist, I’d not heard of the all-female searchlight regiment before, and was intrigued by the part she and the other women played in the war effort. Evie’s disappointment in losing her autonomy and returning to live under her sister’s repressive roof was understandable, as was her yearning to put what she had learnt to use.

I was completely charmed by the author’s vivid depiction of the Victory and their risqué performances. I thought it was particularly impressive of the author to create Victory based on an imaginative amalgamation of burlesque shows, tramp steamers, and floating theatres. It seemed entirely plausible to me that such a ship would exist post war.

Turner keeps the focus on four main characters that come to mean the most to Evie aboard the boat, Victory’s owner, Humphrey Walsh, his lead performer, Bee, Alvin, who performs as a fire breather, and his best friend and fellow vet, Flynn. Evie surprises herself by falling in love with Flynn, but tormented by his experience of war as a Graves Registration officer, their relationship is a tempestuous affair.

When the narrative leaps ahead ten years, Turner introduces a young girl named Lucy who is living with her aunt. The subject of scorn and ridicule from both her family and her peers, Lucy isn’t happy, but when an unfamiliar man appears and whisks Lucy away to the Isle of Wight claiming he is taking her to live with her father she is, and remains, apprehensive about this new life. This poignant half of the novel reveals the fate of the Victory, and young Lucy’s struggle to understand the parents she never knew.

Beautifully crafted, with vivid descriptions, engaging characterisation, and attention to historical detail, The Daughter of Victory Lights is a delight.


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Review: Long Bright River by Liz Moore

Title: Long Bright River

Author: Liz Moore

Published: January 9th 2020, Hutchinson

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Status: Read January 2020 courtesy Penguin Books Australia


My Thoughts:

Long Bright River is a compelling literary novel of family drama and suspense from Liz Moore.

“There’s a body on the Gurney Street tracks. Female, age unclear, probable overdose, says the dispatcher. Kacey, I think. This is a twitch, a reflex, something sharp and subconscious that lives inside me and sends the same message racing to the same base part of my brain every time a female is reported.”

Set in a depressed neighbourhood of Philadelphia where the opioid crisis is taking an increasing toll on its residents, police officer Mickey (Michaela) Fitzgerald patrols the decaying streets of Kensington, always keeping a look out, among the prostitutes on the sidewalks and the drug addicts slumped in doorways, for her younger sister, Kacey. When it becomes clear that a serial killer targeting sex workers is stalking the ‘Ave’, Mickey begins a frantic search for both her missing sister, and the perpetrator, risking the job she loves, and even her own life.

I’m not always keen on a first person narrative but I found Mickey’s voice to be compelling as the novel moves between the story of the sisters’ difficult childhood (Then), and their present circumstances (Now). Moore’s characterisation of the sisters, and their complex dynamic, is nuanced and gripping. Raised by their resentful grandmother after the overdose death of their mother, the sisters were once close, but no longer speak. Nevertheless, Mickey tries to keep tabs on Kasey, who is lost in her addiction, driven by a potent mix of guilt, regret, and love, while barely holding together her own life.

Though the plot with regards to the serial murders is a little vague at times, it serves more as a backdrop to the multi-layered narrative that explores the devastating impact of opioid addiction on individuals, families, and communities, the dehumanisation of vulnerable persons, childhood neglect, sexual abuse, police corruption, and a myriad of other issues that define life’s struggles.

A thought-provoking, poignant story of loss, addiction, forgiveness, and healing, told with compassion and authenticity, Long Bright River is a powerful and absorbing novel.

“All of them children, all of them gone. People with promise, people dependent and depended upon, people loving and beloved, one after another, in a line, in a river, no fount and no outlet, a long bright river of departed souls.”


Available from Penguin Australia

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