Review: Meredith, Alone by Claire Alexander

 

Title: Meredith, Alone

Author: Claire Alexander

Published: 9th June 2022, Michael Joseph

Status: Read September 2022 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

In this poignant character driven novel, author Claire Alexander introduces us to Meredith Maggs. Meredith is 39 years old, a freelance writer who lives in Glasgow, and hasn’t stepped over her threshold for 1,214 days.

It’s not that Meredith chose to not leave, one day she simply couldn’t.

As the narrative progresses in the present, we learn Meredith hasn’t stopped living exactly. She has her work, her routines, and anything she needs can be delivered to her door. She may be alone, but Meredith claims she isn’t lonely, she has her beloved cat, Fred, to keep her company, her best friend, Sadie, often stops by with her two small children, and her friendship circle is slowly expanding. Holding Hands volunteer, Tom, insists on regular visits, and through her online support group, Meredith bonds with newbie Celeste.

But there are things Meredith misses. Like swimming, hugs, and her sister, Fee.

Flashbacks provide glimpses of Meredith’s past including her difficult childhood, illuminating her relationship with her mother and sister, whom she hasn’t seen for years, and the accumulation of the heartbreaking circumstances that led to Meredith’s agoraphobia.

Beautifully told, written with warmth, compassion and a touch of humour, this is a tender story about trauma, survival, friendship and ultimately, about hope.

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Review: The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman

 

Title: The Bullet That Missed {The Thursday Murder Club #3}

Author: Richard Osman

Published: 15th September 2022, Viking

Status: Read September 2022 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

++++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

I’m delighted by the return of the Thursday Murder Club in Richard Osman’s third book featuring four elderly residents of a luxury retirement village, The Bullet That Missed.

The Thursday Murder Club -Elizabeth, a former MI5 intelligence operative; Ibrahim, a mostly retired psychiatrist; Ron, once a union boss who enjoys playing devil’s advocate; and Joyce, a former nurse; are drawn into a cold case involving the disappearance of an investigative reporter a decade earlier, primarily because Joyce has a small crush on the victims former South East Tonight colleague, Mike Waghorn. Bethany Waites was working on uncovering the mastermind of a mobile phone scam, and the whereabouts of the scheme’s billion dollar profits, when her car went over a cliff. Though Bethany’s body was never found, it was assumed she got too close, and was murdered.

As the Thursday Murder Club try to unravel Bethany’s fate, Elizabeth is receiving anonymous vaguely threatening text messages which she declines to share with the others, until Elizabeth and her husband Stephen, are kidnapped by a mystery man they call ‘The Viking’ who then demands Elizabeth kill an old frenemy, a ex-KGB spy turned money launderer, or forfeit Joyce’s life.

The stakes seem a little higher in this story than the last, given the plethora of seriously bad dudes, and the direct threats to Joyce’s life, but The Thursday Murder Club bluff, charm, and outwit their enemies with ease. Sure events stretch the limits of credibility somewhat, but Osman’s plotting really is on point as the two mysteries unfold, and eventually intersect in an unexpected way. There’s a good mix of action and tension which helps to sustain the pace, though at 400+ pages it probably could have been a little shorter.

There are plenty of laughs in The Bullet That Missed, I really enjoy the author’s sense of humour, but Osman also touches on some poignant issues such as the accelerating cognitive decline of Elizabeth’s husband, loneliness, and past regrets.

My affection for the Thursday Murder Club members hasn’t waned at all, they are such an endearing group. Series regulars DCI Chris and PC Donna are back to lend a hand on occasion, though Donna is distracted by her new romantic relationship with the enigmatic Bogdon. The Club also barter for some assistance from Claudia Johnson, the imprisoned crime gang boss whom the group caught out in The Man Who Died Twice, and expands to include television makeup artist Pauline, who seduces a willing Ron, among others.

Charming, funny, and smart, The Bullet That Missed is another addition to a thoroughly entertaining cosy mystery series which I look forward to continuing.

++++++++

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Review: Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivener

 

Title: Dirt Town

Author: Hayley Scrivenor

Published: 31st May 2022, Pan Macmillan Australia 

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Pan Macmillan

++++++++

My Thoughts:

Dirt Town (published in the US as Dirt Creek) is an impressive crime fiction debut from Hayley Scrivenor.

When twelve-year-old Esther Bianchi fails to return home from school one afternoon, the small country town of Durton is horrified. The reader knows from the outset that Esther is dead, though it’s five long days before the town learns her tragic fate.

Dirt Town unfolds from multiple perspectives, most notably the poignant voices of Esther’s best friends, Ronnie and Lewis; the missing girl’s devastated mother, Constance; investigative officer Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels; and a dramatic ‘Greek chorus’ that represents the children of the community.

This is an absorbing, tense mystery where Esther’s disappearance prompts the revelation of several secrets. It’s not just the girl’s killer who is desperate to hide wrong-doing from Michael’s investigation, and untangling the mistakes, deceits, scandals, and crimes that cloud the case is a challenge for an outsider. With so many viable suspects, I did not guess the answer as to who, or why, until it was revealed.

Sensitive readers may find particular scenes disturbing, but I did not feel they were gratuitous, and spoke to character.

The insular nature of the community, it’s remote location and hot, energy-sapping weather create an atmospheric read. The characters anxiety supports the momentum of the narrative, which is measured, but not slow.

Skilfully crafted, Dirt Town is a gritty, intense, and moving novel that exposes a tragedy and its aftermath.

++++++++

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Review: Rattled by Ellis Gunn

 

Title: Rattled: A rare first person account of surviving a stalker

Author: Ellis Gunn

Published: 1st May 2022, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read June 2022 courtesy Allen & Unwin

++++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

“….I was beginning to think I’d overreacted. Looking at it logically, he hadn’t done anything wrong.He hadn’t threatened me, or been offensive. A little over-eager maybe, a little too personal, but…probably nothing to worry about.”

It began with an casual interaction over a chest of drawers at an auction, Elise Gunn responded amiably to The Man’s attempt at conversation but politely brushed off his overture for further contact, and then ignored his unsolicited email. When he attempts to speak with her again, weeks later at the same auction house, Elise quickly makes her exit, feeling uncomfortable and anxious. When The Man next approaches Elise, she is walking home through a park having just dropped her son at school. He insists on walking with her, and during his one sided conversation he mentions details about Elise he is unlikely to know, unless he’s been following her for some time. The police are sympathetic when she reports her concerns but can’t do anything to help, and Elise is left feeling powerless.

Elise Gunn gives a powerful account of being stalked by a stranger with unknown motives. For Elise, The Man’s behaviour is ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’. Quivering from hyper-vigilance, and expecting the worst, she is anxious, fearful, and panic-stricken. Unable to affect The Man’s behaviour, Elise attempts to take control of her own, seeking help from a victim support agency and CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy).

In between each encounter with The Man, Gunn relates a former experience where she was affected by sexism, misogyny or male violence, from being heckled by a group of aggressive young men outside a pub, to enduring a rape by a trusted employer, and a poem the messages women too often receive about such encounters.

I was expecting an exclusive focus on stalking but Gunn also explores the broader research on topics related to trauma and PTSD, socialisation, gendered crime and inequality, and what is still needed for society to change. I am a little disappointed that, though Gunn includes a bibliography, she doesn’t list Australian services that readers could reach out to.

I found it frighteningly easy to relate to many elements of Gunn’s narratives. Rattled is an honest, thoughtful and impactful memoir that educates and informs.

xxxxxxxx

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Review: The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill

 

Title: The Woman in the Library

Author: Sulari Gentill

Published: 7th June 2022, Poisoned Pen Press

Status: Read May 2022 courtesy Poisoned Pen Press/Netgalley

++++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

Metafiction is a rare narrative technique, and often difficult to execute successfully, but The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill does so with ease, offering a clever and compelling mystery novel.

In this story within a story (within a story), Australian author Hannah Tigone is writing a murder mystery, inspired in part by her correspondence with American aspiring author and fan, Leo Johnson. In Hannah’s developing manuscript, Australian author Winifred ‘Freddie’ Kincaid, is in Massachusetts on a writers’ scholarship, when she becomes embroiled in a murder mystery that takes place in the Boston Public Library. As Hannah completes each chapter, Leo provides feedback via emails, the tone of which grow more imperious, and disturbing, as the story develops in ways he doesn’t like.

As Freddie, along with psychology student Marigold, law student Whit, and published author Cain whom she meets when a scream disturbs the quiet of the Boston Public Library Reading Room, tries to solve the murder of a young journalist, it’s testament to Gentill’s skill that I was invested in the story, and often forgot it’s place in the novel’s structure, in fact I occasionally resented the reminder when disrupted by Leo’s missives. With its air of a ‘locked room’ mystery, I was deftly led astray by Gentill’s misdirects, and found myself eager to discover who, how, and why the murder was committed.

I feel I have to mention the adroit way in which Gentill navigated the world events of 2019/2020, the years in which this book was set, with the CoVid pandemic, the BLM protests in the US, and the fires that ravaged the Eastern coast of Australia, all acknowledged in interesting ways.

Ingenious and intriguing, The Woman in the Library is a terrific read.

++++++++

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Review: Wildflower by Monique Mulligan

 

Title: Wildflower

Author: Monique Mulligan

Published: 8th March 2022, Pilyara Press

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy the author

++++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

Wildflower is a thoughtful and poignant story by Australian author Monique Mulligan.

In this dual timeline novel, the narrative shifts between that of ten year old Jane Kelly over a six week period during the summer of 1979, and the first person perspective of an anonymous woman 20 years later. Both narratives thoughtfully address the issue of domestic violence -the behaviours and attitudes that contribute to it, and its tragic legacy.

The school holidays have just begun for Jane. She’s glad to be able to escape the daily bullying at school inflicted by Mary Evans, but despairing at spending the summer alone, so when Acacia Miller moves in next door, Jane is determined they will be best friends. To her delight, the two girls are almost immediately inseparable but Jane doesn’t understand why there are questions Acacia refuses to answer, or why she’s never invited to play inside her friends home.

In the latter timeline, related from a first person perspective, an anxious and bruised woman makes the decision to leave her abusive husband and, with nowhere else to go, finds herself at a womens’ shelter. As the woman struggles to rebuild her life from the welcome safety of the refuge, she reflects on the circumstances that has led to her situation, confronting a legacy of violence.

Mulligan writes with insight and clarity about the complex subject of domestic violence. She presents it from the perspectives of several individuals including victims, survivors, and observers with compassion and sensitivity. She also explores the social, cultural and various situational contexts that contribute both directly and indirectly to the problem, like traditional attitudes about gender roles, and alcohol/drug use.

A stand out for me is Mulligan’s portrayal of her characters, particularly her child characters who think, speak and act appropriately for their varying ages, something few authors are able to do well. I thought Jane was a wonderful narrator, while bright and curious, her youthful innocence underscores the poignancy of events.

I also thought it was clever of the author to use the anonymity of the adult narrator to add another layer of suspense to the story. I did not guess her identity until it was revealed, and I liked the way it tied into the main narrative.

Moving and powerful, Wildflower is an engaging story crafted with care.

++++++++

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Review: The Nurses’ War by Victoria Purman

 

Title: The Nurses’ War

Author: Victoria Purman

Published: April 2022, HQ Fiction

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Set in the first Australian Auxiliary Hospital established in Britain for the recuperation and rehabilitation for Australian soldiers during WWI, The Nurses’ War by Victoria Purman is an emotional story of service and sacrifice, based on true events.

In 1915, Nurse Cora Barker arrives from South Australia to staff a sixty-bed Australian convalescent hospital at Harefield Park, a country estate offered by Australian heiress and her husband for military use, on the outskirts of London. At age thirty-one Cora is an experienced nurse, eager to serve her country and provide care for the men injured in battle, but nothing has prepared her for the challenges of wartime nursing.

Within days of its opening on June 1st, the hospital was forced to expand its services for soldiers evacuated from the battlefields of Gallipoli, France and Serbia. By mid month the grounds of Harefield Park were home to more than a dozen hastily erected wards to accommodate 360 patients, barely a year later it housed over thousand, while thousands more had passed through its doors, having been discharged from duty due to injury or disease, or recovered and sent back to rejoin the fighting. With sensitivity and compassion, Purman details the daily operation of the hospital as Cora and her fellow nursing staff spend long shifts caring for men, many with gruesome physical injuries and fragile mental health, while contending with their own exhaustion, home sickness, and emotional distress. The determination of the nurses to do everything they can for ‘their boys’ is inspiring, and I loved learning about the ordinary, and extraordinary, work and achievements of the Number 1 AAH and its staff, thanks to Purman’s meticulous research. Three of my four great grandfathers served in the Australian forces during WWI and may well have passed through the hospital. (I’d be interested to know if a patient list exists, I couldn’t find one with a cursory search.)

It’s easy to feel for Cora as the war that was expected to be ‘over by Christmas’ drags on. Though she has support from her fellow nurses, Leonora, Gertie and Fiona, no one could truly be prepared for what was to come, and Purman explores how the Cora was changed by her experiences. It’s a subtle process as Cora gains a clearer understanding of the human costs of war, and lets go of some of the social strictures she was raised with. I really liked Cora’s unexpected relationship with surgeon Captain William Kent, and the support they were able to offer each other.

Introducing the perspective of Jessie Chester allows Purman to explore the effects of the war on the civilians of Britain. A young local seamstress, Jessie is a sweet character who lives with her widowed mother and palsied brother. I thought the development of her character was very well done, as the establishment of the Harefield Hospital brings an unexpected opportunity for romance, and a change of career.

I did feel the pacing was a little off, a casualty in part of the nearly five year timeline I think, and I felt there was some instances of repetition, however these are very minor quibbles that didn’t detract from my satisfaction with the story overall.

I found The Nurses’ War to be a moving, thoughtful and absorbing tribute to the women who served with courage and compassion.

++++++++

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Review: Everyone in My Family has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson

 

Title: Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone

Author: Benjamin Stevenson

Published: March 2002, Michael Joseph

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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My Thoughts:

You cannot possibly read the brief prologue to Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson and not be immediately intrigued by the promise of this quirky murder mystery that breaks all the rules.

“Everyone in my family has killed someone. Some of us, the high achievers, have killed more than once.”

Though Ernest Cunningham self publishes ‘how-to’ books for crime fiction writers, he can offer no special insight when a stranger is found murdered during a high country snowstorm in the midst of the Cunningham family reunion. However when the sole police officer who responds to the report arrests Ernie’s brother, Michael, whose release from prison for killing a man is the celebratory reason for the gathering, his mother insists he clears Michael’s name. After all, Ernie is the reason Michael went to jail in the first place.

“Call me a reliable narrator. Everything I tell you will be the truth, or, at least, the truth as I knew it to be at the time that I thought I knew it. Hold me to that.”

Related by Ernest in the first person while writing a book in the aftermath of events, the storyline is roughly chronological, though with necessary digressions to explain the family dynamic, and with unnecessary, but often amusing appeals, directed towards the reader, and his editor. Ernie’s conversational tone is delightfully at odds with the escalating drama as death follows death, presumably at the hands of a serial killer with a distinct and unpleasant MO.

“Look, we’re not a family of psychopaths. Some of us are good, others are bad, and some are just unfortunate.”

Family reunions are rarely free of conflict but the Cunningham’s are besieged by it. Ernie is currently person non grata, having testified against his brother in the trial that jailed Michael for three years to the great disappointment of his mother. Ernie’s wife is attending the gathering as his brother’s girlfriend, while Michael’s wife is in attendance hoping to win her husband back. Ernie’s stepsister seems particularly annoyed with everyone, while his Aunt Katherine is demanding everyone sticks to her carefully planned colour coded schedule. And of course, people are dying.

“Ronald Knox’s ’10 Commandments of Detective Fiction’, 1929”

More akin to the classics, Stevenson cleverly subverts many of the expected conventions of mystery fiction, for example, though there is a locked room element to one of the deaths, the door is not actually locked, and he even foretells each murder, including page references in the prologue. Yet there are plenty of surprises, and importantly the pace never drags.

“Family is not whose blood runs in your veins, it’s who you’d spill it for.”

A creative and compelling whodunnit perfect for today’s jaded mystery readers, Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone is witty, entertaining and ingenious.

++++++++

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Review: When We Fall by Aoife Clifford

 

Title: When We Fall

Author: Aoife Clifford

Published: 2nd March 2022, Ultimo Press

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Ultimo Press

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My Thoughts:

 

When We Fall is an atmospheric suspense novel from Australian author Aoife Clifford.

When Alex Tillerson discovers the lower leg of a young women washed up on a beach in the small community of Merritt on Australia’s southern coast, she is both repulsed and intrigued. Identified as belonging to Maxine McFarlane, a local teacher and artist, the police chief seems too eager to declare her death a tragic accident, and Alex is perturbed by the irregularities in his investigation.

A barrister, who is visiting Merritt to convince her mother to move into an assisted living facility due to the onset of dementia, Alex feels compelled to do some investigating of her own, and learns of a connection between the dead woman and the unsolved murder of a teenage girl, Bella, a year earlier. The suggestion that a missing painting holds the answers seems credible when the woman organising a memorial art exhibition is beaten to death, but Alex refuses to be intimidated, determined to unmask a killer. Red herrings abound as Alex examines the actions of the Senior Sergeant ‘King’ Kelly, a handsome local doctor, Bella’s aggressive step-father, and the incongruous presence of a tech mogul. I was proved wrong in my early guess at the motivation and perpetrator, and clever plotting ensured I was surprised by some of the twists.

There are links to issues such as climate change, environmental activism, unemployment, addiction, forced adoption, and prejudice in When We Fell. The title of the novel relates to the story in several ways including a local museum exhibition, the experiences of Alex’s mother as a ‘fallen woman’, and Bella’s wings, a homemade affectation the girl wore everywhere which went missing on her death.

Clifford’s writing is articulate and expressive, with vivid description. The pace is taut, and the suspense is enhanced by the towns claustrophobic environs. A disused lighthouse undergoing rehabilitation looms ominously over the town symbolising the fallacy of safe harbour, and the secrets shrouded in darkness ashore.

Immersive with an intriguing, well-crafted mystery, I found When We Fall to be an engrossing read.

++++++++

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Review: Impossible by Sarah Lotz

 

Title: Impossible

Author: Sarah Lotz

Published: 17th March 2022, HarperCollins UK

Read: March 2022 courtesy HarperCollins/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

I fell in love with Impossible (also published as Impossible Us) by Sarah Lotz a sublime romance with a fantastical twist.

When Nick sends an angry email to a late-paying client that is erroneously delivered to Bee’s inbox, her witty response and his sincere apology leads to daily exchanges, that quickly shift in tone from cautious and friendly to candid and flirty. Meeting in person is the obvious next step, but though they both claim to be waiting under the clock at Euston Station they can’t seem to find one another. While Bee assumes that her best friend, Leila, is right and she’s been had, Nick realises that something strange is happening…something impossible.

Unfolding through the email exchanges and first person narratives of Nick and Bee, Impossible offers a heartfelt romance thwarted by rules of physics. I don’t want to attempt a clumsy explanation of how this happens because you deserve to be drawn into their unconventional love story, and convinced by Lotz that the impossible is possible.

This is a book that appeals directly to the romantic at heart with numerous direct and oblique references to film and literary classics such as The Lake House, You’ve Got Mail, Sliding Doors, Rebecca, and Strangers on a Train, with a little David Bowie thrown in as a bonus, but nevertheless the plot feels creative and fresh. More serious issues are touched on too though including infidelity, suicide, domestic violence, and environmental harm.

I was entertained by the witty banter between Bee and Nick, and Lotz develops their chemistry with ease. Both protagonists are older than you might expect, Bee, a fashion designer with her own small business repurposing wedding gowns, is in her early to mid thirties, while Nick, a largely unsuccessful author, is forty-five. Credibly portrayed with a mix of strengths and flaws, they are appealing characters that I found easy to invest in.

Though quite different in tone and theme to her last book, Missing Person, Lotz’s flair for original storytelling, dynamic characterisation, and expressive writing remains compelling.

Witty, poignant, surprising and absorbing, I recommend you embrace the Impossible.

+++++++

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